Moscow on the Thames
Half a million or so Russians now prefer to live in and around London
By Georgina Adam. Focus, Issue 240, November 2012
Published online: 19 November 2012
Russian emigration has gone in waves. One of the greatest was in 1917 after the Bolshevik Revolution, but the largest is occurring right now. Between 2001 and 2011, according to Russia’s Federal Migration Service, more than 1.25 million people left, and those are just the ones who gave up their passports. The true figure is certainly much higher as it includes those who kept Russian citizenship or retained a home in the country.
The “Putin decade exodus”, as it is sometimes called, is mainly directed towards Britain. London and its environs are now believed to count half-a-million Russian residents and the stampede is accelerating, particularly over the past five months, according to the London-based financier and art collector Igor Tsukanov. “Pretty well every week I get a call from someone in Russia who wants to move to London,” he says. “The last election was a psychological blow.” A rampant increase in corruption, the muzzling of the opposition and lack of any attempts to modernise the economy, as well as a perception of physical danger, have led many of the super-rich to throw in the towel—or at least send their wives and children abroad.
London more popular than New York
London is the top choice for most Russian emigrés, unlike the 1970s when it was Israel, and New York in the 1980s. “There are many reasons: a combination of good schools, good infrastructure, a favourable tax situation, easy access to Europe and the fact that they already have contacts here,” says Nonna Materkova, who founded Calvert 22, the first non-profit art space promoting Russian, CIS and Eastern European art in the British capital. The geographical situation is important, adds Gary Krimershmoys, an art adviser and gallery owner in New York: “Many of the recent immigrants are in business; they need to be able to get back to Moscow, which is less than four hours away from London.”
As New York is no longer the target for many emigrés, Sotheby’s has ended its yearly Russian art auctions there, although sales of Russian decorative arts, which have a more international collector base, will continue in New York.
Still not great philanthropists
While the arrival of Russian expatriates in the West has mainly been a bonanza for high-end property agents, yacht builders and luxury goods shops, the arts have also benefited, but largely indirectly, through the Russians’ involvement in the market. But with philanthropy their engagement has been slower. “To generalise—and, of course, there are exceptions—Russians do not regard philanthropy in the same way as Westerners,” Krimershmoys says. “Where donations are made, they are often commercially or politically motivated.”
For example, the billionaire Alisher Usmanov, who made his wealth investing in mining, telecommunications and media, paid a rumoured £25m for the Rostropovich collection just before it was due to be auctioned at Sotheby’s London in 2007 and it now resides in the Constantine Palace in St Petersburg, Putin’s home town. The mining mogul Vladimir Potanin donated Malevich’s Black Square, 1915, to the Hermitage Museum in 2002. When they are partly or wholly based outside Russia, some of its richest citizens continue to support museums in their home country. This is the case with the aluminium billionaire Oleg Deripaska, who supports the Hermitage, and Leonid Mikhelson, whose Novatek gas company has sponsored exhibitions outside Moscow. Tate Britain’s current exhibition, “Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde”, will be sponsored by Usmanov when it moves to the Pushkin Museum in June 2013.
A cultural charity fundraiser who works with Russians says: “The powers that be in Russia basically tell the oligarchs which museums they must support, and they do so.” And, he continues: “A number of Russians don’t want to be seen putting money into English culture. The Russians are also like the Middle Easterners. When they first arrive here, it takes time for them to settle in and stop spending madly on frivolities.” Tsukanov says: “It’s true that Russians have been quite slow to support culture, but it’s definitely picking up now, and you have to remember that they had no experience of this in their own country.”
Big buyers of blue-chip names...
As for the art market, Russian collecting is having a massive impact, although the hard facts are difficult to nail down. Off the record, auction house specialists say that Russian buying is powerful and increasing, but on the record they are tight-lipped. Some hints can be gleaned during auctions, when purchases are made by Russian-speaking staffers. The recent top price of £21.3m at Sotheby’s London for Richter’s Abstraktes Bild (804-9), 1994, was bid by Sotheby’s Natasha Mendelsohn, so presumably for a Russian client. Russian buying has been particularly strong in the Modern and Impressionist fields: just two examples thought to have gone to Russians are Picasso’s La Lecture, 1932, sold for £25.2m at Sotheby’s London in February 2011, and Delvaux’s Les Cariatides, 1946, which made $9m at Sotheby’s New York in May 2011.
...but not of Russian contemporary art
Russian art buying has bucked the usual trend in collecting by emerging markets, which moves from 19th-century art to domestic contemporary art and then on to international names. When Russians started collecting in around 2000, Sotheby’s Russian painting sales were making $6m per year, while by 2007 that sum had exploded to $151.5m. That was the year when 19th-century artists such as Aivazovsky were bid to the skies, one making £2.7m.
Since the 2007 peak, the Russian sales have shrunk significantly, with totals down and buy-in rates up. Sotheby’s head of department Jo Vickery describes the market as “stable, but not at 2007 levels”, explaining: “More and more collectors have been buying heavily in other areas.”
This exodus, and the lack of interest on the part of Russian buyers in their own contemporary art, has hit the market hard. Galleries are withering in Moscow, with many closing or transforming themselves into non-profit spaces. This is the case in the art district Winzavod, where earlier this year leading galleries Aidan, Marat Guelman and XL are mainly changing to a non-commercial model. The museum Art4U, established by the collector Igor Markin in 2006, is now open by appointment only. Red October Chocolate Factory, formerly used by the collector Maria Baibakova and by Gagosian Gallery as a contemporary art space, is now mostly office space for creative agencies and cool cafés.
So what explains this lack of interest in Russian contemporary art? Igor Tsukanov says: “I am asked that question so often. Contemporary art is supposed to be supported by young professionals in their mid-30s, but those people don’t even know where they will live. They just want to get their children into English schools—they are in no mood to collect.” “It’s really a story of two elites,” says Sergey Skaterschikov, the founder of Skate’s Art Market Research. “The generation in their 40s and 50s who have made their money are keeping a low profile—they remember the oppression machine. Anyway, many have gone to London. The new elite has a limited cultural background and they toe the party line, which is not supportive of contemporary creation.”
Further exacerbating the situation has been the furore over Pussy Riot and the jail sentences imposed on two of its members. Along with many of the people interviewed for this article, Skaterschikov is depressed by the case: “Pussy Riot created an acute awareness of the power of contemporary art, but then what happened sent a clear message from the government as to its limits.”
Not everyone is as gloomy as Skaterschikov, though. Nonna Materkova points to Tate’s newly created acquisition committee for Russian, Eastern European and CIS art as a positive step towards getting Russian contemporary art better known. “Russians need to be better integrated into the international art world, so we are expanding our educational programme, working with the universities of St Petersburg and Edinburgh,” she says. “But I see lots of interest from young people.”
CORRECTION: This article was updated on 26 November. Alisher Usmanov did not become a billionaire by investing in Gazprom, though he does hold a management position in Gazprominvestholding, a subsidiary company.
To read more from the Russia focus in our November issue, pick up a copy on newsstands or subscribe to our digital or print editions.
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