All aboard: Notes from London's Kleptocracy tour bus

Knightsbridge: a popular choice for the global rich to buy no questions asked. Image: Getty.

Under a leaden sky, our tour bus snakes through Knightsbridge, passing Harrods, Harvey Nichols, and the showrooms of Ferrari and Tom Ford. My camera-wielding companions display a blithe indifference to these international brand names, the signifiers of status, wealth, and glamour.

The bus pulls up on Brompton Road and we trundle off, turning our backs on the Baroque magnificence of The Oratory. As the drizzle seeps through our clothes, we stare intently at the terracotta tiling of the disused Brompton Road tube station before wandering down Cottage Place to take a look at the frankly vulgar exterior of a Kensington mansion.

We are not here to swap notes on architectural styles: our aim is to learn about the tycoons whose aversion to publicity is matched only by their enthusiasm for eye-catching baubles.

This is one of many stops on an itinerary put together by Roman Borisovich, a former insurance executive and the driving force behind the Committee for Legislation Against Money Laundering in Properties by Kleptocrats. His so-called “Kleptocracy Tours” aim to highlight the properties snapped up by billionaires from Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan and elsewhere, who, Borisovich maintains, exploit London’s central role in the world of offshore finance.


The expensive pile on Cottage Place and its neighbouring tube station is owned by Dmytro Firtash, a Ukrainian businessman and former adviser to Vladimir Putin. Firtash isn't home when we call: he is in Austria fighting extradition to the United States on bribery charges.

Our guide for this part of the tour, the author and investigative journalist Oliver Bullough, point out that Firtash has not been convicted of any crime.  “Here we have a situation whereby the UK government says it is in its interests to see a democratic, prosperous, Western-aligned Ukraine – and yet here we have the British government selling a piece of its capital to a man closely aligned to the previous Ukrainian administration and an ally of Vladimir Putin.”

The next stretch of the tour takes us to Acacia Road in leafy St John’s Wood. According to a Sunday Times report, based on Land Registry documents, a £23m house in the prosperous suburb is the property of Andrey Yakunin – son of Vladimir Yakunin, the former boss of the Russian railways and an old friend of Putin. The newspaper report linked the eight-bedroom property to Yakunin Junior via a British Virgin Islands-based company Terphos Financial.

The final stage on our itinerary is Baker Street. If you fancy the idea of paying an eye watering rent for a flat surrounded by tourist tat and besieged by backpackers in search of the Beatles Store and Sherlock Holmes’s fictional address, this is the place for you. It will no doubt warm your cockles to know that your hard-earned money is helping to sustain the lifestyle of the beneficial owners, the Kazakh royal family. 

Our tour takes place on the eve of the summit on corruption hosted by prime minister David Cameron. Roman Borisovich tells us he is optimistic that positive change is in the air. He says he wants the British governed to impose tougher laws on the “enablers”, the legions of lawyers and estate agents who profit from their paymasters dubious deals.

He says: “We need to see cases where professionals are brought to justice and punished for their assistance in laundering millions of pounds.”

But it’s a safe bet that he will be adding further addresses to his tour for some time yet.

 
 
 
 

Can you have capitalism without capital? Brighton, Ankara, Ghent and the intangible economy

The Fusebox, Brighton. Image: WiredSussex.

As you head north out of Brighton on the A23 things take a distinctly granular turn. The cool bars and trendy eateries give way to second-hand shops and nail bars.

Looming over the area, New England House, an eight-storey brutalist office block, is home to Wired Sussex, a collection of digital and media companies, as well as its offshoot The Fusebox. Here, a collection of entrepreneurs, tech visionaries and creative technologists are seeking to transform their ideas into successful businesses. This island of cutting-edge thinking, surrounded by the evidence of the glaring consequences of austerity, could stand as a synecdoche for the suddenly vogueish concept of the “intangible economy”.

Towards the end of last year, on Radio 4’s Start The Week, Jonathan Haskel, author of Capitalism Without Capital, laid out the features of this brave new economy. The ideas are scalable, have sunk costs, their benefits spill over, and they have synergies with other intangible assets. All of these things are, to a greater or lesser extent, attributes featured in the virtual reality games, apps for care home workers, and e-commerce ideas mapped out by the bright sparks in the Fusebox.

Its manager, Rosalie Hoskins, explains that it exists to support the work of small companies doing creative work. Within these clean white walls they can bounce their ideas off each other and reap the fruits of collaboration. “We’ll provide the doors,” she says. But “it’s up to them to open them.”

One innovative thinker hoping to make her entrance is Maf’j Alvarez. She tells me she studied for a masters in digital media arts at the University of Brighton, and describes herself as an ‘interactive artist’. “Right now I am playing with virtual reality,” she tells me. “There’s a lot of physics involved in the project which explores weight and light. It definitely has a practical application and commercial potential. VR can be used to help people with dementia and also as a learning tool for young people.”

The Fusebox, she says, is “about collaboration. The residents of the Fusebox are in all a similar situation.”

The willingness to work together, identified by Haskell as a key element of the intangible economy, is evident in the Fusebox’s partnership with like minded innovators in Ankara. Direnç Erşahin from İstasyon, a centre for “social incubation” based in the Turkish capital, visited the Fusebox toward the end of last year.

“It was a good opportunity to exchange knowledge about the practice of running a creative hub – managing the place, building a community and so on,” he says.

Erşahin and his colleagues have launched a fact-checking platform – teyit.org – which he believes will provide “access to true information”. The co-operation between the Fusebox in Brighton and İstasyon in Ankara  is “a good opportunity to reinforce a data-oriented approach and university and society interaction,” he argues.

But the interaction between wider society and the denizens of the intangible world is often marked by friction and, ironically, a failure of communication.

This point is underlined by Aral Balkan, who runs a company called indie.ie which aims to develop ethical technologies. “There’s a good reason we have a trust problem,” he says. “It’s because people in mainstream technology companies have acted in ways that have violated our trust. They have developed systems that prey upon individuals rather than empowering them.”

A former Brighton resident, Balkan is almost a walking definition of Theresa May’s “citizen of nowhere”. He is a regular speaker on the TED and digital circuits, and I crossed paths frequently with him when I covered the industry for Brighton’s local newspaper. He left the city last year, chiefly, he tells me, in protest over the UK government’s overweening “snooper’s charter” laws.


He has Turkish and French citizenship and is now based in Malmö, Sweden, while working with the city of Ghent on a radical redevelopment of the internet. “Ghent is a beautiful example of how location affects the work,” he tells me. “They don’t want to be a smart city, they want to encourage smart citizens. We are exploring alternatives.”

Karl-Filip Coenegrachts, chief strategy officer at the City of Ghent, is another believer in the synergies made possible by the intangible economy. “The historic perspective has impacted on the psychology and DNA of the city,” he says. “The medieval castle built to protect the nobility from the citizens not the other way around. People in Ghent want to have their say.”

Left out of this perspective, of course, are those who cannot make their voice heard or who feel they are being ignored. The fissures are easy to find if you look. The future of Belgium’s coalition government, for example, is threatened by Flemish nationalists in the wake of a scandal over the forced repatriation of 100 Sudanese migrants. In Ankara, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has purged local government and continues to stamp on any dissent.

In the UK, the gig economy makes headlines for all the wrong reasons. Back in the area around the Fusebox, the sharp observer will notice, alongside the homeless people curled up in sleeping bags in charity shop doorways, a stream of gig-worker bikers zooming from one order to another.

The intangible economy throws up all-too tangible downsides, according to Maggie Dewhurst, vice chair at the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain. She gives short shrift to the idea of ‘capitalism without capital’.

“It does get a bit irritating when they muddy the waters and use pseudo academic definitions. They pretend tangible assets don’t exist or are free.”

In fact, she adds, “The workers are a human resource.”