Moscow on the Thames

FRWC Title Card

By Erin Mundahl

The following article is material from The Weekly Standard and reprinted with permission.

“London property has become the bitcoin of the global kleptocracy,” says British journalist Ben Judah. Indeed, 37,000 properties in the British capital are owned by offshore companies. That’s about 10 percent of all property in central London. And much of this property was purchased using money gained through crime or skimmed from government accounts, frequently in Eastern Europe.

That is the market being exposed in a new documentary, From Russia with Cash, first shown in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday. Judah wrote the film.

The film itself is about an hour long and follows two undercover reporters passing themselves off as a government minister and his girlfriend looking to buy a house or apartment in London. They contact five brokerages and tour five different residences. At each stop, “Boris,” (in reality, the Russian anti-corruption activist Roman Borisovich) expresses interest in the property, but confesses to the agent that he will be purchasing it using money skimmed from government accounts. Nothing, he explains, can be in his name.

Some of the brokers blink. That’s about as far as their surprise shows. One of the film’s unintended laugh lines comes at one of these moments, when the broker tells Boris, “you need a good lawyer.” It’s not quite so funny when he proceeds to explain how the lawyer would come back with a company name to use to purchase the property. “Just do the paperwork, sign the document and then you’re done,” the agent says.

Such statements come even from Marsh and Parson, a London firm whose advertisements boast of their commitment to ethics. After each of the exchanges, a screen bears the response offered by the company. Most claim that from the purchaser’s perspective they have no obligation to evaluate where the money comes from, merely to establish the credibility of the buyer. Others claim that they didn’t report Boris because they sensed he was a scammer.

The carefully worded statements are a paltry rebuttal to the clips showing brokers asking if Boris is subject to sanctions—before assuring him of their complete discretion.

As one of the filmmakers says, “no one is surprised, no one is shocked, no one is paranoid about this—it’s business as usual.” The presence of such large sums of cash has created a culture where money triumphs above all else. Their hope is that by showing the film both in Ukraine and in Britain and America they can expose the extent of the problem and help pressure for a ban on the anonymous purchase of property.

Judah makes a strong case why the current arrangement hurts not just Russia, which is being systematically looted, but Britain, by “creating a culture where money trumps above all else.” It’s a fear echoed by Borisovich, who says that it is easy to see why the Russian elite has such a confident foreign policy. “[Russian oligarchs] flood us with money and now they feel like they own us,” he said.

It’s a knotty problem. As one of the filmmakers admits, the movie could just as easily have been made about Miami or New York City. And the fact that reactions to the movie in Russian and Ukraine largely focused on western hypocrisy is less than encouraging.

Still, the film is a shocking expose of the extent of the influence of corruption in Western society. When you come from Russia with cash, many people are only too happy not to ask questions about where it came from.