I was due to visit the house of an oligarch this week. I wasn’t invited. I hope I never will be. Instead, I was to head along to report on the protestors who had staged an occupation in a multi-million-pound mansion in a fancy district of London. The plans were in place. In the end, the protestors were arrested by the time we’d all woken up. Not the length of occupation we’d expected.
Of course, their point is to draw attention to the fact that Londongrad, as it is known, is making quite the feeble last stand when it comes to oligarchs. For years London has been the playground of the mega-wealthy, including Russian Putin cronies, who swan around doing not very much good. Occasionally they’ll throw a party for anyone who is, simultaneously, anyone and no-one, to keep them sweet and maintain favour, then fly away on their private jet, to meet their private yacht, to keep their private affairs all too private. It’s all rather odious.
The protestors build on the point made on air this week by Inna Sovsun, an opposition MP in Ukraine; I should say, in east Ukraine. Why is that important? Because her husband and son left to travel to west Ukraine where they were safer, at least for a week or two. Last weekend the air raid sirens sounded and the area her family is in was bombed. “I hate Putin because now my nine-year-old son knows what the sirens sound like,” Inna told me. She and her husband have to stay in Ukraine by law – she is an MP, he is a man who falls into the age bracket of those on standby should they be required to fight. As Putin’s merciless bombardment broadened to cities in the west of Ukraine, Sovsun and her husband began to discuss whether they should evacuate their son – without his parents – to a place of safety. An impossible decision. She said when they speak on the phone, she can’t tell her son when, or if, she’ll ever see him again.
Sovsun passionately aimed to rally more support from the UK at the end of our interview: “You cannot say you stand with Ukraine and allow these people [oligarchs and their families] to remain in your country.”
Doesn’t she have a point?
While sanctions are biting hard, and the Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich is certainly feeling the squeeze, is the government really doing enough to assuage the thirst of the people calling for those who enjoy donating their mysterious money to political parties to have a Gazprom-fuelled fire lit under them? What about their families? Should they be exiled to Russia too? It’s known that adult children of some of Putin’s top administration officials reside in London, playing around with a flow of cash that is bafflingly unsourceable.
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Michael Gove, the Levelling Up Secretary, suggested last week that the mansions of oligarchs could be repurposed for Ukrainian refugees. Yes to this, Michael. He doesn’t need reminding that The Winner Takes All. Let’s make sure it is the people of Ukraine that emerge victorious, not the murky oligarchs.
I was struck by the breaking of yet another government website. This time, it was the site being used to sign up to the scheme to house Ukrainian refugees. Tens of thousands of people across the country have offered their spare rooms for those in need which is ultimately heart-warming and also a reminder that while rank hypocrisy may be the theme of authorities, actually, people in this country are generally kind and compassionate towards those in need. Reassuring.
“What human beings begin, human beings can end,” says Alexander Stubb, the former Prime Minister of Finland. He mediated peace talks between Russia and Georgia in 2008. He was on the team that negotiated a ceasefire in just five days. But, he tells me, the stakes for Putin are “existential” now – if he doesn’t realise his ambition to drag Russia – and Europe – back to the 1800s united under one language (Russian), one religion (orthodox) and one leader (Vlad the Invader), then he knows he will forfeit his all-too-lengthy leadership of the Motherland. How do you conduct diplomacy in the face of such irrationality? Liz Truss will save us. Gulp.
Once again, then, I find myself enveloped by the war in Ukraine, and it should not be any different right now. Of course, there are other important issues at stake for us at the moment: the cost of living crisis and political leadership, as well as surging Covid numbers – we must consider these things too. But war is displacing millions of people from their own country. Cities are being flattened every day. Children are without their parents and parents without their children through geographical separation or worse. I hope our hypocrisy on oligarchs can be reversed to show our true resistance to the evil of Putin. Let’s hope we have human beings with the creativity and skill to bring this conflict to an end. We owe it to the people of Ukraine.
Calum Macdonald presents Early Breakfast on Times Radio.
This article first appeared in the Stornoway Gazette.