Russia? You can keep it

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WHEN SAMUEL Toumassian left Russia six years ago, there was one thing he was after. It was not wealth or freedom - or even the excitement of foreign travel. He simply wanted to go to bed at night knowing that the money he had in the bank would still be there when he woke up the next morning.

"In Russia you can make money easily, and you can make more money than you can here," said Toumassian, who now runs a travel agency. "You live with your parents - life is cheap. But in England you have more security. If you have something, it's yours and nobody will take it from you."

The events of the last few weeks have proved just how justified this concern is. With the rouble collapsing, prices soaring and a government that is no longer functional, security in Russia is almost as elusive as hard currency.

But while Russians have traditionally been resigned to the uncertainty of their future, the demand for stability is the one thing that unites the 100,000 former Soviets believed to be living in London.

Peter Zaltsman, a St Petersburg-born artist who arrived eight years ago with his wife and their eight-year-old son, intended to stay no more than two years. But his work sold so well that after running a West End gallery he set up shop on his own.

Best of all, he knows he will get paid. "In the Soviet Union, when I sold my work abroad I was entitled to 10 per cent of the profits, while the state took the rest," he said. "But here, if I earn some money, I'll always get it. I can put it in the bank and use it as I wish".

Vasilina Bindley, who works in an international insurance brokerage and has lived in Britain for the last six years, is quite grateful for the steadiness of her new life.

"It's not necessarily a question of money," she explained. "It's the fact that the streets are clean and the people are civilised. And it's stable - stability is very important."

Married to an Englishman, she maintains close ties with other Russians in the business community. Together with the Orthodox Church, the City is one of the few areas where an organised community has emerged.

With a few dozen others, Mrs Bindley regularly attends a Russian Insurance Club, and says groups such as these have a far greater effect than any attempts to form a broader entity linking the various waves of immigrants. While she may spend plenty of time with Russian business people, she has little in common with the exiled aristocrats whose parents or grandparents fled the revolution, with dissidents and others who fled in the Seventies and Eighties, or with the recent wave of wealthy entrepreneurs. All seem to comprise such separate groups that they might as well have come from different countries, she says.

For Vladimir Asriev, a soft-spoken art consultant from Odessa, there is a clear explanation. "Sometimes the gaps are just too wide. There's a yearning to meet, but there's still a repulsion and caution born of Soviet conditioning. And there's an unconscious reaction against any sort of organised group and being told where to go or what to do.

"Everyone compares and competes and mistrusts everybody else."

Asriev's cynicism is hardly surprising, because the mistrust that was so rife in the Soviet Union was one of the main factors that drove him out 18 years ago. For several years he had collected and exhibited nonconformist art, to the obvious displeasure of the KGB. He was regularly watched, warned and threatened, but never deterred.

Then he met an English teacher from the British Council, married her, and two years later was granted permission to leave, in exchange for his collection.

When he came to Britain he found no Russian community at all, and was perfectly happy.

"The last thing I wanted was to live a Russian life outside Russia," he said. "All of us left for a reason."