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Tale of a city: See, hear, taste, touch

As a Russian émigré, Evgeny Lebedev appreciates the freedom and joy of being a Londoner (and having Boris as mayor) more than most.

A month ago I went to Arkansas to interview Pastor Thomas Robb, a leader of the Ku Klux Klan, for a magazine feature. In calm, considered tones, he explained to me the racial inferiority of non-white peoples, the tyranny of civil rights for minorities, the threat from secularism and the persecution that America’s white population now lives under, accentuated by the election of a black president. Later, he told me that he’d never been to Europe. I remember very clearly the thought that came, instantly, into my head: I’d love to show you London, mate.

Everything about London’s deserved status as the greatest city on earth is an affront to the supremacist imagination. It is London’s openness – to new people, ideas and cultures – and eccentricity that define it in a year when the eyes of the world will be upon it. Ken Livingstone called it right when, in his eloquent, rousing speech after the 7/7 bombings, he said an attack on London is an attack on the world. People from “around the world . . . arrive in London to become Londoners”, he said, “to fulfil their dreams, and to achieve their potential”.

I am one of that number. I was born in Mos­cow and lived there until the age of eight. But on coming to London, where my father’s work brought us, I was made to feel included and accepted from the very beginning. I came from a closed society and found an open one. Basic freedoms of movement and expression were censored in the Soviet Union. In London, thank goodness, they are not.

Contrary to prevailing stereotypes, Russians in London don’t all hang out together. I certainly don’t seek out Russian company and I find that many of the Russians I come across in this great city are whiners who don’t realise how lucky they are. Like all minorities, Russians must learn to integrate and recognise that the flip side of every person’s right is another person’s duty. Generally speaking, London’s Russians have demanded their rights without fulfilling their duties, to mutual disadvantage.

A lot of them just don’t make enough effort to understand England’s culture and to parti­cipate actively in it. They follow this civic failure by complaining that they are misunderstood or disliked. Well, it’s mostly their fault. When I first came to this country, I felt the warm embrace of London immediately. Some people would say this is easier if you’re rich – but we weren’t. My father earned $700 a month, and my mother $100, so wealth had nothing to do with it. Both my parents keenly appreciated how fortunate they were to live and work here, and impressed that view on their only son accordingly.

Yet many of the other Russians in London today seem less appreciative. Collectively, they have given their hosts a limited and unattractive view of the mother country. The Russia that emanates from the trial of Berezovsky and Abramovich, for instance, is at once brooding and cold, dark and distant. But there is another Russia, one that has given us Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and Tchaikovsky, and one in which those traditions still thrive – but of which Londoners know too little. I hope in due course to bring them a greater sense of it.

It is chiefly through owning London’s paper that I hope to repay my debt to the city. Having eliminated the £30m annual losses we inherited, the Standard is stronger than it’s ever been. It has had to be, in 2012, the year of mayoral elections, the Diamond Jubilee and the Olympics. In the first of that trinity, Boris Johnson, a man of conviction, was elected as a Boris rather than a Tory. Like the city he represents, he has a sense of humour and is eccentric in the best sense.

I was fortunate enough to attend the jubilee celebrations, where it was the classic rockers – not least Elton John – who wowed the fans, whereas many of the younger performers seemed dubious choices for such an occasion. I had better not name names, in case Gary Barlow gets offended. The whole weekend was as big a slap in the face for British republicanism as could be imagined. No public figure since Churchill has commanded as much love and ­affection as the Queen.

As to the Olympics, I don’t have tickets to the wrestling, archery or, for that matter, anything else. I was rather hoping to see the judo, on the off-chance that Vladimir Putin entered himself as a last-minute participant. I am optimistic that we can deliver a superb Olympics, and a Paralympics, too. The virtue of sport is that it can transcend national boundaries, exhibit human excellence, and prove that nothing works like hard work.

The same goes for the Cultural Olympiad, which was launched with Damien Hirst designing a front cover for the Standard. His retrospective at the Tate, like the Lucian Freud show at the National Portrait Gallery, is unmissable. Another cultural highlight, albeit in a different arena, came earlier this month when I visited Brunswick House Café, housed in an architectural salvage depot on the Vauxhall roundabout. That may not sound a propitious location but the interior was delightfully designed, the food excellent (and inexpensive) and the ebullient Jackson Boxer, who runs the place, is one to watch out for, having just opened a new restaurant called Rita’s in Dalston.

Yet nothing captures London’s culture quite like its literary heritage. That is one reason I couldn’t resist taking a stake in a pub called the Grapes in Narrow Street, Limehouse, when Ian McKellen and Sean Mathias invited me to. The pub, which features in a scene from Charles Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend, sits right on top of that other great symbol of London, the River Thames, the clogged artery that for centuries connected the city to the rest of the world.

When I’m sitting on the balcony of the Grapes, holding a copy of the Standard fresh off the presses, looking east to the old docks and west to the Shard, I know why I love my adopted home. In truth, there is not one London but countless Londons; and as the world comes to see, hear, taste, touch and smell any one or all of them, those of us who live here should reflect on what an almighty stroke of luck it is to be a Londoner today. 

Follow Evgeny on Twitter as @mrevgenylebedev.

This article first appeared in the 30 July 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The London Issue