When Andrew Langton first met Roman Abramovich, he liked him instantly. “I thought he was rather nice. I thought you could sit down and have a meal with him.” By that time, the Russian oligarch and Putin ally was 45 years old, worth a reported £10.3bn and had owned Chelsea Football Club for eight years. Even so, he “seemed incredibly young”, said Langton. “He’s got that look about him, staring at the headlights a bit, wondering what on earth has happened.”
What happened on that occasion was that Langton, a veteran of London’s super-prime property sector and the chairman of Chelsea estate agency Aylesford International, sold Abramovich a 15-bedroom house on the capital’s most expensive street, Kensington Palace Gardens, for £90m. Abramovich’s new neighbours included Len Blavatnik, another businessman who had prospered from post-Soviet privatisations, and the Russian and Israeli embassies. A few years later they would be joined by the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, across the road in the palace itself. Now, 11 years after Abramovich bought the house, it lies empty, its owner sanctioned by the British government following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The rules meant Abramovich wasn’t able to sell the house, nor are his staff allowed to maintain it.
“It was a lovely house,” said Langton. After a career in luxury property spanning almost six decades, he seemed concerned for the property itself: “The buddleia will start growing out of the roof. No one’s going to go in there if there’s a burst pipe.”
Abramovich’s purchase, in 2011, came at the height of a London shopping spree by Russian oligarchs: in the early Noughties they had flocked to the capital, attracted by its prestigious property, good schools, and obliging legal system. Law enforcement’s tendency to look the other way on money laundering may have been an attraction for some individuals too. For two decades, Russian cash surged into the capital – Transparency International has estimated that between 2015 and 2022 alone, £1.5bn of property was bought by Russians accused of corruption or having links to the Kremlin: by the end, London was so popular with Russia’s richest, it became known as “Londongrad”. For Langton and his peers, these were the good times: he counted Abramovich, Blavatnik and Oleg Deripaska, another billionaire sanctioned since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, among his clients. But now, as the war continues, Langton said he regretted “enabling” some of the Russians.
At the beginning, they had seemed like just another wave of rich foreign buyers. Langton had founded Aylesford in 1966, when “you bought a home to live in it, you didn’t buy it to make any financial gain – you had to have somewhere to sleep”. But in the mid-1970s, with the market reeling after a recession, he spotted an opportunity: the price of oil had doubled and Middle Easterners had suddenly found their “wallets were full of money”. So he flew to a trade fair in Dubai.
“A man came up to me… and said ‘what are you doing?’ He was surrounded by men with guns. I said, ‘well, I’m selling property in England’.” At the time, Langton’s most expensive property was a house in Beaconsfield for £1.2m. “I said, ‘it’s terribly expensive’, as if to suggest, ‘can you afford it?’.” He could, it turned out: the man was Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum, the ruler of Dubai. “He came to England and spent £70m with me,” said Langton, who sold the Sheikh apartments, houses and “countless racing stables”.
So it seemed natural that when wealthy Russians began to trickle into London, Langton and his peers should take advantage. “It was this new money,” he said. “You weren’t thinking [about where the money was coming from]. You were thinking, here’s this renaissance of new buyers, coming into London to buy our property – and our job was to sell them property, from which we earned a living. You didn’t actually think at the time that a lot of people had been crushed, or whatever happened to them in Russia.”
He didn’t always understand their tastes. Deripaska’s £16m purchase of a house in Belgrave Square seemed like a strange choice to Langton. “[Belgrave Square] was predominantly embassies… it was too commercial. I’d hate to live there – it’s a racetrack,” he said. “But [Deripaska] looked upon it in a different way. This was him saying, ‘I’m at the top of my game and I want to share with everybody else that I’ve now got probably one of the best houses in London’, which indeed he did.”
Occasionally, news of something unsettling related to Russians in London would appear in the headlines. “There’s been nine murders, none of which have been solved: people falling out of helicopters, people falling onto railings, people falling out of Tube trains.” But for Langton and his colleagues in the increasingly crowded upmarket London real estate sector, this violence felt distant. “At the time, I suppose there was an amusing side to it,” he said. “You’d talk about it probably after hours with a drink in your hand, and you’d think, that was just a one-off, it would never happen again.”
Sometimes, the violence edged closer to home. During a legal case over money owed to him, a man with gold teeth appeared outside Aylesford’s office. “He implied that we should not continue with this case, otherwise the window would break, or I didn’t know what he was going to do with those gold teeth.” For Langton, it was so melodramatic, it seemed unreal. “This was something for Hollywood films,” he said. He was unfazed.
But looking back, it was a sign of things to come. “We weren’t conscientious of how dirty [some of the money] was,” he said. “You were probably enabling them by buying and then tidying it up and cleansing it. You were thinking entirely the wrong way at the time.”
Now, he said: “I regret anything that’s brought about where we are today in the Ukraine. I regret anything that would fuel the ability for Putin to do what he’s doing to women and children, what he’s doing to his own people, sending these cannon-fodder 18-year-olds to the front line. God knows how many have been killed as a consequence of his personal ambitions.”
Did he feel a sense of personal responsibility? “I do now,” Langton said.
It was rare to hear someone in the capital’s real estate sector speak with such candour. Questions about the ethics of estate agents’ business choices are usually met with bland statements about legality: if pushed, most shrug, muttering about non-disclosure agreements. But Langton said this felt personal. “What’s happening will impact on our lives more than anything else that has ever happened to me… look, just go out and buy some food. Go and buy fuel, go and buy heating… your mortgage is going to cost more and therefore your wallet is going to be thinner than it has been. And I think you’ve got to say it’s all down to these kleptocrats, these people over there. They are going to change our lives,” he said.
“You look back on… the nine unsolved murders. And of course, what’s happening today, with this ghastly Putin. And you’ve got to realise that they have no respect for human life. They have no respect for anything.”
Still, life goes on. Although Russians have all but disappeared from the London market, Langton and his colleagues are already anticipating the next wave of rich foreign buyers – perhaps from India, or perhaps among the 300,000 people from Hong Kong who will be granted UK visas under a scheme announced in 2021. Because London, said Langton, was still the perfect place to buy a house. “Look at the world,” he said. “Where else would you go?”