‘Meet my friend, she's a Russian spy’

Marina Kim

Marina Kim on the prejudice that expat Russians face – and the hurtful stereotypes with which they must contend

03 November 2018 14:00

Once upon a time, when I was a Russian teen at school in Southern Kazakhstan, I entered a competition in a British magazine with a poem about how much I loved the UK.

Written with a very limited English vocabulary, my poem mostly consisted of various things I loved about ‘foggy Albion’. Every word of it was heartfelt. Too basic to get noticed, it wasn’t published. Thus, I missed my chance to tell the British people in print that there was a girl living thousands of kilometres away, who was so affected by their culture that she had fallen in love with their country.

I knew Britain was home, even though it wasn’t – yet. Thirteen years ago, already an ardent anglophile, I did everything in my power to move here. Not a daughter of an oligarch, with no money and no connections, I built a life in London from scratch. It wasn’t a smooth sail. Being alone, away from my family and lacking money did indeed make me feel vulnerable at times, and sometimes it was downright scary.

What I didn’t expect, however, was that my nationality would ever really count against me. I don’t mean the formal requirement to renew my visa every year (although that, too, meant that my life here was inherently precarious, at risk of being cut short at any moment – until I finally got my Indefinite Visa this year). I don’t mean the differences between Russian and British mentalities, either (although, again, there are moments when one is brought up short by particular national traits and idiosyncrasies).

I respected the British people so much that it hadn’t even crossed my mind that anyone would ever be so impolite as to hold my origins against me – but then it started happening all the time. I thought that being in the UK legally, loving this country and contributing to it, without being a drain on resources, was a sufficient basis to live here.

I didn’t expect that my nationality would ever really count against me.

How wrong I was. Throughout my twenties, which were mostly spent in London, I was regularly called ‘a Russian prostitute’. I’ve even got an online troll, a woman who has never met me, but routinely describes me thus, amidst other, equally charming things. This accusation, with all its stereotypical and derogatory connotations, was sometimes levelled at me and my female friends by complete strangers on nights out when they saw us, dolled up and in sexy outfits, and speaking Russian.

I also recall an Old Etonian barman in a club in Chelsea, who regularly abused various women (never men), by calling them ‘ugly’, ‘fat’, and ‘unfuckable’. Pointing at me on one occasion as I stood at the bar in front of him, he shouted to the doorman: ‘Who let the Russian prostitute in?’ I wanted to die on the spot: the whole room heard what he had said. I was told that I didn’t belong here on the basis of my nationality, by a man who barely knew who I was. I supressed the tears until I left the club, and went home. All I had wanted was to buy a drink from him.

Then again, there was nothing unusual about the slur. The newspapers regularly described Russian women in London as whores and golddiggers, literally or metaphorically, and never featured Russian women who were positive role models. So it was scarcely surprising that racists and xenophobes felt thus emboldened.

It got to the point, frankly, when being called ‘a Russian prostitute’ seemed pretty standard fare, that I started to ‘yearn’ for a more imaginative insult. I didn’t have to wait that long, though. It came when I started being active in politics. And it was not as innovative as I hoped.

I was told that I didn’t belong here on the basis of my nationality, by a man who barely knew who I was.

‘You must be a spy. Why would a Russian girl care about current affairs and be involved in the UK politics?’ The middle-aged man levelling the charge didn’t find it contradictory that he also cared about current affairs and was involved in UK politics. What was allowed for him, was suspicious about me.

I was, am and shall always be deeply appreciative of my heritage and what it has given me. But I chose this country as my home and I love it. For every bad person I’ve met, there have been many more good British people, who have helped and supported me; believed in me; and are just really decent humans.

I am so at home in the UK that I feel it’s natural for me to get involved in political debates and take an interest in British domestic news. Of course, I want to play my part, whatever that may be, in making it an even better place. As a resident, it’s my responsibility. Being an observer in the stands isn’t enough for me. I get stuck in on the pitch: I campaign, write, and meet people, learning from them and sharing my views. For me, that’s what genuine integration means.

The geopolitical backdrop presents ongoing challenges. With ‘unexplained wealth’ from Russia flooding the City, the Russian government accused of (and probably guilty of) interfering in the electoral process, and many other associated allegations, it’s not always easy to be a Russian in London. But it’s still the best city in the world.

As it happens, the ‘prostitute’ line has diminished in frequency. With a massive increase in the number of Russians living here, especially in London, it has become downright silly to imply that every woman from my country must, by definition, be an escort. On the flipside, the rapid deterioration of Russia-UK relations has created fresh problems for the expats.

‘You must be a spy. Why would a Russian girl care about current affairs and be involved in the UK politics?’

‘Meet Marina, a Russian spy’: two very good acquaintances of mine, both senior journalists, couldn’t stop themselves giggling as they introduced me to the Number Ten aide, Dylan Sharpe, at the Conservative Party conference only a few weeks ago. On hearing that, the aide smiled awkwardly, and melted quickly into the crowd.

When I bumped into him again at a party the next day, his response to my greeting nod was: ‘No, I am not going to reveal any state secrets to you’. That was literally all he said before he turned away – again. Thus, sadly, I couldn’t shrug it all off as a joke. There was also another person working in political circles the other week who accused me of being a spy… before inviting me for a drink. Not sure about this as a chat-up line.

And yet, I suppose, who can blame them with all the anti-Russian hysteria in the media? Nobody even bothers to say ‘the Russian government’ anymore: it’s always just ‘Russia’. Therefore, every Russian is tarred by an association with everything the Russian government does – or is accused of doing. It’s like we are all on Putin’s speed dial.

I was ashamed that I let being called ‘a spy’ affect me; but it did. When my Mum called me, while I was still in Birmingham at the party conference, I texted her that I would call her back when I got home. Truth to tell? I was too worried about being heard speaking Russian, even (or perhaps especially) down a phone.

‘Well, at least it gives dinner parties an interesting angle,’ says an optimistic Russian friend of mine. ‘People find me exciting and want to talk geopolitics all the time.’ Another one is annoyed that everyone always assumes that she loves everything about Vladimir Putin, just because of her specific argument that his intervention in Syria helped to stop the march of ISIS.

I was ashamed that I let being called ‘a spy’ affect me; but it did.

Heaven help anyone who expresses a viewpoint that happens to coincide with the official position of the Russian government. Bob Seely, the Tory MP for the Isle of Wight, has even called for the naming and shaming of anyone who speaks ‘in support of Russia’. But why single out one nation for such treatment among all the others? Do they really believe that other countries do not lobby for their respective national interests?

Thanks to this climate of fear – nurtured, it must be said, by both Russia and the West – I have to remind people pre-emptively of the numerous occasions when I have criticised Putin in the past, before, as I sometimes do, I express my agreement with him on other issues. The truth is a matter of principle for me, and I won’t be apologetic about it – even if doing so means agreeing with a man I couldn’t bring myself to vote for.

One of the things I love the most about this country is its democracy. Free speech means, or should mean, speaking on any subject without fear of reflexive anger. Yet it seems that a different set of rules apply where Russia is concerned. Brits who dare to express any remotely pro-Russian views are immediately castigated as ‘apologists’. And as for native-born Russians… well, see all of the above.

Still, I live in hope that such prejudice can be overcome – especially with increased exposure to culture that shows that Russians are people, too. British films have been seen on Russian screens for many years – but there is little reciprocity. Modern Russian and older Soviet films, as well as the soulful, kind cartoons produced by the USSR, are worthy of exploration by western audiences; television series, like, for example, the exquisite BBC production of War and Peace (Tom Harper, 2016) are also helping to build a much-needed bridge of understanding between the two countries. Imagine the progress that could be made by all nations had they not been distracted by petty bigotry and squabbles.