Editor’s Note: Sam Kiley is a senior CNN international correspondent. The opinions in this article are those of the author.
Posh. This singularly British term has its own roots in the sort of mythology that makes it what may be Britain’s most successful export. It reeks of gun rooms and leather; of port, wet Labradors and old tweed.
It’s personified in the languid self-confidence of Britain’s aristocrats.
If ever there was a sanction that might have a real effect on Vladimir Putin’s oligarch chums, it lies in cutting them off from scaling the social mountains that lead them to the giddy heights of poshness.
Economic sanctions have had a devastating affect on the Russian economy since they were imposed over the Kremlin’s illegal annexation of Crimea.
Further efforts to punish the oligarchy that helps Putin control his country – and meddle in others – have been effective.
Oleg Deripaska, who runs the aluminum giants Rusol and EN+, has seen his companies’ share values fall dramatically after sanctions targeted him earlier this month.
But multibillionaires are insulated from feeling much pain under these circumstances by the sheer number of zeros attached to their net wealth.
Kick them in their social pretensions, though, and you could bring tears to their eyes.
Flogging the dream of social advancement has been a British export for generations – and one that helps maintain the stylishly rich in the manner to which they believe they are entitled.
The British aristocracy has always been good at suckling on the capital of others: just look at the Astors. The 19th-century American fur traders were swiftly absorbed into Britain in a generation or two and are now bonafide “Toffs.”
An ersatz version of what oligarchs crave most is marketed to them through TV series like “Downton Abbey.”
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, there is no evidence that the term derives from the idea that the wealthy could, in the olden days, avoid the uncomfortably sunny side of a ship on the way to, and from, India by traveling “port out, starboard home.”
The nautical root is a myth. But it sells.
It’s the window dressing for a bordello version of Britain that has made it the most stylish financial and social laundromat on the planet.
A magnet charged with energy from the few-questions-asked City of London, the world’s biggest financial center. It is further energized by the promise of a life above stairs at Downton. If not for the vulgar new rich of today then most certainly for their spawn – after they’ve been burnished in an expensive private school.
Small wonder that Russia’s oligarchs, friends or foes of Vladimir Putin alike, plus the mega rich from around the world, have poured into a capital of luxury many now call Londongrad.
Armies of estate agents, stockbrokers and accountants are obsequiously available to all-too-legally clean money for them.
You can buy the right to live in the UK and even to become a British citizen. For 10 million quid you can get a visa that will allow you to apply for permanent resident’s status in only two years.
It will take three years for a $5 million investment,and for the cheaper end of the market ponying up a mere million will require a five-year period of residency before qualifying as a permanent resident.
That’s a pretty good deal if the secret police are breathing down your neck and you’ve shoved a few billion into offshore accounts before Putin, or a similar figure, comes knocking.
Furthermore, those investments can be in British property!
As a result, the tall Victorian mansions lining Notting Hill’s terraces now echo with endless renovation, and transformation of cellars into subterranean pools and cinemas for this parvenu class.
So once the oligarch has moved into London’s smartest area, the purveyors of posh will descend.
Pretty soon a, not very bright but permanently grinning chap, who’s been to a decent private school (which the Brits disingenuously call “public school”), will be flogging Igor shooting lessons.
This will be followed with trips to grouse moors and driven pheasant shoots. Theatrical facsimiles of the Downton life rehearsed, for now, out of sight of the real posh.
Offers to membership of private members clubs in Mayfair, which are done up to look like posh English country houses, will quickly follow.
Igor the Oligarch now has a taste for the posh life. But he cannot, yet, feast.
That is a pleasure he’ll have to buy – for his offspring.
Igor will be stripped of his shell suit and upholstered in a bespoke outfit, shirts from Jermyn Street and a set of sensible brogues. But the gangster gait cannot be mitigated: getting rid of that will take a generation.
The aristocracy once sniggered at the nouveau riche of the industrial revolution. The coal mine owners, carpet manufacturers and engineers spoke with ghastly regional accents. But pretty quickly, they were absorbed into polite society.
Especially if they could offer a decent shoot, wine cellar and some wealthy offspring to marry off to the children of aristocrats who were too odd, ugly or stupid to be found employment in the clergy or the army.
But for for the sons and daughters of the foreign-but-rich to be fully integrated, they must be washed, scrubbed and battered into shape in a public school.
It’s such a good business that some of the top schools have marketing branches in Russia, Singapore, China and the US.
About 2,300 pupils either from Russia, or of Russians based in Britain, attend British public schools, some costing upward of $50,000 a year, according to the Independent Schools Council.
By the time they emerge, they’re fully versed in the arcana of cricket, the gentlemanly way to tear ears off opponents at rugby and how to move and think with that easy confidence of the British posh.
By then, the transformation and will have been complete: Igor’s son, Ivan will have been turned into a terrible snob.
Threaten to take all that away by ending the sweet deals that draw the world’s least attractive businessmen into the honey trap of London – and raise the prospect that the newly minted public school Russo-Brit children might have to go “home” would get their attention.
After all, they’ll now think, living in Mother Russia would be “simpleh ghastleh.”