Russians living in London say British media’s coverage of the Malaysia Airlines crash is pushing them to side with Vladimir Putin. Photograph: Zuma/Rex Features.
Outside Kalinka, a Russian delicatessen and grocers on London’s bustling Queensway, customers were uneasy . “I am shocked,” says one, an electrician, who came to London 12 years ago to work on building sites. He remembers the stereotyping of his fellow Russians back then. “It was Russians are rude. And they are drinking beer. And they are drinking vodka. But it was funny. It was soft humour.
“Now, the newspapers are definitely trying to mix the opinions of people against Russian culture and people. Now it is Russians are killers.”
He is far from alone among Russians living in London to have noticed a backlash since the downing of flight MH17. Like most, he too, speaks only on condition of anonymity.
“There are pictures of Putin. The word “killer” on the front pages,” said Anna, a Russian-born pharmaceutical consultant. “Then page after page, until page 12 or something, when it’s Gaza. Russians are killers. How do you think it affects us?”
“Do you believe in collective punishment? Do you want to bomb people for their nationality?” she asks. “It’s actually official policy now to hate Russians.”
Of course, she said, she has no idea of the exact circumstances that led to shooting of the plane and loss of 298 lives. “But the British culture is to find a culprit. Bully them. Bully those around them. Don’t bother to investigate. Judge on very superficial grounds. Let’s bully his daughter. Let’s find someone who played judo with this man and bully them too.
“Surround him with hate so the Russians will throw him out. But the Russians won’t throw him out,” she added. “Everyone is suffering. Collective punishment is not the answer.”
Among his friends, Sasha, a retired Russian army officer who has lived in London for more than 20 years, now finds “a great deal of sadness, and fear, fear that the lunacy will escalate.
“It is easy to resurrect antagonism towards Russia because people remember the cold war, and when something goes wrong in Russia it’s magnified,” he said. Sanctions would hit the middle and lower income Russians “the tourists, the students who fill the universities” and not “the big people, who don’t care”.
Across London in the City, fears are also for business. One director of a reinsurance broker, whose company works in 20 different countries, many from the former Soviet Union, said his concern about media coverage was “that there is no presumption of innocence in this case.
“It looked as if the story was ready for the mass media before the aircraft came down.
“All this blaming Russians, I am Russian English. I have been living here for 25 years. I don’t quite like Putin’s politics. But, unfortunately, all this has really pushed me over to the Russian side, which I haven’t been since the events started in the Ukraine.”
He fears a break “in connections which have been set up over the last 20 to 25 years, based on information that has not been verified”.
Others fear a trade slump will lead to job losses. “If there is no business with Russia, it inevitably will affect our employability because we sell our language skills,” said one insurance worker.
Now living in London, she was born in Russia before moving to Ukraine, where her parents still live. She was visiting them when the plane was shot down.
“My parents have both Ukrainian and Russian channels. And the story was so contradictory if you switched from Russian TV to Ukrainian TV. It is actually scary how the same event can be shown from a different perspective and you just don’t know what to believe,” she said. “They are trading accusations, and both seem equally credible. My advice would be not to listen to either.”
She has found British media “more or less objective” but is concerned how comments translate into Russian.
“I can hear what David Cameron says in English and it’s sort of alright. Once it is translated into Russian it sounds really harsh. That really is an issue. When it’s taken out of context, and translated, it can sound almost opposite to what was said,” she said.