Last week, the Russian economic elite breathed a little easier after the Trump Administration unveiled a long-awaited, congressionally mandated list of Russian oligarchs that had been hastily cobbled together from an online Forbes list, while declining to impose further sanctions for now. Putin, ever eager to project an air of cool confidence in the health of the Russian economy, publicly shrugged off the latest list, while several oligarchs close to Putin proudly touted their inclusion as a badge of honor—suggesting that Western economic pressure was driving Russia’s oligarchs closer to Putin, not further away. This week, the Kremlin echo chamber has been busily hyping another story to promote this narrative: this time centering on a list of exiled businessmen looking to come clean with Putin, and come home to Moscow.
But are things really going so swimmingly for the Russian economy that its exiles are begging to bring their money home? A closer look at this week’s events, and my own reporting, suggests just the opposite. Far from seeking to return, Russia’s overseas businessmen are staying as far away from their homeland as they can—and the Kremlin, as ever, is resorting to desperate spin to cover up the ugly truth.
The saga began last week with a trip to London by Boris Titov, the Russian business ombudsman officially tasked with representing the rights of entrepreneurs within Putin’s government. Titov is also an officially declared candidate to challenge Putin in next month’s presidential election. His supposed presidential ambitions were hardly on the agenda during his trip to London, however, where Titov made headlines for meeting with a group of Russian businessmen who had fled their country for the United Kingdom.
After the meeting, Titov claimed to have compiled a list of names of wealthy Russians hiding from Russian law enforcement in Britain, who had asked for permission to return home. Titov then claimed on Facebook that he had passed on the list to Vladimir Putin. Russian papers pounced on the story, but the report was instantly disputed: Some of the businessmen who attended the meeting publicly denied that their names were on the list. Some even expressed doubts about the list existing at all.
Evgeny Chichvarkin attended the meeting with Titov. Chichvarkin has been living in London since 2008, having fled after Russian siloviki raided his self-made cell phone retail company Euroset—then the largest in the country—and charged him with extortion and kidnapping. Chichvarkin then started selling his share in Euroset to pro-Kremlin oligarch Aleksandr Mamut. In 2010, on the anniversary of Euroset’s founding, Chichvarkin’s mother was found dead in her apartment in Moscow in mysterious circumstances. Months later, Russian attorneys dropped charges against the businessman and his companions, and in early 2011 the deal selling Euroset was closed. Mamut later sold Euroset to Putin’s crony Alisher Usmanov, a well-connected Russian oligarch whom a group of Republican Senators have recently sought to sanction.
After the news about Titov’s list had broken, Chichvarkin posted a sarcastic, cutting rebuttal on Facebook. He accused Titov of consistently acting in the Kremlin’s interest (“he has always cooperated with the Gestapo openly”) and vehemently denied Titov’s account of the meeting. According to Chichvarkin, “No one discussed the list of applicants. No one applied [to return to Russia]. No one asked anyone to return to Russia…I’ll return to Russia either in a coffin or when Putin is in a coffin.” Chichvarkin also predicted that the business climate in Russia will only get worse. “Business in Russia will keep being raided and pressured with particular cynicism after the elections,” he wrote. “Putin doesn’t need private business.”
Andrey Sidelnikov, a former Russian politician who fled Russia in 2007 and founded the London-based opposition movement “Speak Up,” also attended the meeting, and likewise disputed Titov’s version of events. He claims the meeting with Boris Titov was open to the public, and advertised as a panel to discuss the fresh U.S. Treasury report which listed 210 Russians, including Titov, suspected of being close to the regime. The question of exiled businessmen returning to Russia was never discussed. Indeed, such matters lie outside of Titov’s traditional purview. According to Sidelnikov, at least one London-based exile had previously sought Titov’s help in closing a criminal case against him back in Russia. But this person made that request so that his name could be cleared and his credibility restored, not because he wanted to return home.
Despite the disputed accounts of Titov’s list, however, it is clear that he communicated some form of it to the Kremlin. The Russian newspaper Kommersant received a copy of the letter Boris Titov sent to Vladimir Putin. In it, the business ombudsman says that “entrepreneurs ask to pay attention to the issue of their forced isolation from their own country, for whose benefit they can and want to work honestly, developing the domestic [Russian] economy.” Titov suggests the issue could be resolved if he were given the authority to “quickly and effectively facilitate the return of businessmen who had been unlawfully and groundlessly persecuted by law enforcement.” Titov also asked Putin to consider whether those who were justly targeted could return to Russia, too, provided they pay damages to the government.
On Wednesday Boris Titov revealed sixteen names on the list he has passed to Vladimir Putin. At least one of the people on the list, Alexey Shmatko, told MBK media that he’s settled in the UK and his only conceivable reason to come back to Russia would be to visit his late mother’s grave. The discussion around the list, Shmatko says, “is all about one only thing: to drop unlawfully pressed criminal charges.” As for other businessmen seeking to return, Shmatko only said that it’s up to individuals to decide where they want to live.
I tried to track down other prominent Russian businessmen in London, to hear their take on Titov’s visit. I got a hold of Mikhail Zelman, a successful restaurateur who ran a large food holding and owned a chain of premium steak houses in Russia, before leaving the country years ago to pursue business in London. Last year his restaurants expanded to New York City, with further locations in the United States soon to follow.
Zelman told me he did not attend the meeting with Titov, but his brother did. When I asked him why he didn’t go, he said that he didn’t know about the event—but that he wouldn’t have attended even if he had. His brother, he says, only went out of respect for a friend who invited him, and whom Titov had once helped.
Zelman says he sees no reason why any businessman would want to come back to Russia. In his eyes, the story about the list of businessmen enlisting Titov’s help to return home is a desperate pre-election ploy, an elaborate deception carried out at the Kremlin’s behest to distort perceptions and turn reality on its head.
When I asked him about the risks for foreign entrepreneurs, particularly Americans, who are considering investing in Russia, Zelman’s reply was stark: No sane American would want to do so in the first place. Russia, he says, was not a competitive country for investment even before sanctions were imposed. Since then, Zelman added, there has been no real private business in Russia—only the gas and oil industry and those who receive rents from it.
Regardless, the popular narrative around Titov’s list has already served its purpose in Moscow. Kremlin Spokesman Dmitry Peskov confirmed that the list had been received, saying that “every case is unique” and that law enforcement will carefully consider each request in turn.  The optic here is undoubtedly a useful one to the Kremlin, creating the impression that scores of exiled businessmen are begging on their knees to return to Russia; that Putin is the ultimate decider of their fates; and that Western sanctions, far from hurting the economy, are only sending its rich émigrés back to Russia to repatriate their assets at home.
If any of this were actually true, it would indeed be a real victory for Putin. But in reality, the hubbub around Titov’s list only disguises an unpleasant reality: that Russian exiles who have found success in the West are eager to stay there; that a cash-strapped, corruption-ridden Russian state can offer few appetizing incentives to attract entrepreneurs; and that Western sanctions have been far more effective than Russia can publicly admit.
A lesson, then, for Russia watchers in the West ahead of next month’s presidential “election”: Beware of token presidential candidates and the stories they tell. All too often, they are only thinly disguised, self-serving narratives designed to reinforce the Kremlin’s messaging.