SAY WHAT? - As Russia's war against Ukraine grinds on - and its captured, troubled foot-soldiers begin to concede, "We all will be judged" - activists in France and the U.K. affirmed private property is theft, especially when owned by accomplices to war crimes, by seizing two massive "Mafia castles" owned by Russian oligarchs, claiming them for homeless Ukrainian refugees. In London, squatters calling themselves London Makhnovists - for Nestor Makhno, a Ukrainian anarchist and commander who fought to form a stateless society during the Bolshevik Revolution - occupied a £50-million (about $75-million) mansion owned by Russian aluminum magnate and Putiin bestie Oleg Deripaska, who's accumulated over £2.3 billion in ill-gotten gains, not counting his now-sanctioned, multimillion-pound property portfolio in the UK. After entering what they dubbed the "filthy fancy" monolith in the city's upscale Belgrave Square, the anarchists hung a Ukrainian flag and two banners at the front of the balcony declaring, "This Property Has Been Liberated" and "Putin Go Fuck Yourself"; at the other end, they hung one that read, "Power Breeds Parasites. All Tories Are Oligarchs." They danced, played music, sang the Dirty Dancing song "(I've Had) The Time of My Life," and reportedly, when they noticed people peering out the windows next door, called, "We're your new neighbors - we'll come over tomorrow with some brisket."
They also issued a statement: "By occupying this mansion, we want to show solidarity with the people of Ukraine, but also the people of Russia who never agreed to this madness. You occupy Ukraine, we occupy you." From the balcony, one told journalists they were "doing a job the government should do," noting the "ridiculous" building, which houses a home cinema, Turkish steam bath, gym and "so many unnecessary rooms" for "stuff a normal human being would never need," could easily house 200 people. "This property belongs to Ukrainian refugees (whose) houses have been destroyed," said another, adding to Home Secretary Priti Patel, "Don't worry, we did your job, we did the housing. Refugees welcome!" An exceedingly haughty spokesperson for Deripaska, however, was not amused. Arguing it's in fact a Deripaska relative who owns the joint - though an observer noted it's can be hard to discern which sketchy shell company of which sketchy shell company might actually own it - she sniffed, “We are appalled at the negligence of Britain’s justice system shown introducing the sanctions and colluding with the sort of people who raid private property.” She went on to fume, evidently irony-free, it's “truly a disgrace" to see such uppity behavior "in a country that is supposed to respect private property and the rule of law." Maybe have a word with Putin on that.
In a city where many charge the police are either abusive - they were found to have breached the rights of organisers of a vigil for a woman murdered by police - to MIA when your house gets broken into, police responded in noticeable force to the modest action. A phalanx of 30 riot-gear-clad officers, backed by 10 vehicles, surrounded the building - as a neighbor noted, far more "than ever checked the provenance of the money that bought it" - as activists yelled "Fuck you!" and "Shame on you!" After they blocked the set-up of a ladder, police brought in a crane to remove them, and eight were arrested. But one from Lithuania pointed out they'd done "everything by the book" and left "no criminal damage," and passers-by were supportive. "I think it's very good," said a man from Ukraine who said the mansion belonged to "a friend of Putin." "My people are suffering, and they need help." The action also seemed "symbolic of a wider discombobulation, as London grad struggles with the pivot to this new era," wrote Marina Hyde of a nation long deemed economically and ethically complicit in Putin's atrocities. "A whole series of compromised institutions, from the legal profession (to) police (to) politicians, are going to require a significant reset if we truly do mean to stop enabling some of the worst individuals in the world at the expense of pretty much everyone else."
In France, meanwhile, activists occupied a seaside luxury villa in Biarritz owned by Russian billionaire Kirill Shamalov, Putin's former son-in-law and deputy chairman of the petrochemical firm Sibur. Longtime French activist Pierre Haffner, who writes a blog on Mediapart, and Sergey Saveliev, a Belarusian political refugee, entered Putin's "Mafia castle," changed the locks and its name to "Villa Ukraine," put up a huge Ukrainian flag, and planned to ask rights advocates to work with local officials to open the 8-bedroom home to Ukrainian refugees. In an earlier statement, Saveliev wrote, "We dedicate this action to Ukraine and all the people who have suffered from torture, corruption and repression in Russia. This place should and will become a refuge and a place of help for people who have no place in their country." In a video from the lush grounds, Saveliev said, “While the authorities of the U.S., UK and France look for ways to act against Russia economically, we are taking our own actions.” Online, fellow-traveler Vladimir Osechkin cited "hundreds of villas bought by Putin's family and their oligarch accomplices" and asserted, "Their luxurious bourgeois life has come to a logical end. For war crimes, (they) will have to pay." Police eventually broke down the door and arrested both squatters. The next day, Haffner announced an April 22 action at Biarritz City Hall to remind "the law and Republican decency: Seize the property of the Russian mafia." He added, "However, they should put a heater in the cells of the Biarritz police station - it's a fridge. If there was a skydive with an ocean view, it would be pretty good too."
(Abby Zimet has written CD's Further column since 2008. A longtime, award-winning journalist, involved in women's, labor, anti-war, social justice and refugee rights issues. Email: [email protected])