LONDON (Reuters) - Tatyana Sergeyeva has come a long way from her sleepy hometown in Russia’s Muslim region of Tatarstan to become an economics student in London. And there is no going back now.
Standing in the pouring rain outside Russia’s embassy in London where she voted in Sunday’s presidential election, Sergeyeva said many young people felt just like her - keen for change, but reluctant to go back.
“Without political change it would be too shocking to go back now, to see the country, to see the contrast between here and there,” said Sergeyeva, a 20-year-old student at University College London.
“I don’t have much hope. Everything has been pre-decided. The election is decided by those who count the ballots, not by those who cast them,” she added bitterly. Other voters nodded.
As Vladimir Putin - who won a resounding victory in Sunday’s vote - tightened the screws throughout his 12-year rule, many educated Russians flooded out the country looking for better pastures abroad.
Many inevitably settled in London - home to some of the loudest Kremlin critics, including outspoken tycoon Boris Berezovsky and Chechen rebel leader Akhmed Zakayev. Former agent turned dissident Alexander Litvinenko was killed here after drinking tea laced with polonium in 2006.
London has also attracted some of Russia’s wealthiest business people and oligarchs who have snapped up prime real estate and opened upmarket restaurants.
“For Vladimir Putin London is like a thorn in his flesh - he can’t live without mentioning it, he thinks that all universal evil is concentrated here,” said Konstantin Pinayev, a marketing consultant who helped organize an anti-Putin protest outside the Houses of Parliament in December.
London is a well-trodden destination for Russians fleeing persecution and hardship at home, and has been so since at least the 1917 Bolshevik revolution when White Russian families fled the turmoil and found refuge in parts of north London.
But the latest generation of emigres is different - they are young, ambitious and middle-class. They are well educated and come from all walks of life. Russia’s interior ministry says there are 40,000 registered Russians in London, but British media have put the number at around 300,000.
As Russians queued to vote, the mood was grim. Holding rain-soaked banners such as “Fair election” and “Put in trash,” a small group of opposition activists rallied quietly in the rain, drawing bemused looks from Londoners hurrying past.
Anti-Putin graffiti and obscenities were sprayed on the pavement. A picture of a dead Muammar Gaddafi, Libya’s overthrown leader, was plastered to a fence, reading: “They had no choice.” Embassy staff ignored the crowd.
In December’s parliamentary election, more than 40 percent of registered voters in London supported one of the main opposition parties.
“But even here in London some people are afraid to come out and rally because they have relatives back in Russia,” said Andrei Sidelnikov, an opposition activist.
He moved to London after being beaten up in 2007 and subjected to other forms of intimidation which he links to his political activism in Russia.
“For me this is not a game. It’s very important to me.”
Two days before the vote, a large conference hall in Westminster was packed with Russians of all ages and wealth groups. The air was thick with political debate.
Clad in evening dress, fur coats and diamonds, emigres gathered for a evening of anti-Putin satire - an underground Moscow sensation known as Citizen Poet.
Invited to London by emigre former tycoon Yevgeny Chichvarkin, Citizen Poet uses sharp, acerbic verses to poke fun at Putin, depicting him as a dark, lonely and paranoid man.
Outgoing President Dmitry Medvedev is shown as an obedient and meek side-kick.
Outside the surreal realm of his verses, the poet Dmitry Bykov is reluctant to talk about politics. Pressed by London emigres and reporters to share his views on what will happen in Russia after the vote, he said: “There will be a carnival night!” - and burst into laughter.
Pacing back and forth on the stage and reading out satire inspired by Russian and British classics, the actor Mikhail Yefremov prompted wild applause and cheers from an audience of glitzy London socialites and businessmen.
For many, the stage itself looked vaguely familiar.
The sprawling Queen Elizabeth II Conference Hall is where the annual Russian Economic Forum used to be held - a top business event for Russia investors which disintegrated shortly after the Kremlin ditched it as relations with Britain soured in the wake of the Litvinenko scandal.
As the audience sipped champagne and debated Russia’s future in the intermission, Chichvarkin, a business tycoon who fled to London in 2008 after falling out with officials, said he was pessimistic.
“It all feels very dramatic. I feel like we are on the verge of civil war,” he said.
Like the opposition movement in Russia itself, activists in London are fragmented and lack unity. But with Putin set for victory and another long stint in the Kremlin, expats said they expected their ranks to swell further.
“Things can turn ugly (in Russia). There will be even more propaganda, people will become angrier. No one wants civil war,” said Pinayev, the marketing consultant. “Everyone is frustrated. I think there will be a massive wave of immigrants this summer.”
Writing by Maria Golovnina; Additional reporting by Melissa Akin in Moscow; Editing by Karolina Tagaris