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‘I cannot go back there’: Russian dissidents protest against Putin on the leafy streets of west London

The Russian embassy sits on one of the most expensive, and heavily-guarded, avenues in the city

Crowd barriers are always stacked at the top of Kensington Palace Gardens, the tree-lined avenue in west London that is among the most expensive streets in the world. Sanctioned Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich owns number 16. Indian steel tycoon Lakshmi Mittal owns three houses here.

The barriers are not to keep out the poor, or not exactly. They are used to control the protesters who frequently gather. They come because the street is studded with ambassadorial residences and embassies. Prominent are the Israeli embassy, near the Kensington end on Palace Green, and the Russian embassy, in a mansion at the other end, near Notting Hill.

These two embassies and the ire they attract means Kensington Palace Gardens is the most heavily-guarded part of London after the Westminster parliamentary estate and royal residences, such as Buckingham Palace. There are armed gate posts at both ends of the avenue. Cars are banned. The avenue doesn’t even show up on Google Streetview – try it online.

This week, the Russian embassy was in the spotlight. The death in a Russian penal colony of the opposition leader, Alexei Navalny, sparked protests near the embassy by Russian expatriates who oppose the regime of Vladimir Putin. They are not allowed to protest outside the Russian embassy itself on Kensington Palace Gardens. Instead, they gather directly across the road from the side entrance, at the railings outside the consular section of the Guyana High Commission.


On Monday evening, the railings were a sea of flowers and pictures of Navalny, whose widow Yulia Navalnaya has vowed to continue his fight to topple the Russian president she accuses of murder. The sweet aroma of scented candles flickering amid the bouquets contrasted sharply with the bitterness of some of the messages, many translated into English.

“Those who do not move do not notice their chains,” said one, echoing Polish revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg. “Thank you, Navalny.”

“Voldemort killed our Harry Potter. UK, thank you for allowing us to express our grief.”

Other notes were darker, tinged with hatred for the Russian president.

“All dictators meet the same end,” said a message signed by Katya from Nizhny Novgorod, a city in western Russia.

“Your rotting carcass will hang long and low over the nation of Russia,” said another. The name of the target of this threat, presumably Putin, was concealed by the deliberately-folded corners of the poster. Deliberately folded by whom, it was unclear. Even here, 1,600 miles from Moscow, words against the Russian leader seems to have limits.

A lone young man sat on the steps of the Guyana consulate with a speaker replaying a man’s words in Russian. He said his name was Peter and he came from St Petersburg. Whoever he was, he was a dissident, there to send a message.

Peter said he had been in the UK since 2017. “I cannot go back there,” he said of his homeland. He was involved with the Russian Democratic Society, an international group of grassroots Russian diaspora activists who are opposed to the war against Ukraine. Now, they also grieve Navalny.

Peter showed me the clip on his iPhone that was the source of the man’s words coming from the speaker. It was a recording in 2020 of Navalny duping a confession over the telephone from a Russian spy who, months beforehand, had tried to kill him by lacing his underpants with a toxic nerve agent. Navalny had pretended to be a senior intelligence aide who was reviewing the assassination operation. The spy told him everything.

I asked Peter how often he came to the steps of the Guyana consulate to protest against the Russian embassy. “Every day,” he said. He seemed reluctant to talk about politics.

People in journalism like to speculate about “all these big things,” he said. “They want to know my opinion on who will run the politics, what will happen to Putin. That is not my role. My role is to just to bring people together, to build networks. What we are doing here is just symbolic. We know that with these flowers, it will not lead to the end of Putin.”

He said that even in Britain, there are supporters of the Putin regime – London is reputed to have so much Russian dirty money flowing through it, the city is nicknamed Moscow-on-Thames. Each Sunday, Peter said, they are joined at the railings by Syrian dissidents, who are opposed to the brutal regime of Bashar-al-Assad, who is propped up by Putin.

“People, they drive by in cars, shouting ‘long live Assad, long live Putin’. There are people like this all over the world.”

“We are realistic about what we can achieve,” said Peter. “In your country, you know how your politics will be in 10 years. We don’t even know if our country will exist within its current borders. But we will keep coming back here, every day, to give our message.”