Robert Jackman

How to have a Russian weekend in London

How to have a Russian weekend in London
Traditional Kulichi at Zima restaurant
Text settings

Benedict Cumberbatch’s turn as Greville Wynne - the British engineer who helped MI6 smuggle secret intel out of Soviet Russia - in The Courier has shone a light on London's Cold War past. While the USSR and KGB might be gone, our capital still has a few souvenirs from the era - not to mention plenty of modern Russian culture and cuisine to boot.

If you’re feeling inspired by The Courier, here's the guide to throwing the ultimate Russian-themed weekend in London:

Where to eat and drink

Mari Vana, Kensington

While the old Soviet bloc wasn't exactly famed for its cuisine, London's eastern Europe and Slavic food has come on leaps and bounds since the days of Perestroika (as you might hope).

Of the various Russian eateries found around West London, Kensington's Mari Vanna is generally regarded as the most fashionable. With a charming, rustic atmosphere, the deli and restaurant serves everything from authentic stroganoff to hearty Ukrainian golubtsy. That it’s currently sold out of caviar says something about London’s post-pandemic economy - even if I’m not entirely sure what.

If you can't get a table, try Frith Street's street-food inspired Zima, which delivers a modern take on the same decades-old Russian classics. Whet your appetite with borscht or dill soup, before getting stuck into crab fritters, pickled cabbage, and creamy chicken-stuffed blinis.

With more gold trimmings than an oligarch’s bathroom, nearby Bob Bob Richard - home of the infamous 'press for champagne' button - deserves a mention. Truffle, potato and mushroom vareniki (the effortlessly-satisfying dumplings beloved across the region) are probably the most authentic option on the menu. Wash them down with a shot of vodka, served at -18c.

If you want to dine like a real Muscovite your best bet is to head to one of north London’s various Georgian restaurants. The herb-rich and meaty Caucasian cuisine - complete with rather exceptional local wine - is generally regarded as the Italian of the eastern bloc and can be found everywhere from Kyiv to Bishkek. Try Tbilisi on Holloway Road for a treat.

For the uninitiated, it might be worth reading up basic Georgian dishes beforehand. If you remember nothing else then khachapuri are the decadent, cheese-filled breads which have lined countless Slavic stomachs, while khinkali are broth-filled packets of meat and herbs which complement the heartier stews. You’ll find them in Russian restaurants too, but this is the real deal.

What to do

A traditional Russian sauna experience is available at Banya

Fancy some Russian culture to boot? In normal times, you couldn’t walk through the West End without finding a production of one of the great Russian playwrights. Sadly with much of theatreland still in semi-hibernation, it’s slim pickings this autumn. Chekhov’s gun remains silent.

You may have better luck when it comes to visual arts, with eastern European enjoying somewhat of a Saatchi-inspired boom in London. Covent Garden’s David Kovats Art Gallery and Shoreditch’s Calvert 22 are two of the more impressive galleries dedicated to bringing the solid contemporary work from central and Eastern Europe.

Dedicated Russophiles will already know Pushkin House, the Bloomsbury town-house which functions as an unofficial embassy for Russian culture. As well as organising an annual prize for the best non-fiction book about Russia, it also hosts intimate recitals with some of the country’s best classical musicians .

For something entirely different try Hoxton’s Banya No 1, which offers the authentic Russian sauna experience. Treatments include an ‘invigorating’ encounter with birch twigs, being rubbed in honey and coarse salt, and a spell in a steam room followed by a sudden ice-cold bucket shower.

What to see

As one of the capital’s oldest emigre cultures, Russian curiosities aren’t hard to find in London, with plenty of throwbacks to the old Soviet era if you look hard enough.

For Communist history, head to Whitechapel, where dedicated walking tours explore the district’s revolutionary history. One of the stops, Tower House on Fieldgate Street, was the temporary home of Joseph Stalin, then a young revolutionary visiting London to attend a congress of the exiled Russian communist party. Other attendees included Vladimir Lenin, Leon Trotsky and Rosa Luxemburg.

During the Cold War itself, the Soviet Union was notoriously slippery about admitting the extent of its diplomatic network in London, running several secret ‘consulates’ - as this exchange in parliament reveals. In the years since, numerous innocuous landmarks have been exposed as playing a crucial role in spy-games - like the Mayfair lamppost whose compartment was a drop-off point by KGB spies.

The skyline of St Petersburg may feel out of reach but there's plenty of Orthodox architecture in the capital if you know where to look. The Russian Orthodox Church in Chiswick is adorned with a memorable blue dome.

For a more scientifc tribute to the era, head to the Royal Observatory in Greenwich where you’ll find a statue of Yuri Gagarin, gifted to the British Council by the Russian space agency and erected where Gagarin met then prime minister, Harold Macmillan. Judging by the state of today’s diplomatic relations, it all seems rather touching now.