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In a sour season between the UK and Russia, a new casualty: debutantes

[LONDON] Among the casualties of the March poisoning of a former Russian spy, Sergei V. Skripal, is London's sumptuous Russian Debutante Ball, where, once a year, the daughters of Soviet-born businessmen have been ushered into adult society in an atmosphere of pre-Revolutionary nostalgia.

Elisabeth Smagin-Melloni, who has organized similar coming-out balls for wealthy Russians in 12 cities, said she decided to cancel the sixth annual London event because, in the rancorous atmosphere around the spy scandal, Russians planning to travel for the ball had complained of difficulty getting British visas.

"Over the summer it became even worse, with all these poisoned spies or not-poisoned spies, and we decided finally at the end of August that we wouldn't do it," Smagin-Melloni said. She said it was the first time she had encountered this problem since she began organizing such events, in 2003.

"I am not discussing politics here, I think," she said. "If I like Mr. Putin or don't like Mr. Putin should not be an item to be discussed. We should not make a political question out of normal human relationships."

It has been an anxious season for London's wealthy Russians.

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The government is reviewing the residency rights of around 700 well-connected Russians who secured investor visas before 2015, The Observer reported last week. Officials have also promised to step up the use of "unexplained wealth orders," which allow the government to freeze the assets of individuals who cannot legally account for their riches.

And next year, Parliament is likely to vote on legislation requiring property owners to register under their real names. Some 40,000 buildings in London are owned anonymously, through companies registered in offshore jurisdictions that allow secrecy, said Rachel Davies Teka, director of advocacy for Transparency International.

Smagin-Melloni pays close attention to commentary about Russia. In March, after Skripal was found slumped on a bench in Salisbury, she noticed a sharp rise in anti-Russian comments on the ball's Facebook page. At the end of August, Smagin-Melloni decided to pull the plug.

"I think all these politics, sorry for saying that, they are all crazy," she said.


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