Britain and Russia are in the middle of their most intense diplomatic crisis since the Cold War over the poisoning of ex-spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Salisbury earlier this month.
Theresa May expelled 23 Russian diplomats from the UK earlier week, prompting a reciprocal action from Moscow. Despite losing about 30% of its staff, though, activity in the embassy still seemed like business as usual.
Business Insider attended a press conference on Thursday with Russia’s ambassador to the UK, Alexander Yakovenko, and was given access to most – but not all – of the opulent building.
Scroll down to take a look inside.
The Russian embassy is one of many on Kensington Palace Gardens in west London, known locally as “Embassy Row.” It’s the personal residence of Russia’s ambassador to London, Alexander Yakovenko.
The embassy recently lost about 30% of its staff as Theresa May expelled 23 Russian diplomats from the UK over the Skripal case. There used to be 78 Russian officials; now there are 55. Here they are going home:
Kensington Palace Gardens is home to embassies of other countries, including Saudi Arabia, France, and Nepal. Billionaires such as Roman Abramovich, Leonard Blavatnik, and Lakshmi Mittal all had houses here as of 2014. The average house here costs £35.7 million.
The street is also a stone’s throw away from Kensington Palace, where Princes William and Harry, Kate Middleton, and Meghan Markle all live.
Unsurprisingly, security is really tight here. There were at least three heavily armed policemen by the entrance, who warned that we couldn’t take photos of the secluded street.
As a result, the street is very quiet. However, any pedestrian can walk inside it, though, and we saw at least five people either strolling or jogging through the street.
The Russian embassy is at number 13. There’s a metal detector at the gate to the embassy, where our bags and accreditation are checked by two officials who speak to each other in Russian. We enter through the front door pictured here.
Upon entering the embassy we are confronted by another metal detector in the foyer. It’s not being used, though, likely because we’ve already been checked outside. Next to the metal detector is a window looking into a room containing some security controls and one worker. It all looks a bit dim because the furniture is dark in colour and many curtains are drawn.
On the other side of the room is a (slightly cracked) mirror, a book, and some flowers. A familiar face peers out from a framed photo…
… a signed picture of a (younger) Vladimir Putin.
The foyer leads into a grand, red-carpeted reception room.
As we stroll around, two Russian aides standing nearby suggest that we leave our things in their cloakroom. The makeshift cloakroom is in a salon, with our coats kept behind a divider trying to look like bookcases. Another Russian-speaking worker takes our coats.
In the grand reception room there’s a big staircase leading up to a second floor (where we’re not allowed to go). There’s a mural of the Kremlin in Moscow, with small framed paintings on each side of it — a religious icon depicting Christ on the left, and St. George and the Dragon on the right. At the bottom of the staircase is also a painting of a woman riding a white horse.
At the bottom of the staircase is another hallway with the men’s and ladies’ bathrooms, and another small office with a few wooden desks that we were told by an embassy worker not to enter. This vase is on display in the hallway.
However, we got to check out the ladies’ bathroom, which was… surprisingly beautiful.
It almost looks like a spa.
Still and sparkling water from springs in Hildon, southern England, is prepared. Nobody drinks it. There are napkins in the colours of the Russian flag — white, blue, and red.
On display in front of the fireplace is a branded football on a pedestal, celebrating the fact that the 2018 World Cup is being held in Russia.
Here’s another room divider trying to look like a bookcase. We weren’t allowed past.
Now, for the final stop of the tour — the press conference room. It’s massive, and scattered with oil paintings, crystal chandeliers, and fine china.
Next to the ambassador’s podium is a TV screen with Tweetdeck, a Twitter dashboard, open. The columns show real-time updates from the Twitter accounts of the Russian embassy in the UK, ambassador, and foreign ministry.
At least four officials are in the room — some handling equipment, some guarding an entrance to a back room, and others just watching the ambassador’s speech. Some of them nod vigorously at his remarks during the conference. Here’s Ambassador Yakovenko.
At this point we’ve seen at least ten officials on the ground floor alone, either helping out with the press conference or guarding various entrances to other rooms. Despite the recent staff expulsions, everything still seemed to be business as normal.