Open letter to Sean Holden about the Assembly Hall

Opera or Oligarchs? 

My open letter to Cllr Sean Holden on the cancellation of Madam Butterfly at the Assembly Hall Theatre

March 3, 2022.

By Mark Ellis Cllr representing St.John’s Ward

Over the past week since Putin's invasion, I am sure like many, my thoughts and prayers have been with the people of Ukraine and the ever-worsening disaster facing the people.

Unfortunately, in Tunbridge Wells Borough Council, Sean Holden, a Conservative councillor for Cranbrook & Benenden, focused on cancelling a production of the Russian State Opera that was due at the Assembly Hall Theatre.

Immediately after the invasion Amande Concerts Limited issued a letter condemning the violence in Ukraine and confirming it had no links to the Russian state and is a UK company. Amande Concerts Limited also said it supports groups not just from Russia, but all over eastern Europe - including Ukraine. Once the invasion started it immediately removed the branding. I wanted to provide Assembly Hall theatre staff with the opportunity to research the Amande claims and to see if it would separate itself from the war and explore using the production as a fundraiser to help Ukrainian refugees. 

However, Cllr Holden, took it upon himself to - in the council and in the press - to have this production cancelled, before the staff had the opportunity to research this claim.

My issue is that as a Conservative councillor, he is supporting a party that has received significant sums from Russians who would be regarded by many as oligarchs - some of them have close links to Putin. 

So it is hypocritical to jump the gun on the opera singers - this group is from Siberia - without calling out people who make significant donations to the Conservative Party - for what I can only assume will be access to senior members of the UK government.

As the show has been cancelled (please click here for the announcement), I felt it important to make people aware of the background and publish my response to Cllr Holden.

Now that the opera is cancelled I challenge Cllr Holden to continue his crusade and prove he is not a hypocrite by writing letters to his own party headquarters and Conservative MPs who have received donations from oligarchs.

Finally, because my intention is to help people in need due to Putin’s war, if you wish to make a donation to the British Red Cross Ukrainian Refugee Appeal (Please Click Here)


Dear Sean,

As you know, I wished the now de-branded Russian State Opera controversy to be turned into an opportunity for the artists to show their support for Ukrainian refugees and use this as a kickstart for Tunbridge Wells's efforts to help others. 

I, therefore, regret the cancellation of this production.

I agree with you that we all should make a stand against Putin’s invasion of a European democratic state. At the same time, I just wish we were all able to see beyond a passport and provide an opportunity for artists to speak out against Putin’s war.

Again I agree with your earlier comment: “Of course putting pressure on the Kremlin criminals in every way is important but the biggest pressure that can be laid on them is to turn their population against them,” and this would have been an opportunity to demonstrate that resolve.

This could have become an opportunity to do some fundraising for refugees.

I am also very much aware that my friends in Poland are working tirelessly to get together lorries of food, clothing, shelter and medicine for the wider humanitarian disaster that is approaching Ukraine and wish Tunbridge Wells to do the same.

However, as you have already stated you are not virtue signalling in your work to cancel this production, I have to accept your comments at face value and therefore request your help.

As a member of the Conservative and Unionist Party, I expect you have better connections to your central party than I do.

I would be grateful if you could send a letter on behalf of the Conservative group to encourage your party and many of its MPs to return recent donations by Russians, a number of whom have gained British passports and could be regarded as oligarchs. 

To help, I have provided a couple of examples.

Lubov Chernukhin

Since Mr Johnson became party leader in 2019, its largest donor has been the wife of a Russian financier Lubov Chernukhin, who has given £700,000 to party funds. 

The background of this person is highlighted on the following links and especially concerning based on the allegations made here about the husband's close ties to Putin’s oligarch friends.

Here is a link to her donations to the party together with several donations to Brandon Lewis MP, from the electoral commission’s site             

(please click here).

Dmitry Leus

Although not as large a donor to the party there has been recent controversy over his donation to Dominic Raab’s campaign.

As you can see from the following Daily Mail link Prince Charles' charitable foundation rejected a donation from this man.

Here is a link to his donations to the party from the electoral commission's site. 

(please click here). 

Here is a link to Dominic Raab’s register of interests.

(Please click here

In addition, I'd be grateful if you could write to the Prime Minister to request the Queen removes Evgeny Lebedev from the House of Lords.

This was a political appointment by Boris Johnson in 2020 to a man who is the son of a former KGB officer who became a billionaire shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union.

Evgeny Lebedev owns the Evening Standard and a number of other media outlets so, in the light of your current efforts to cancel an opera, it may also be useful to request that sanctions should be applied to any former Russian citizens who have maintained non-domicile tax status after becoming British citizens.

I give Evgeny Lebedev some credit for the following article (please click here), however, but this is no different from the statement made by Amande concerts limited (see attached) who clarified and separated themselves from Putin’s war and therefore can be ignored for the same reason.

Finally I understand a number of Conservatives have decided to brand themselves as the “Conservative Friends of Russia” with events hosted by Daniel Kawczynski, Caroline Nokes, John Redwood and John Whittingdale I would also be grateful if you could ask questions of this group and their involvement in party funding. I understand that event attendees have included Carrie Johnson, the Conservative Party’s former head of communications and now the prime minister’s wife. (please click here)

I have only produced a few examples for you, however, I can produce more if you need help.

To end, as you felt it sufficiently important to approach local journalist Mary Harris (please click here) with your concerns over Amande concerts limited before the Assembly Hall Theatre staff had the opportunity to establish the facts, I have taken the opportunity to publish my response as an open letter in order for the public to further assist you in your efforts.

Kind regards

Mark Ellis

Liberal Democrat Cllr representing St. John’s Ward

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