The Press Baron and His Son

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At the heart of Alexander Lebedev is an enigma and a paradox. On the surface he is the wealthy, brash oligarch, and yet he dresses very casually, is quite reticent and even shy. In the final instalment of our special profile, I explore the complex personality of Russian’s press baron and his flamboyant son Evgeny Lebedev.

In the Spring of 2009, Alexander Lebedev claimed that he was the victim of a mercury poisoning. In a little-noticed interview, the former KGB spy mentioned – almost casually - that he was being treated for mercury poisoning. Medical tests revealed a mysterious spike in his blood mercury levels of 14 times the normal limit. His Belgian endocrinologist warned him that it may well be high enough to enter his nervous system, then his brain, and begin to kill off his memory.

But Lebedev was remarkably sanguine about his impending demise. “Though if I wake up tomorrow morning and cannot remember Putin, that would be nice,” he said smiling.

 Russia’s most famous press tycoon is still alive and the poisoning plot remains a mystery, but the incident is indicative of his enigmatic personality. People who have met Lebedev find him difficult to read personally as well as politically. He can be, simultaneously, the oligarch and the anti-oligarch — the powerful banking magnate whose estimated wealth prior to the financial crisis was $3.7 billion who also criticises the system that produced his wealth. He lives among the rich while lambasting those, like Roman Abramovich, who indulge in extravagant conspicuous consumption. At different times he alternately angers, inspires and mystifies the Kremlin, democratic activists and Western allies alike. Nobody really knows whether he is pro or anti-Putin.

Despite being a billionaire, Lebedev’s dress sense is odd for a middle-aged man – skinny blue jeans, black tailcoat and designer plimsolls without laces. With his cropped white hair, he looks more like a sports star than a glitzy oligarch. Only his enormous Panerai watch flashes his wealth. “He looks more like a successful nightclub owner than a newspaper proprietor”, said one observer. “He is part 19th-century landowner, part member of ‘Take That’”, said the Guardian’s fashion editor.

These contradictions arise from his conscious effort to distance himself from the more rapacious oligarchs like Berezovsky and Abramovich. He portrays his wealth as a means to fund social projects and he regards himself as a man of intelligence and good taste, rather than a hedonist. His hobbies are tennis, fishing, scuba diving, Russian literature and politics rather than jet-skiing in St. Barts or partying in St. Tropez

When asked about the other oligarchs, Lebedev commented: “We all come from different backgrounds. I am more keen on reading books, writing and travelling. I am not into yachts. I get sick on a boat. If I started buying luxurious planes and yachts I would feel ridiculous. I don't like birthday parties, I get bored. I do not know what to say. Sometimes I do not go and send a present later”. Instead, he will stay home and read classical literature. He once made the rather staggering claim that he has “read almost everything that is worth reading in literature”.

Lebedev’s intellectual pursuits was reflected in the choice of his first wife, Natalia Vladimirovna Sokolova, the scientist daughter of Vladimir Sokolov, an eminent biologist. On 8 May 1980, the couple had a son, Evgeny, while Alexander was an economics student. In their early years they lived in central Moscow, near the Kremlin, and Sokolov would take the family on all his research expeditions, mostly to Soviet bloc countries, but also to Bolivia and Vietnam.

Alexander and Natalia Lebedev separated in 1998. But it was not until 2003 that Lebedev, then 43, first met his current partner, Elena Perminova, when she was 16. She is currently a model and an economics student at Moscow State University, but when they met she was a drug dealer in a nightclub. At that time Perminova had got into trouble with the police and wrote to Lebedev for assistance because at the time he was a Duma member and campaigning for a witness protection programme for people who help the authorities.

“Elena was in love with an older man, who used her to push ecstasy tablets”, recalled Lebedev “She tried to say it was wrong. She was arrested and convinced by the police to co-operate in a sting on another much bigger drug dealer. She was wired up, involved in a very dangerous car chase, and then still ended up in court, alongside this drug dealer, who was threatening to kill her. There is no plea bargain in Russian law, or witness protection. She was going to go to prison for six years, despite helping the police, and her life was in danger. I was campaigning for this law to be instated in Russia at the time. Elena's father heard me on the radio and wrote to me. I contacted him, and then met Elena”.

It was another three years before the couple started a relationship when she was 19, and not until last year that Elena gave birth to Lebedev’s second son, Nikita.

Today Lebedev divides his time between Russia and the UK. His main residence is in the Moscow suburb of Rublyovka where most of Russia’s power elites have their dachas. “It’s where Putin lives, too", he remarked.

“I hate it, but I’m there”. The house, which was once occupied by Lenin's widow, includes an underground pool with a cherub-laden fresco on the ceiling, Italian marble floors and a huge ovoid window onto a grand staircase. The interiors are typical of classical Italian architecture. Outside, at least four bodyguards are always milling around in the driveway alongside a black BMW with tinted windows.

At 8.30 am Lebedev is driven into his Moscow office. “It’s only 25 kilometres but it can take two hours, there’s so much traffic”, he said. “I keep a swimming pool and gym there”. The second central Moscow property on Ladozhskaya Street, which acts as an office and town house, is a stately pink building where he sometimes works and sleeps. Despite having a swimming pool and gym, the apartment was described by one guest as “relatively modest”.

In April 2007 Lebedev embedded his UK links by buying Stud House in Hampton Court Park, Richmond, where Lord Byron used to live. The property is so large that it is marked on the London A-Z and used to be owned by a Greek businessman called Antony Georgiadis. Lebedev paid £12,250,000 for the mansion, using the Bahamas company Ardin Investments Ltd.

Until recently Lebedev and his partner were having the property renovated. They visit London twice a month for four or five days each time, staying in a hotel near St James's Park while renovations on Stud House are under way.

Lebedev also owns a French Chateau near Paris which he bought around 2003 for €2.5 million and a 13th-century castle in Umbria, Italy, which he is restoring as a boutique hotel and a cultural centre.

The press baron's eldest son, Evgeny Alexandrovich, 30, is even more part of the Londongrad scene than his father. Between the age of 8 and 12, he lived with his parents in London and attended a Church of England primary school in Kensington which was forbidden by the then Soviet authorities. He later returned to Britain to attend boarding school at Mill Hill in London and lived here ever since. He then obtained an art history degree. 

An energetic socialite, Evgeny rents a flat in Cadogan Square, Belgravia, and makes use of a rented house at Gerald Road, Belgravia, once the home of Noel Coward. Both are currently owned by property companies. 

If Sir Elton John or Donatella Versace is hosting a show or Robert Hanson is going with friends to Aspen, the chances are Eevgeny will be attending. “I love going out with him because tables get cleared, doors open and everyone knows him”, said Russian socialite Assia Webster. “But it can be exhausting - Evgeny does five or six places a night.” In 2009 Evgeny Lebedev was listed in Tatler's Little Black Book at no.3 on the men’s list after Sam Branson and Russell Brand. Tatler commented that Lebedev ‘entertains in a fabulous blacked-out flat in Belgravia ’.

In 2007 Evgeny’s social profile was raised when the Financial Times listed his designer clothes and accessories and thereby promoting his business ventures. He also began dating former Spice Girl Geri Halliwell who he met through Roman Abramovich. They made their first public appearance together at The Serpentine Gallery summer party and that August Evgeny organised a surprise 35th birthday for Halliwell in St Tropez. But Halliwell ended the relationship just three months later. “Evgeny is back in Russia”, said a friend. “He is gutted. He fell for Geri and wanted something serious.”

On 14 November 2007, Evgeny hosted a launch party for his new restaurant Sake No Hana in St James's (run by Wagamama founder Alan Yau) and it has been his best-known business venture. The following year Evgeny began dating the actress Joely Richardson who attended an exhibition at the National Theatre sponsored by Evgeny with her sister Natasha and her mother Vanessa Redgrave. The exhibition was in homage to the Russian theatre director Konstantin Stanislavski

Officially, Evgeny's business interests are in the restaurant, hotel, publishing, film and fashion industries. He has raised millions of pounds as Chairman of The Raisa Gorbachev Foundation. He has owned the Palazzo Terranova Hotel in Italy since 2006, and invested in The Silver Room, bar at Hush, a restaurant in the heart of Mayfair.

While Evgeny is often referred to as a playboy, Alexander is an unassuming character who rarely displays any of the brusqueness or coolness usually associated with Russians. Instead he is polite, quietly-spoken, even shy. “He's incredibly reserved”, said one acquaintance. “Yes, he has some extravagant tastes - a vast wardrobe of designer clothes, and some amazing but very discreet jewellery. But he's very quiet, diffident, very caring. Very intelligent. Actually quite shy, a bit of a dandy, but a very nice chap”.

While Evgeny shows no signs of following his father's business career, he remains full of contradictions. On the surface, he is a flamboyant socialite dressed in exotic couture and designer outfits and partying late into the night and yet at the same time maintaining a remarkably diffident and introverted manner. Like his father, he is a difficult man to read. The Lebedevs are an enigma. Just like Russia really.

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