Last week, following reports that MI6 tried to block his elevation to the peerage, Evgeny Lebedev took to the pages of the Evening Standard (which his family owns, along with The Independent) to defend himself. “I am not some agent of Russia,” he wrote. Being Russian “does not automatically make one an enemy of the state”. How did Lebedev come to own two British newspapers and how much influence does he actually have?
What first brought him to London?
Evgeny, 41, was born in Moscow but moved to London at the age of eight when his father, Alexander, was posted to the Soviet embassy in Kensington as a KGB officer. Lebedev Sr claimed his job was easy: all he had to do was read the British newspapers for signs that capitalism was failing. After the Soviet Union collapsed, he turned to investing in high-risk, high-return bonds. In 1995 he bought Russia’s National Reserve Bank, and started building up massive holdings in the state-run energy giant Gazprom. By 2005 he had made his first appearance on Forbes’ billionaires list, and by 2007 he was worth $3.7bn. So he went looking for something to occupy his eldest son – who, in Lebedev’s Sr’s own words, “liked frolicking in the south of France”.
What did he decide to do?
In 2009, Alexander bought 76% of the ailing Evening Standard, which was losing between £10m and £20m a year, for £1. “It didn’t seem like a very good investment strategy,” says Kremlin critic Bill Browder, “but it also mirrored the strategy of oligarchs in Russia.” You might not make a lot of money in news, but you could certainly buy influence. Evgeny, then 29, was put in charge. A year later, when his father bought The Independent, also for £1, Evgeny was handed the reins there too.
How did he get on?
Being a newspaper proprietor “wasn’t a natural fit” for private, sensitive Evgeny, says Paul Caruana-Galizia in the Tortoise podcast Lord of Siberia. So his father surrounded him with a full-time personal staff including “a social media person, a bodyguard, a fashion adviser, a social secretary, a media adviser, an editor, and a journalist”. These were “gruelling” jobs: phone calls at all hours, flights at short notice, “searching out people to attend his parties for those people to have their photos taken with him”.
What did he need his own “journalist” for?
To arrange interviews with notable people, to be conducted by Evgeny, and then to write them up and print them under the proprietor’s name. One person who did the job recalls arranging an interview with Bolivia’s then president Evo Morales, only to scrap it when Evgeny found out La Paz airport was at too high an altitude to land his private jet. On another occasion, an assistant arranged for Evgeny to visit a famous matador’s ranch in Spain for a bullfighting lesson. Evgeny never turned up, though an article about bullfighting did appear in The Independent under his byline, alongside a photo of him wearing a €4,000 bespoke traje de luces – the special kit worn by matadors.
How has he won over the British establishment?
By throwing celebrity-filled parties. At one event in 2006, thrown to raise money for sick children at the childhood home of Princess Diana, a guest remembers arriving on the dance floor to see, “dancing in a circle, Orlando Bloom, Mikhail Gorbachev and Salman Rushdie”. The party cost the Lebedevs £2m, half a million more than the event raised for the kids. At one of his notorious Christmas parties, says Freddie Gray in The Spectator, guests “guzzled down an estimated 14.5kg of caviar”. There are also raucous weekends away at the Lebedevs’ houses in Italy, Palazzo Terranova in Ronti and the Castello di Santa Eurasia in Umbria. The only time he tones down the extravagance, says Gray, “is when his father comes to stay”.
How does Boris Johnson fit in?
Comfortably, it seems. After his first meeting with Evgeny in 2010, when he was mayor of London, Johnson became a regular visitor to the Lebedev family castle in Umbria every October from 2012 to 2017, with return flights paid for by Evgeny. In December 2019, the day after Boris was elected prime minister, he went to one of the Lebedevs’ famous “vodka and caviar” parties at their £6m stuccoed mansion overlooking Regent’s Park, in honour of Alexander’s 60th birthday. A former media advisor to Evgeny remembers “an amazing density of famous people. It was crazy, bizarre. A lot of booze, drinking till dawn”. The politicians mostly left early. Tony Blair escaped through a back door before the official party started. Boris Johnson stayed up with the early morning crowd.
Why did MI6 try to veto his peerage?
The concern is more his father, and it’s shared by others in Europe. Italian intelligence, for example, are convinced Alexander Lebedev’s activities in Umbria are linked to “espionage and interference”, according to a book published last year by Italian financial journalist Jacopo Iacoboni. Oligarchi, How Putin’s Friends are Buying Italy cites an Italian intelligence report that casts doubt on whether Alexander ever fully severed ties with Russian intelligence. For what it’s worth, Evgeny denies his dad has bugged either of the Italian party houses, or that he uses wild weekends to gather kompromat on senior politicians.
So why was he made a peer?
It’s unclear. Neither Evgeny nor his father has officially donated to the Conservative party or to the PM. But one No 10 source says Boris started talking about it almost immediately after arriving in Downing Street. “He pathologically wanted to get this peerage over the line,” the source tells The Times. “It was ‘Lebedev needs a peerage, he needs a peerage’… it was immediate.” When the intelligence services pushed back, Boris accused them of “Russophobia” and went ahead anyway. The process wasn’t smooth – Lebedev wanted to be “Lord of Moscow”, but the Kremlin refused. In the end, Evgeny had to become Lord Lebedev of Hampton in the London Borough of Richmond upon Thames and of Siberia in the Russian Federation.
How much influence does he actually have?
Not much, says Daniel Finkelstein in The Times. If the oligarchs really have been trying to “subvert this country on behalf of Putin” by buying up our institutions and politicians, they haven’t done a very good job of it. Ukrainian resistance fighters are apt to shout “God save the Queen” when firing anti-tank missiles at the advancing Russian army, because the weapons they were made in the United Kingdom. We’ve actually been arming the Ukrainians against the Russians since 2015 – hardly a triumph for all the supposed oligarchic subterfuge. There’s a bigger problem, though, says Emma Duncan in the same paper: we will never know how much of the oligarch money now “sloshing around our financial system is illegally or immorally acquired” – and it’s hard to lecture kleptocrats when we’re “providing the nest they’re feathering”.