Door after door in Britain has been opened for Evgeny Lebedev, all the way to the House of Lords. Who has opened them, and why?
Why this story?
Warnings about the flood of Russian money into London have been ringing in our ears for years but too often they’ve been written off as scaremongering. What if all that cash managed to bend British democracy to its will? What if we got so dependent on the money that it became difficult to stand up to Russian aggression? The majority view of both risks was that they were shroud-waving – until this week, of course, when the second of them was made dramatically real.
But it was the first question which prompted our investigation this week. In theory, it’s not possible to barter your way to a seat in the upper house of Britain’s parliament. In practice, things are a little more complicated. As we found when we followed the long journey of Evgeny Lebedev from Russian-born son of a KGB agent to a seat in the upper house of Britain’s parliament.
After a party to launch him into British society in 2006, the 14 years it took Evgeny to become first a British citizen and then Lord Lebedev were sprinkled with moments of high farce and happy accidents, but they also included more traditional strategic moves by a man seeking influence; he didn’t make political donations but he did buy newspapers, the Evening Standard and the Independent.
So it was the porousness of British democracy we set out to investigate when Paul Caruana Galizia started to make inquiries about exactly how Evgeny Lebedev had become a peer of the realm. But then Londongrad entered the frame via Ukraine and our initial questions became more urgent.
It’s a story, in part, about the easy seduction of the British establishment by huge wealth. Along the way it reveals a gap in accountability which allows too much to happen out of sight. The House of Lords Appointment Commission which reviewed the offer of a peerage to Evgeny Lebedev took advice from the intelligence services and advised Boris Johnson not to proceed. The prime minister ignored the Commission’s advice, and neither parliament nor the Cabinet Office is willing to publish it. With a seat in parliament at stake, that surely cannot be right. Ceri Thomas, Editor
Speaker: … to all Lords, spiritual and temporal and all other our subjects whatsoever to whom these present shall come greeting.
Paul Caruana-Galizia, narrating: A man with piercing eyes, a thick black beard, dressed in a crimson velvet robe trimmed with white fur, is surrounded by the great, the good and the ridiculously rich.
Evgeny Lebedev: I, Evgeny, Lord Lebedev, do solemnly, sincerely, and truly declare and affirm that I’ll be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, her heirs and successors according to law.
Paul Caruana-Galizia, narrating: Standing tall that day in the ornate, gilded chamber of the House of Lords, the man posed for a photo and uploaded it to Instagram. He captioned it: “Muzhik” – or Russian peasant – “among the noblemen”, and he added emojis of a bear and a crown.
The man entered the building as “Mr Evgeny Lebedev”. He left, as:
Speaker: Baron Lebedev, of Hampton in the London Borough of Richmond-upon-Thames and of Siberia in the Russian Federation.
Paul Caruana-Galizia, narrating: This wasn’t a sitcom, or a satire. It was just one of those things in Britain.
It was an embarrassment, really: one person’s bizarre elevation, the story of Britain’s craven welcome to Russian money. And how easy it is for someone with a cheque book to unlock the British establishment.
Dominic Grieve: We noted that it was a number of members of the House of Lords that had business links, interests to Russia, all worked directly for major Russian companies linked to the Russian state and that these relationships in our view needed to be very carefully scrutinised, given the potential for the Russian state to exploit them.
Paul Caruana-Galizia, narrating: As one Lord involved in official intelligence told me: “Peers weren’t at all happy, I think you’ll find, with Mr Lebedev’s arrival.”
I’m Paul Caruana Galizia, a reporter at Tortoise, and you’re listening to the Slow Newscast.
A few months ago, I set out to try and find how this could possibly have happened.
The Lord of Siberia. The son of a KGB agent owning the biggest circulation newspaper in the capital and a seat in the upper house of parliament by the age of 41.
The mystery, to me, was as much Britain as Evgeny Lebedev.
How did he do it?
And I’d love to tell you that I started out thinking this investigation would be timely; but, the truth is, while I was trying to get the House of Lords to release the warnings it got about Evgeny, Vladimir Putin started amassing troops on the border of Ukraine.
Londongrad – the shorthand for London’s eager welcome to Russian oligarchs linked to Putin – has become a big problem to Britain and Boris Johnson.
Evgeny’s bizarre rise has turned into the coincidence of two embarrassments in Britain, the crumbling credibility of the House of Lords and the no-questions-asked welcome to the oligarchs.
I’ve seen in my own country, Malta, how large flows of money can creep into a system, then – almost imperceptibly – take complete hold of it. Donations to political parties become a means to capture them; titles and honours – tools of patronage; and newspapers a canvas for the private over the public interest.
There’s a playbook there for anyone who wants to use it.
Evgeny Lebedev’s glittering ascent started in a different way. With a party.
Aatish Taseer: I remember probably doing MDMA and it was surreal because there was this kind of fetishising of the Cold War.
Paul Caruana-Galizia, narrating: It’s May 2006, Evgeny is 26, living in London, the son of a Russian oligarch, with a reputation for partying and little else.
But there are plans for him.
His PR agent takes him to see a man called Geordie Greig, the editor of Tatler, a glossy magazine that covers Britain’s high society.
Aatish Taseer: You know, Bufty and Toffee and Bucky, you know, the kind of, almost like a parody of English, upper class life.
Paul Caruana-Galizia, narrating: She tells Geordie that Evgeny is launching a charity with a Russian called Michael “Goo-ba-cheff”, at Althorp House, Princess Diana’s childhood home. And asks him if he would like to cover it in the magazine.
Do you mean, Geordie asked her, “Gorbachev, the Man Who Changed The World”?
She looks blank.
But Evgeny was pleased that Geordie got it.
In fact, Geordie got it so much that he offered to co-host the party.
Aatish Taseer: It was one of the greatest parties I’ve ever been to, and it felt like the kind of party one might throw if the world was about to end because the scale of it and the drama of it, and the kind of theatre of it.
Paul Caruana-Galizia, narrating: This is Aatish Taseer, a writer whose books range from Islam and identity to his relationship with his father, an assassinated governor of Punjab.
Aatish now lives with his husband in New York, but around the time of the party to end all parties, his life was a little different.
Aatish Taseer: I was dating a girl though I was aware that my sexuality was more complicated than that. And the girl was, you know, of a very grand English family, a minor member of the English Royal family, her name was Ella Windsor. And her parents were prince and princess Michael of Kent.
And through her, I suppose the world of a kind of aristocratic social London opened up to me and along with that, I suppose was also, because London being London, there was this sort of international element too, there were, you know, people who were not necessarily part of this very cosseted, English aristocratic world, where everyone’s parents knew each other, but they were kind of glamorous foreigners.
Paul Caruana-Galizia, narrating: Evgeny, young, wealthy, and Russian, was one of them. He came up with the theme: ‘A Midsummer Russian Fantasy’. And the dresscode: White Tie. The date: the 10th of June 2006.
Aatish Taseer: It was one of those endless summer evenings, you know, one of those days when, like the light just doesn’t seem to, won’t seem to really kind of fade at all.
We drove up from London with a kind of English social figure called Nikki Haslam drinking like Rosé on the way and arrived in this extraordinary house, which I was very much aware of as being Diana’s house. And there were, I feel like, I want to say, like there were contortionists hanging from the trees and acrobats and like a kind of Russian circus atmosphere.
There was this sense of kind of, on one hand, almost a commodification of Cold War nostalgia. There was the world of like the czars, Russian circuses, like that kind of splendour. And then there was this funny feeling of almost like a millenarian atmosphere that, you know, It was tonight or, or never, like kind of as if the Berlin Wall has just come down or something. And I walked onto the dance floor, like probably, in a fairly heightened state and I see, dancing in a circle, Orlando Bloom, Mikhail Gorbachev and Salman Rushdie. Like this has got to be the most fucking surreal thing I’ve ever seen in my life.
Paul Caruana-Galizia, narrating: The Russian Fantasy party cost £2 million.The amount it raised for charity? Half a million pounds less than that.
Listening to Aatish describe the event, I imagine it like a scene from a Scott Fitzgerald novel. And over the years Evgeny has certainly cultivated a Gatsby-esque image. An elusive, private figure. And on this night in 2006 Evegeny was very much in the background.
Paul Caruana-Galizia: Aatish when you look back on the party, did it feel like maybe a debutante ball is the right way to frame it? That it was kind of Evgeny’s debut? Or was he not very present?
Aatish Taseer: I feel he was not very present at that point. So I do remember him later, he had this very striking face, almost like one of the paintings of the Russian painter Ilya Repin, you know like fairly piercing eyes. But at the time when this big party happened… I think I was more aware of his father than I was of him.
Paul Caruana-Galizia, narrating: The father’s name was Alexander Yevgenievich Lebedev.
Alexander Yevgenievich Lebedev: So let me first introduce myself. I’m a former, but that’s been 26 years, officer of Soviet foreign intelligence, which is public knowledge and I’ve been since ‘92 a banker, and still am but I’ve got the most reliable bank in the country but with no business because a few years ago the bank came under attack as a payback for my investigations regarding the Russian fraudulent bankers of which a few hundred are living comfortably in London.
Paul Caruana-Galizia, narrating: So goes his origin story. In the best tradition of Russian intelligence officers, it makes some commitment to the truth. Some of it is false, some true, much is elided.
The KGB sent Alexander, in 1988, to the Soviet Embassy in London, on a street now known as “Billionaires Row”, in the shadow of Kensington Palace. He said all he had to do was read the newspapers for signs that capitalism was failing. But as one former MI6 officer told me, KGB officers weren’t posted to London just to read the papers.
Here’s what Alexander really did: monitor arms control negotiations, trade talks, Nato – and British politicians. It was also during this period that Alexander befriended Gorbachev.
Outside the office, he drove Russia’s new rich – born of Gorbachev’s market reforms – around in his little Ford car. Some even stayed at his house.
[Clip of Gobachev speaking in Russia]
Paul Caruana-Galizia, narrating: Seeing them spend money in clubs and restaurants was, he said, an “eye opener.” And it rubbed off on him. So much so that he began registering businesses in the UK while still an agent in 1992.
Around the same time, he came under investigation by the counter-intelligence division of the FSB, the KGB’s successor agency – he says because of “unfounded suspicions” of an affair with the wife of a senior diplomat.
But I’ve been told that the businesses he opened were in violation of diplomatic rules. And that this is why he returned to Moscow where he made his millions (and then billions).
He made his first real money trading high-risk, high-yield South American and African bonds and then bought a small, struggling bank through what he’s described as an “open tender.”
It was 1995.
A few months later, the man who’d go on to become the largest foreign investor in Russia, landed in Moscow
Bill Browder: I’m Bill Browder, the CEO of Hermitage Capital Management, I’m also head of the Magnitsky Global Justice Campaign. I come from an unusual family background, my grandfather was the general secretary of the American communist party and so during my teenage rebellion, I decided to become a capitalist. And I had this epiphany one day that if my grandfather was the biggest communist in America, I’m going to try to become the biggest capitalist in Eastern Europe.
Paul Caruana-Galizia, narrating: Bill met Alexander through a shared interest, one of the world’s largest gas companies, and then most corrupt, used largely to enrich the country’s feasting oligarchs. Let’s take a moment to talk about Gazprom.
Bill Browder: So Gazprom was a company that traded at a 99.7 per cent discount to bp and Exxon per barrel of hydrocarbon reserves. The reason it traded at such a discount was because everybody assumed that every last cubic metre of gas was stolen from the company. And as we started to investigate, we discovered that massive gas fields had been transferred off the company’s balance sheets for almost no money. Gazprom should be one of the most profitable companies in the world and effectively it’s a nonprofit company because all the money was being stolen by the insiders, and there’s so much money being stolen.
Paul Caruana-Galizia, narrating: Gazprom is important. So important, a director of a Gazprom subsidiary wrote a song about it.
[Clip: singing in Russian]
Paul Caruana-Galizia, narrating: “Don’t bother trying, you’ll never find a friend surer than Gazprom. We’re giving people warmth and light for office and for home… So let’s drink to you, let’s drink to us, let’s drink to all the Russian Gas”.
Gazprom’s still the world’s largest gas producer – and it’s controlled by the Kremlin, which uses it to further its international interests. It’s the reason Alexander Lebedev is an oligarch.
Bill Browder: Alexander Lebedev at the time was the owner of a mid-sized bank called National Reserve Bank and as far as I could tell, the main asset of the bank was a large shareholding of Gazprom. And so every year before the annual general meeting of Gazprom, we would go to him and ask him if he would vote his shares for our candidate for the board of Gazprom on the anti-corruption ticket.
And every year we had varied sort of, I would call, engaged conversations with him and I believe that in some years he actually voted with us and some years he didn’t and so we got to know him through that, which was kind of interesting because most people wouldn’t want to vote with us but in that particular moment he did.
Paul Caruana-Galizia: So he was on the good side?
Bill Browder: Well he was certainly flirting with the good side, being on the good side. I mean, so how did he end up owning this bank…
Paul Caruana-Galizia: Yes.
Bill Browder: …and ending up with all this Gazprom I don’t know. I can’t imagine that it was through graft and hard work but you know, maybe it was who knows maybe a minimum wage, or through crafty investments. But he ended up owning a lot of Gazprom you know.
Paul Caruana-Galizia: How much are we talking?
Bill Browder: Hundreds of millions of dollars, maybe even more, maybe a billion dollars of Gazprom.
Paul Caruana-Galizia, narrating: The National Reserve Bank became one of Russia’s biggest within just two years of Alexander running it.
He’s denied that growth is down to his FSB links. He’s suggested, instead, that it’s because he’s “a financial Mozart.”
Which I find interesting because at least three former KGB officers who were stationed in London – two when Alexander was there – occupied very senior positions at the bank. Two were chairmen.
And at some point, Alexander even tried buying a statue of Felix Dzerzhinsky, the founder of the KGB, to sit in the entrance of his ragingly successful bank.
By 2006, the year of the Russian fantasy ball at Diana’s childhood home, Alexander made the Forbes billionaires list – his estimated $3.5 billion-fortune mostly tied up in Gazprom.
But surviving as an oligarch requires more than enormous wealth.
Bill Browder: There’s no such thing as being independently wealthy in Russia, every oligarch can be destroyed in a fraction of a second, by an administrative decision by Vladimir Putin, they can either have their wealth taken away, their freedom taken away, or their life taken away. And so it’s a very complex game to be an oligarch. I don’t think it’s nearly as simple as we sort of paint it in the west. I mean, all of them are sort of trying, trying different strategies to keep some wealth. They have to share some wealth, trying to stay out of jail, trying to stay at the head of the head of their enemies.
Paul Caruana-Galizia, narrating: Alexander, his former employee told me, “was always playing multiple chess games.” He tried to walk a tight rope – loyalty to Putin on one hand and a pro-Western image as a form of protection on the other.
Bill Browder: So oligarchs in Russia… people who owned banks, people who owned oil companies, people who owned, other things would buy newspapers and TV stations not because they made money but to buy them to gain political influence.
Paul Caruana-Galizia, narrating: But, one day in 2008, that tight rope snapped.
Alexander’s Russian tabloid reported allegations that Putin had divorced his wife and was preparing to marry a Russian gymnast and model less than half his age.
The tabloid was shut down within a week. Under siege in Russia, Alexander turned to London to diversify his risk.
Not long after, Alexander and Evgeny are at a table in one of London’s most plush hotels, the Connaught in Mayfair. They’re discussing something called “Project Venus”.
There are two other men at the table with them: One is Jonathan Harmsworth, or Lord Rothermere, the newspaper baron. The other is Geordie Greig, close friend of Evegeny AND the editor of Tatler, which had just voted Evgeny Britain’s “third most eligible bachelor”.
(If you’re wondering who he lost out to, it was Russell Brand and Sam Branson, Richard’s son).
The Evening Standard, London’s paper, one Alexander used to read as a KGB officer, was losing between £10 million and £20 million a year – and Lord Rothermere was looking to offload it to the Lebedevs.
The negotiations were done in secret, in ups and downs, delays and bursts, over months, just as the financial crisis was ripping through the world’s economy.
Over 2008 alone, Gazprom’s share price had collapsed by about 76 per cent – and Alexander’s wealth fell with it.
As Bill Browder told me, being an oligarch isn’t just about wealth.
Bill Browder: Well, it didn’t seem like a very good investment strategy but these British newspapers were losing money, hand over fist but it also mirrored the strategy of oligarchs in Russia. And so this looked like an interesting strategy for him to be gaining political influence here in the UK.
Paul Caruana-Galizia, narrating: Alexander sold a jet, sold 11 hectares in Umbria, and then managed to buy 76 per cent of the paper from Lord Rothermere for a single pound – and a commitment to invest £25 million.
Russia Today archive: £1 sold. That’s the amount rumoured to be behind the nominal sum announced in the official statement. More than six months in negotiations and Alexander Lebedev is now the first Russian to own a leading UK newspaper.
Paul Caruana-Galizia, narrating: Project Venus was complete.
Geordie, for his service to Father and Son, was given five per cent of the Evening Standard and its editorship, the first of his big newspaper jobs.
When Alexander was asked whether Evgeny would be the paper’s publisher, as was suspected, he said: “I will wait and see. He has changed a lot in the past four to five years when he liked frolicking in the south of France.”
Evgeny didn’t have to wait very long.
Just shy of 30, he was put in charge of the Standard and, when a year later Alexander used the same Project Venus model to buy the Independent, for £1 with a commitment to invest £9.25 million, he put Evgeny in charge of that, too.
Evegeny Lebedev: Ladies and Gentleman, press freedom is a universal ideal but its currency differs around the world, in Russia people die for it. So it’s not something we take lightly.
Paul Caruana-Galizia, narrating: Evegeny, no longer a party boy, was now a serious person. It was a new guise for him and he needed a little practice.
Stewart Peace: And so my role with Evegeny was to rediscover a new language so that he could actually create the role that was being demanded of him but also that he was aligning himself with and approaching it from a very neo paradigm as far as he was concerned so that he could be there in his own conviction doing his own thing, but not feeling challenged by the patriarchy .
Paul Caruana-Galizia, narrating: This is Stewart Peace, he’s a Master of Voice, so called because he helps leaders like Margaret Thatcher, Benizer Bhutto and Evgeny Lebedev, find their voice on the stage.
Stewart Peace: But I believe at that time he was beginning to awaken to another level of creative excellence. And a tremendous amount was being demanded of him, he’d just taken over the newspaper, he was wanting to shift the countenance of the Evening Standard but at the same time Evegeny is an extraordinarily private man, immensely sensitive. You know, he has a level of set up a pedigree of sensitivity, which is really refined. And so being in the public domain is not an easy position for him. At least it was at that time.
Paul Caruana-Galizia, narrating: Being a public person wasn’t a natural fit for Evgeny. Neither was running a newspaper. And so his father surrounded him with a close group of advisors.
Soon his private office grew to a staff composed of:
a social media person;
a fashion adviser;
a social secretary;
a media advisor;
and a journalist.
The job, for his closest aides and editors, could be grueling: late night calls, sudden flights, unceasing requests for this or that, searching out people to attend his parties for those people to have their photos taken with him.
But the rewards for sticking it out could be substantial.
Amol Rajan advised Evgeny for 18 months before Evgeny made him the editor of the Independent at 29.
Geordie went on to edit Lord Rothermere’s Mail on Sunday, then the Daily Mail.
His successor at the Standard, Sarah Sands, went to the BBC’s flagship Today programme.
She was succeeded by George Osborne, who was David Cameron’s chancellor, and he was then succeeded by Emily Sheffield, Cameron’s sister-in-law.
While she was at the Standard, Sarah Sands would ask then foreign secretary William Hague to meet Evgeny for lunch. William Hague was advised that it would be a waste of his time.
Evgeny may not have been “desperately serious,” one of his former staffers told me.
But being part of the inner circle sounded like a lot of fun.
“We had to pitch ideas to Evgeny,” he told me. “We discussed him adopting an image of an oligarch-meets-Hunter S Thompson. Or him going on Strictly Come Dancing.”
The job of the journalist was usually to arrange interviews to be done by Evgeny, and then write up the interview.
One person who occupied that role recalls arranging an interview with Evo Morales, then Bolivia’s president, but having to scrap it when Evgeny realised that La Paz airport was at too high an altitude for his private jet to land.
For the past three months, I have heard very different things about Evgeny. Some say he’s serious, others frivolous. Some say clever, others not so much. Stylish and vulgar; melancholy and a party boy.
In many ways, Evgeny’s a cipher.
The closest I’ve come to understanding him is by talking to this man.
Alexander Fiske-Harrison: I found no substance to his interest beyond the interest of a collector of… I could phrase it in such a Baroque phrasing, a keeper of menageries, a collector of baubles.
Paul Caruana-Galizia, narrating: This is Alexander Fiske-Harrison, an Old Etonian, who wrote a book called “Into the Arena” about bullfighting.
Alexander Fiske-Harrison: Since Into the Arena came out… people have approached me. And they’ve approached me to learn more about the subject usually, and people will ask me if I’m in Seville, which is where I usually go… will I escort them to a bullfight and if they’re individuals of high net worth their staff will reach out to me and a fee will be agreed.
Paul Caruana-Galizia, narrating: Which is how he wound up getting a call from Evegeny’s assistant asking to come meet Evegny at his London home.
Alexander Fiske-Harrison: And you walk into a room where, you know, filled with books, but the books aren’t read sort of thing… you start to see there’s an appearance reality disjunction going on here that sets off a couple of alarm bells in the back of your head.
Paul Caruana-Galizia, narrating: Which is why I’m taking a meander, off-piste, to tell you this ridiculous story because it tells you about a man who likes to collect experiences and takes shortcuts to get them.
Alexander Fiske-Harrison: I had brought with me the Cape and the Muletta to give him an idea of how, how difficult it is, bullfighting. Everyone just thinks these guys just wave this thing, if you just wave it the bulls going to take you it that’s it you’re gone a shark in the water and he didn’t sound too interested in that so I was trying to convey to him, I think I cited the case of Antonio Bienvenida who is the most famous Matador at the 1970s, he was killed by one of these small cows… on his own ranch and Evegeny was already talking about, yes, I want to get in the ring with, with these animals. He wasn’t, I don’t think he even understood the difference between a small one and a big one. And I was like, yeah, even serious Matadors get killed by small cows and he did start to listen a little bit more then, but that was a dilettantism in the air shall we say.
Paul Caruana-Galizia, narrating: After a few hours of Alexander Fiske-Hamilton detailing how time consuming, dangerous and difficult learning to be a matador was, he left Evegeny’s home and waited for the call.
Alexander Fiske-Harrison: And I was told your services won’t be needed.
Paul Caruana-Galizia, narrating: And then a few weeks later, independently of Fiske-Harrison, the assistant arranged for Evegeny to visit a famous Matador’s bull ranch in Povedilla, a 4-hour drive east of Seville, for a bullfighting lesson.
Alexander Fiske-Harrison: The photographer who’s a very dear friend sent me a text message saying we’re all out here waiting for your Russian friends who arrive. He hasn’t arrived, why don’t you come in his place?
Paul Caruana-Galizia, narrating: Evegeny sent his young assistant instead.
Alexander Fiske-Harrison: In the end she got in the ring, the assistant got in the ring. Evegeny never showed up and then they all drove to Seville, I think Evegeny took a private jet into Seville, and joined us at dinner, along with the bull breeder and various other entourage members of Lord Lebedev.
Paul Caruana-Galizia, narrating: Part of that entourage was a journalist who wrote an article on bullfighting that would appear under Evegeny’s byline in the Independent. The photo spread accompanying the article Evegeny claimed to have written featured him in a matador’s costume – the traje de luces, or the suit of lights – created just for him just for this article.
Alexander Fiske-Harrison: They’re a remarkable piece of kit, a Matador’s suit of light, and they have to fit exactly. It’s a very special and very expensive item.
Paul Caruana-Galizia: So, I mean, so when you saw this photo, what did you think given everything? Well, I mean, what was your reaction to it as someone who has fought bulls and knows the significance?
Alexander Fiske-Harrison: Am I allowed to swear? The fucking hubris of it. You can’t do that. It’s like turning up to Afghanistan… you know it would be like turning up there, wearing the uniform of a four-star general and including that as your photo byline on your article, I mean, it breaks every notion of, this is not a phrase often said, but journalistic honour.
[Phone call with Pedro Algaba in Spanish]
Paul Caruana-Galizia, narrating: We wondered who’d hand-made it for Evegeny, and so we called Pedro Algaba, perhaps the best matador’s tailor in the world, and showed him the photo to see if he recognised it.
Algaba told us he is almost certain the suit is one of his – because of the shoulder pads and the tassels hanging off them. He said it would have been priced at €4,000.
Devoid from its tradition and culture the outfit is merely, a bauble.
But behind the pomp, there was, as always, real power. And real influence. Evegeny resussicated the Evening Standard’s theatre awards, making them a big black tie gala, joining forces with Anna Wintour, inviting people like David Beckham, Naomi Campbell, and Elton John, who was by then a Lebedev family friend.
Elton John: I thought it would be great to shave the beard of my dear friend Evegeny Lebedev.
Evegeny Lebedev: Hello my name is Evegeny Lebedev and my darling friend Sir Elton John is about to take my beard off for Comic Relief and I’m absolutely terrified what I’ll look like underneath.
Elton John: So we’re going to start the process and denude Mr Lebedev of his facial monstrosity.
[Noise of razor]
Elton John: It’s on.
Evegeny Lebedev: Oh dear.
Paul Caruana-Galizia, narrating: But behind the scenes it was still his father who controlled the purse strings, who still towered over him, who was the real draw.
He invited him to speak at a Gorbachev charity gala dinner, providing him with a car and chauffeur.
But it was Evgeny who moved the relationship along. As he once said, “it’s unreasonable to expect individuals to spend millions of pounds on newspapers and not have access to politicians”.
Boris Johnson’s register of interests as Mayor dates the relationship back to 2010, when they lunched at Magdalen on Tooley Street, London, under the crystal chandeliers of its maroon dining room. The restaurant, now closed, was described by food critic Jay Rayner as having “the scent of the farmyard hanging sweetly in the air”. Meaty.
Boris wrote to Evgeny afterwards that it was an “excellent lunch” and that he enjoyed discussing Evgeny’s proposal for a Russian Arts Festival.
The lunches continued.
The friendship grew.
By 2012, Evgeny and Boris Johnson were so close they slept on the streets of London together, sharing a bottle of whiskey, to raise money for an Evening Standard anti-homelessness campaign.
Boris Johnson: Well this is the city that never sleeps it’s unbelievable.
Evgeny Lebedev: London, the city that never sleeps.
Boris Johnson: It really doesn’t.
Evgeny Lebedev: We’ve been told this evening that it takes seven days on average for people sleeping on the streets to start having mental problems, and you can see why, you really can.
Paul Caruana-Galizia, narrating: It was in that same year, 2012, a few days before Boris was up for re-election as London Mayor, that the Evening Standard ran this front page:
“BORIS JOHNSON – THE RIGHT CHOICE FOR LONDON”.
[Clip of Boris Johnson being announced as London mayor.]
Paul Caruana-Galizia, narrating: Then the trips to Italy began.
The first was to Palazzo Terranova, a 17th century villa nestled in the Umbrian hills owned by Evegny’s father.
Jacapo Jacoboni: Yes there is a castle and a Palazzo so there are two magnificent properties in Umbria and if you go to Umbria which is a very, very famous Italian region in the middle of Italy, nearby Tuscany, they love a lot… Russians.
Paul Caruana-Galizia, narrating: This is Jacapo Jacoboni, an investigative journalist who wrote a book about the influence of Russian oligarchs in Italy called Oligarchi, with a chapter dedicated to Alexander Lebedev.
The setting, one regular party-goer at Terranova told me, is “out of this world. A sensational view. Every detail is looked after. There’s music, dancing, fine wine and fine food.”
But people, he continues, get the wrong idea about the parties. The reports and rumours of drugs and orgies are untrue.
They’re not “wild and extravagant,” he says, but always “very intimate”.
The group is never greater than 20 people.
Guests typically include people from the theatre and film worlds, but also politicians. He names Tony Blair, and Peter Mandelson, George Osborne and David Cameron, along with Boris Johnson.
The talk, he says, was about politics. But not explicitly so.
“No one ever said,” he says, “‘this should go in the paper.’”
Jacapo Jacoboni: Oh, of course… one of the two properties, the Palazzolo Teranova, has been the landscape of at least two of Boris Johnson’s visits in Umbria,
Paul Caruana-Galizia, narrating: In a pattern that would repeat itself for the next five years, every October, Evgeny paid for Johnson’s return flights and his two night stay.
The persistent rumour about these parties in Umbria is that they were bugged and used to collect Kompromat on politicians. The allegation is rubbished by the two frequent attendees I spoke to, and has been rubbished by Evgeny himself.
But given everything I’ve heard over the last couple of months, when it comes to Alexander, I’m really not so sure.
The art of Kompromat is something KGB officers practiced extensively – even Alexander himself was subjected to it in 2012.
A now defunct Russian web journal published a secretly recorded video of Alexander in bed with different women – Ukrainian prostitutes – on multiple occassions.
As he enjoyed his time with the women, his friend Elton John’s classic hits, Candle in the Wind and Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, played in the background.
Alexander said the footage was part of an FSB plot to harass him. He said he was done with Russia. His focus shifted to entertaining British politicians instead.
In April 2018 Boris Johnson, by now foreign secretary, visited Terranova – alone – leaving even his two close protection officers behind.
He arrived at the local airport two days later, without any luggage, looking like he’d slept in his clothes.
One fellow passenger thought the British foreign secretary was going to be sick on the tarmac.
Jacapo Jacoboni: The Italian intelligence was well aware of the trip of Boris Johnson. So this is [a] very worrying scenario because not just a foreign minister of an allied country comes here in the house of a former KGB spy, not just this but the Italian intel knows these very well and properly, it informs the Italian government and so the Italian government is aware well aware of this dangerous trip of Boris Johnson.
Paul Caruana-Galizia, narrating: Johnson, Italian intelligence agents saw, had put himself in a compromising situation.
Boris Johnson: The doubters, the doomsters, the gloomsters, they are going to get it wrong again. The people who bet against Britain are going to lose their shirts but this is where we’re going to restore trust in our democracy.
Paul Caruana-Galizia, narrating: It’s December 2019, the day after Boris Johnson is elected Prime Minister, he goes to one of the Lebedevs’ famous vodka and caviar parties at their stuccoed mansion overlooking Regent’s Park, in honour of Alexander’s 60th birthday.
Once again, politicians mixed with film stars and millionaires. One of Evgeny’s former media advisors says there was “an amazing density of famous people. It was crazy, bizarre. A lot of booze, drinking till dawn.”
The politicians were mainly downstairs and left earlier, Tony Blair through a back door before the official party even started. But Boris Johnson stayed late, with the early morning crowd.
It was a triumphant moment for both Boris and the Lebedevs, whose newspapers had for years campaigned in support of him; for mayor, as foreign secretary, for prime minister.
And it seemed to be appreciated.
Evgeny Lebedev: Noble Lords, for every one of us it is a moving moment when we join this house. When we promise to be faithful, in a true allegiance, we know the pledge we make.
Paul Caruana-Galizia, narrating: A year and a half into Boris’ premiership, Evgeny gives his maiden speech to the House of Lords.
Evgeny Lebedev: We’re making a vow to maintain this country’s freedoms, and to keep our institutions strong. We’re offering diligence and independence as we accept our duties as legislators. We’re taking our place in a long line of those who have defended the values of our nation.
Paul Caruana-Galizia, narrating: The man Aatish Taseer barely remembered at the party in Althorpe 15 years ago, has acquired his finest bauble yet.
He gave his speech via video link. He appeared in a black jacket, black shirt, and black tie, his signature thick black beard perfectly trimmed, full bookshelves behind him.
Evgeny wanted his title to include both Richmond-upon-Thames – where he keeps Stud House, a grand home he once joked was named after him – and Moscow – where he was born.
As is customary, the College of Arms asked the Russian government for its approval of the Moscow part. It wasn’t granted. And so Evgeny was sent to Siberia.
He became: Baron Lebedev, of Hampton in the London Borough of Richmond upon Thames and of Siberia in the Russian Federation.
Since his maiden speech, Evgeny has made no other contribution – spoken or written – to the House.
And if we’re really honest, in a way, none of this is new. Prime Ministers have long used their power to send supporters to the Lords.
Lord Lexden: It would be surprising I think if he played a large part in the work of the house of Lords. It would surprise me greatly.
Paul Caruana-Galizia, narrating: This is Lord Lexden, an active Conservative peer and the Carlton Club’s official historian, who was sent to the Lords by David Cameron.
Lord Lexden: It tends to be the case that when peerages are awarded in this particular manner, out of recognition in part to a person’s contribution to the country, maybe, but in larger part because of the money that they have spent in ways that advance the interests of those at the centre of our affairs who profit from them, the closer the connection between the rendering of service by financial contributions to the Tory party the more likely it is that the individual will be seen, but rarely in the Chamber of the House of Lords. There is nothing new about that as a feature of British political life because it goes back to the nineties, it goes back to the 19th century.
Paul Caruana-Galizia, narrating: The Lords has grown a bit since then. It’s now got around 800 members. It’s the second-largest legislative chamber behind the 3,000-or so member “Chinese National People’s Congress”.
And what does a seat in the Lords give you beyond a title?
By putting on that crimson robe, Evgeny gets a say over this country’s laws for life, he acquires yet more status, he gets to walk through the so-called corridors of power, and gains gravitas. From party boy to peer, in fifteen years.
But here’s the thing: Evgeny sits in the Lords as a cross-bencher, unaffiliated to a political party, and neither he nor his father have officially donated money to the Conservatives or to Boris Johnson. So it’s not your classic case of patronage.
Apparently. They’re just friends.
Lord Lexden: Well, Mr. Johnson doesn’t care about it very much. He is perfectly content to see, and to promote and undertake himself in the curious blythe and brazen way in which he conducts his life so it is part of the way in which he treats the world. He is a amiable, jolly person who likes to do what he can for friends and this would be one thing and it wouldn’t trouble him in the least, because his conscience is not very deepened, marked feature of his personality.
Paul Caruana-Galizia, narrating: Johnson may not care, but should the rest of us?
I think so.
Because there was something different about Evgeny’s nomination.
Something deeply concerning.
The House of Lords Appointments Commission – which is a group of cross-party peers that can vet but not veto nominees – received Evgeny’s name at the start of 2020.
As part of its assessment, the commission can go to any government department.
In Evgeny’s case, they went to the intelligence agencies.
On 17 March 2020, in committee room 2, between 1 and 3pm, the commissioners met to review Evgeny’s vetting report.
The brief was that Evgeny was a potential security risk because of his father’s KGB past.
The commissioners wrote to the Prime Minster to express their concerns and asked him to reconsider Evgeny’s nomination. And recommended an alternative nominee.
And then, something interesting happened.
Two days later, Boris Johnson met with Lebedev Holdings, which owns the Evening Standard and is controlled by Evgeny, at his private flat in Downing Street.
And some time after, Evgeny’s name came back to the commission as a fait accompli.
When I submitted a Freedom of Information request for more details on this meeting, the Cabinet Office said it holds no information on attendees or what they discussed. The meeting, it said, was “social.”
I sent FoI requests to the Commission, the Met, the Home Office, the Foreign office, the Electoral Commission – to any body that would have had any role at all in Evgeny’s vetting process. If a reply came back at all, it was late and usually heavily redacted.
What does this tell me about Britain?
One of the oldest parliamentary systems, a so-called shining beacon of democracy, and I can’t find out why a man who has been flagged as a security risk has been given a seat in the upper chamber of Parliament, a place where people have real power and control over our lives.
It’s only through a report in the Guardian; a source on the Commission; one of its former chairs, and some documents gleaned through an FoI that we know his appointment raised suspicion.
And so reluctantly, the commissioners signed off on Evegeny’s appointment.
With a caveat.
In their confirmation letter, they called on Boris Johnson to examine Russian influence in the Lords, which was highlighted in a report by a parliamentary committee that oversees the intelligence agencies and that, with much delay, was released the same month that Evgeny’s name was published as a nominated peer.
Dominic Grieve: Our report covered the whole sphere of Russian, potential Russian state activity and that included cyber, it included possible interference in elections or referendums by bots or all by deliberate interference. It covered Russia’s intelligence activities.
I’m Dominic Grieve, I’m a barrister. Between 1997 and 2019, I was the member of parliament for Beaconsfield and I was the Attorney General from 2010 to 2014 in the administration of David Cameron in government and from 2015 to 2019, I was the Chair of the Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament.
Paul Caruana-Galizia: There’s a section in the report called the welcoming oligarchs and the word welcoming is significant. Who? I mean who in London? Who are we talking about when we say people are welcoming, these oligarchs?
Dominic Grieve: The welcomes started with the fact that back in the 1990s at a time when the iron curtain had broken down, the UK government wanted to attract inward investment and as a consequence, it had a UK’s investor visa scheme, which was designed to facilitate people with large amounts of money coming and settling and investing and working in this country, which I have to say is a perfectly legitimate activity.
But the consequence was the inrush of a large amount of money for investment purposes into this country, which had in some cases, unexplained origins. And that immediately raises the risk that in fact, although the people may be wishing to invest here and indeed coming here because they like our rule of law, they like our judicial system, they like our educational system for their children, the other explanation may be all legitimate things… the other explanation may be that they saw London as a very good place to launder their money.
And the question then is to what extent those activities and their prior business activities in Russia lead them to be susceptible either to the furtherance of activities that we would regard as improper in criminal terms or alternatively actually acting as agents of influence for the Russian government, which, and this was quite clear from our inquiry, sees absolutely no distinction between state activity and commercial activity by its citizens because it will see its citizens wherever they may be in the world as potential state agents for furthering Russian influence.
Paul Caruana-Galizia: Now the Lord’s features in the report. Could I ask you to say what your…?
Dominic Grieve: We noted that it was a number of members of the House of Lords had business links, interests to Russia, all worked directly for major Russian companies linked to the Russian state and that these relationships in our view needed to be very carefully scrutinised, given the potential for the Russian state to exploit them.
Paul Caruana-Galizia: Yes okay but in that list of nominations, there was one, and I know the report doesn’t reference anyone directly, and certainly not this person, but one of the nominees, was Evegeny Lebedev who is a British citizen, was born in Russia, his father’s Russian, his father was a KGB officer in London in the late eighties… given the work you’ve done, and what you’ve been discussing, what do you make of that nomination? Did it surprise you or should we be concerned?
Dominic Grieve: I’m not, can’t and won’t comment on this I’m afraid… We were very careful in our report to deal with generic issues and not with personalities.
Paul Caruana-Galizia, narrating: So far so circumspect. But one unredacted report we do have is quite explicit about Alexander.
Jacapo Jacobini: We have an assessment of the Italian counter-espionage, a written document which ended in the desks of the Giuseppe… government. And this document assesses that the Alexander Lebedev operations were not just real estate but they were, well the intel writes… literally espionage operations.
Paul Caruana-Galizia, narrating: This is Jacapo Jacobini again, the investigative journalist for La Stampa newspaper. Jacapo shared with me an intelligence report into the activities of Russian oligarchs in Italy.
Paul Caruana-Galizia: What else does it say about Alexander Lebedev? How does it describe his relationship with the Kremlin, for example?
Jacapo Jacobini: One of the other important things the documents states is that Alexander Lebedev is currently very close to the Kremlin because one of the point is that in the narrative of the Lebedevs, especially of Alexander, is pretending to be I don’t know if to say some sort of Kremlin opponent… but in any case figure a very from the Putin circle. What the report says instead is that Alexander remained very close to the Kremlin.
Also as a banker, his second life and this is a very important point. And another point, the Italian intel is convinced that Alexander Lebedev has an important role in the relationship between Russia and Italy… especially through energy and Gazprom operations in Italy.
Paul Caruana-Galizia, narrating: The Italian intelligence report claims, in summary, that Alexander – the man British politicians visit in Umbria, where Tony Blair, for example, went for a couple of days as recently as August 2020 – is close to the Kremlin and involved in espionage operations.
But, in a way, we never really needed a secret report to tell us this.
If you look back over the editorials that appear under Evgeny’s bylines in their newspapers, or the interviews he gave to the British press, you can see his stance to Putin soften quite markedly after Russia annexed Crimea in 2014.
Evgeny Lebedev on the Andrew Marr show: I think if sanctions were to go any further, I think the City of London and London’s economy would be affected.
Paul Caruana-Galizia, narrating: “Britain must make Vladimir Putin an ally,” an article under Evgeny’s byline declared in the Independent.
“I can see the need for sanctions,” he told the Moscow Times, “but I’m not sure that sanctions are achieving the result that they were supposed to achieve.”
Meanwhile, Alexander hosted a conference in Crimea, where he owns property, called: “Open Your Eyes.”
As we now know, Putin didn’t stop at Crimea. He’s now at war with Ukraine.
The British government has responded with threats of sanctions, against oligarchs and companies linked to the Kremlin.
Boris Johnson: And now the UK and our allies will begin to impose the sanctions on Russia that we have already prepared, using the new and unprecedented powers granted by this House to sanction Russian individuals and entities of strategic importance to the Kremlin.
Liz Truss: We’ve just introduced new sanctions legislation which is the toughest we’ve ever had against Russia, that enables us not to just target companies with direct affect on Ukraine but anybody or any company that has a bearing on the Russian state and that will seriously destabilise the Russian economy.
Paul Caruana-Galizia, narrating: But Londongrad now finds itself in a fix.
Russians accused of financial crime or with Kremlin links own some of its most expensive property.
Kremlin-linked companies are on the London Stock Exchange – including Gazprom. It was just two days after Germany halted a major Gazprom pipeline into Europe that Russia declared war on Ukraine.
And oligarchs fund Britain’s political parties.
Whilst she was talking tough on sanctions a photo emerged of Liz Truss, the foreign secretary, and other senior tory politicians, standing next to the wife of Russia’s former finance minister – Lubov Chernukhin, who has donated around £2 million to the Conservatives over the past decade.
Sanctions won’t just harm the oligarchs, but all the people who feed off them – the lawyers, accountants, politicians – and journalists.
In any case, Lord Lebedev is safe in his seat.
He has disposed of a large chunk of the assets that took him there, selling a third of his newspapers to a Saudi Arabian national, who fronts for Faisal bin Salman Al Saud, brother to the crown prince, a representative of the next wave of money crashing on London.
So these two major British news titles are now owned by a Russian oligarch and a Saudi prince.
And remember that trip Boris took to Umbria in April 2018? The one where he appeared at the airport looking hungover?
On that trip, I’ve been told Alexander Lebedev told the then foreign secretary that he could act as a backchannel between Boris and Putin over the Skripal poisoning crisis from a few weeks earlier.
The plan, which hasn’t been reported before and which the Foreign Office, Downing Street, and Alexander declined to comment on when I put it to them, was shelved by Boris’ officials.
From the start, it’s been a costume drama.
From a Midsummer Russian Fantasy in white tie to a House of Lords ordination in red robes.
And are we really to think this is still just a Tatler story, an inconsequential coincidence of parties, the accidental rise of a socialite?
Are we really to believe that the titles – the papers, the peerage, Baron Lebedev, of Hampton in the London Borough of Richmond upon Thames and of Siberia in the Russian Federation that all that comes without influence?
I’m in Poland now, witnessing the result of the war on Ukraine.
Last night, I spoke to mothers, grandmothers, and children who fled their homes, some driving for two days, seeing dead bodies and burnt tanks along the way, to safety. One described Putin as an “international terrorist.” Another, a 65 year old woman clutching a toothbrush, said she hopes he’ll “burn in hell forever.”
It seems a million miles from London but, here on the Poland-Ukraine border, I can see the effects of letting Russian money wash through the city over years and years, its power and influence building and building.
Not long before this programme was due to be published, Evgeny made his first public statement on Russia’s war with Ukraine.
In a tweet, which read:
“Orthodox Slavs killing their brethren on a scale not witnessed for centuries. An unimaginable tragedy for people of Ukraine and Russia.”
It’s exactly the kind of equivocating that aims to be suitable in London but doesn’t get offside with Putin.
But the real tragedy is ours; that we have let Putin and his oligarchs get to this point.