In late December 2020, a man with piercing eyes, a thick black beard, dressed in a crimson velvet robe trimmed with white fur from red squirrels, walked into the gilded chamber of the House of Lords as Mr Evgeny Lebedev. Before leaving, as Baron Lebedev, of Hampton in the London Borough of Richmond upon Thames and of Siberia in the Russian Federation, he posed for a photo and uploaded it to Instagram. He captioned it “Muzhik [Russian peasant] amongst the noblemen” and added emojis of a bear and a crown.
There was some consternation that the son of Alexander Lebedev, a former KGB officer turned oligarch, was taking a seat in Britain’s upper chamber of parliament. But not much.
This was in part because Lebedev’s peerage was soon overshadowed by that of a billionaire, Peter Cruddas, who had donated an enormous sum of money to the Conservative Party before getting his seat – and who then donated yet more money after taking it. And in part because Lebedev appeared only one other time in the Lords – through a video link, one fellow peer said, “from his yacht”.
That was in May 2021 and Lebedev used his maiden speech to outline his priorities as a legislator: wildlife conservation, food poverty and free speech. They are all noble causes, but to date – apart from submitting two written questions about food banks – he has yet to make any other contribution to parliament.
Lebedev is the only Russian-born peer. As the greatest international crisis since the Second World War has unfolded in Ukraine, he has remained silent. Some say he is in Africa; others in Dorset. Wherever he may be, the man who once made every effort to be seen and adored is nowhere to be found.
The opposition leader and backbench MPs and peers are all calling for a formal inquiry into Lebedev’s peerage. The prime minister, Boris Johnson, robbed of the Churchillian moment that the invasion might have presented, instead faced accusations that he overruled the advice of his security services when he gave Lebedev, his friend, a parliamentary seat for life.
“That,” Johnson said, “is simply incorrect.”
When I first began reporting on Lebedev in December 2021, he was still a curiosity. He was known for using the news titles his father had bought and given to him, the Evening Standard and the Independent, to enhance his own profile – and the profiles of his powerful friends.
He threw parties where actors and models drank and danced with politicians and media moguls. He presided over theatre awards where thespians were surprised to find themselves seated next to figures from the celebrity world like the supermodel Naomi Campbell or footballer David Beckham. One person called him a “star fucker”; another as wanting “global fame”. Almost everyone thought him otherwise harmless.
His journey to the very heart of Britain’s establishment was extraordinary and colourful. Within a few fast years, he went from party boy to political party boy – having lunches with senior politicians, not least Johnson. When Lebedev took his seat in the Lords, he was 40 years old – about half the average age of his fellow peers.
I wanted to know how the Lord of Siberia did it. But while I was asking the House of Lords Appointments Commission, which can vet but not veto the prime minister’s nominations to the upper chamber, to release the warnings it received about Lebedev, Vladimir Putin started massing troops on Russia’s border with Ukraine.
Londongrad – the shorthand for the UK’s eager welcome to Russian oligarchs linked to Putin – suddenly became a big problem for Britain and Johnson. And Lebedev, who had been hiding in plain sight for 15 years, quickly came to embody the coincidence of two embarrassments for Britain: the crumbling credibility of the House of Lords and the no-questions-asked welcome given by Britain to the oligarchs.
After Tortoise published my report in February 2022, Lebedev’s name began to appear everywhere. Not just in the society pages or the glossy magazines, where he had always seemed to relish his inclusion, but on the front page of the Sunday Times, across the BBC’s television and radio news programmes, in the bulletins of every outlet in the country – and, increasingly, those abroad.
LORD LEBEDEV PASSED SECURITY TEST SAYS PM, ran Private Eye’s headline. Below it, a photo of Johnson and Lebedev with speech bubbles.
“Have you got the right papers?” Johnson’s bubble says.
“Yes,” says Lebedev’s. “I’ve got the Evening Standard and the Independent”.
Lebedev’s journey into the very heart of the British establishment began – where else – at a party. And what a party it was to be. The planning started in May 2006. Evgeny was 26 and trying to reinvent himself.
His PR adviser took him to see Geordie Greig, then the editor of Tatler, a glossy magazine that covers Britain’s high society. She told Greig that Lebedev was launching a charity with a Russian called “Michael Goo-ba-cheff”, at Althorp House, Princess Diana’s childhood home. The charity would be named after Goo-ba-cheff’s late wife, Raisa, and dedicated to funding cancer treatment for Russian children.
Did she mean, Greig asked her, “[Mikhail] Gorbachev, the man who changed the world?”
She looked blank. But Lebedev was delighted.
Greig was soon a trustee of the charity, and he offered to co-host the party. Lebedev chose the dress code (white tie), the theme (“a midsummer Russian fantasy”) and the date: 10 June 2006.
Aatish Taseer recalls it as “one of those endless summer evenings… when the light just doesn’t seem to fade at all”. Taseer, a writer who now lives with his husband in New York, was there as the guest of his then girlfriend, Lady Gabriella (Ella) Windsor, the daughter of Prince and Princess Michael of Kent. Taseer and Ella drove up to Althorp, drinking rosé on the way, and then at the party taking MDMA, the Class A drug commonly known as ecstasy.
“And we arrived at this extraordinary house,” Taseer says. “And there were contortionists hanging from the trees and acrobats and like a kind of Russian circus atmosphere.” It was a mixture of “Cold War nostalgia”, the “splendour of the Tsars” and a “millenarian atmosphere”, as though it was “tonight or never”.
Guests were offered oysters and Golden Oscietra caviar. A troop of Cossacks charged from the woods around the house, and then did an equestrian ballet in front of it. Inside, people danced.
“I walked on to the dance floor in a fairly heightened state,” Taseer says, “and I see, dancing in a circle, Orlando Bloom, Mikhail Gorbachev and Salman Rushdie. This has got to be the most fucking surreal thing I’ve ever seen in my life… It was one of the greatest parties I’ve ever been to.”
The party, bankrolled by Lebedev’s father, cost £2 million in today’s money. The amount it raised for sick children? Half a million pounds less than that.
Taseer remembers the party like it was yesterday. But when I asked whether he remembered Lebedev, who attended in a white tuxedo, Taseer says he does not. “I think I was more aware of his father than I was of him.”
Alexander Lebedev has told his origin story many times. It goes like this: he was a KGB officer posted to the Soviet embassy in London in 1988, taking his eight-year-old son with him. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, he became an FSB officer and then left government service in 1992 to become a banker in Moscow, leaving his son in London. As a “financial Mozart”, a description a colleague gave him, he made a lot of money very quickly.
In the best tradition of Russian intelligence officers, some of this story is false, some is true, much is elided.
Alexander repeatedly says that his only job in London was to read the newspapers, including the Standard, for signs that capitalism was failing. But as one former MI6 officer tells me, KGB agents were not posted to London just to read the papers. Alexander’s real job was to monitor arms control negotiations, trade talks, Nato and British politicians.
It was during this period that Alexander befriended Gorbachev, warning him, correctly, that the Soviet Union was about to default on its foreign debt obligations. Outside the office, Alexander drove Russia’s new rich – born of Gorbachev’s Perestroika market reforms – around in his little Ford. Some stayed at his house. It was, he said, an “eye opener” to see them spend money in London’s clubs and restaurants. He began registering businesses in the UK while still an agent in 1992.
Around that time, the FSB’s counterintelligence division began investigating him. He said this was because of “unfounded suspicions” that he was having an affair with the wife of a senior diplomat with close ties to the FSB. But it was more likely because of the businesses he had opened while still an agent – a violation of diplomatic rules. He was recalled to Moscow and left government service.
But his links to the secret intelligence world remained strong. He made his first real money trading foreign debt which, one of his former employees says, wouldn’t have been possible without FSB links.
Using that money, he acquired a small, struggling bank – the National Reserve Bank in Moscow – whose only real asset was a large holding of Gazprom debt. He would hire at least three former KGB officers to work at the bank two of whom were contemporaries of his in London – in very senior positions. And, at one point, he tried buying a statue of Felix Dzerzhinsky, the ruthless founder of the KGB, to sit in the entrance of his bank.
Gazprom, one of the world’s largest gas producers, and still largely controlled by the Kremlin, which uses it to further its interests abroad, made Alexander an oligarch. The company was so undervalued, because it was corruptly managed, that even incremental improvements in its governance resulted in large share price gains.
By 2006, the year of the Althorp party, Alexander had made the Forbes billionaires list – his estimated $3.5 billion fortune mostly tied up in Gazprom. But to survive as an oligarch, he needed more than enormous wealth. He needed influence. And he needed a pro-Western image.
One of his media assets, a tabloid called Moskovsky Korrespondent, was part of this strategy. But it pushed things too far in 2008 when it reported that Vladimir Putin was having an affair with a young gymnast for whom he was about to leave his wife. Within a week, the tabloid was shut down.
Alexander returned to London to diversify his risk.
Not long after, Alexander and Evgeny were at a table at the Connaught Hotel in Mayfair. They were there to discuss Project Venus. The two other men at the table were Jonathan Harmsworth, or Lord Rothermere, the newspaper baron, and Geordie Greig, editor of Tatler, which had just voted Evgeny Britain’s third most eligible bachelor (Russell Brand was first and Richard Branson’s son Sam second).
The Evening Standard was losing £10-£20 million a year, and Lord Rothermere was looking to offload it to the Lebedevs, or as some began calling them, the Lebs. The negotiations went on for months, just as the financial crisis was ripping through the world’s economy.
Over 2008 alone, Gazprom’s share price collapsed by nearly 80 per cent. Alexander’s wealth plunged with it. After selling some land in Umbria and a jet, he was able to buy 76 per cent of the newspaper for a single pound – and a commitment to invest £25 million. He gave Greig a 5 per cent shareholding and the editorship, and he made Evgeny, who was just shy of 30, proprietor. It was, he said, a big change for Evgeny, who not long before had been spending his time “frolicking in the south of France”.
Just a year later, Alexander used the same Project Venus model to buy the Independent for £1 with a commitment to invest £9.25 million. And he put Evgeny in charge of that, too. But not alone. He surrounded him with a team of experienced and talented advisers to provide business and editorial advice. He also gave him the budget for a private office, staffed with a social media person, bodyguard, fashion adviser, social secretary and a journalist, who would write articles to appear under Evgeny’s byline.
It wasn’t, one former staffer says, “desperately serious”. He recalls a time when they discussed Evgeny adopting the image of an “oligarch meets Hunter S. Thompson”, him going on Strictly Come Dancing, or the time when they booked an interview with President Evo Morales in Bolivia that Evgeny called off when he realised La Paz airport was at too high an altitude for his private jet to land.
And then, of course, there was his bullfighting phase. Evgeny was so obsessed with matadors that he had big photos of them hanging in one of his London apartments. He called on Alexander Fiske-Harrison, a bullfighter, to advise him on it. Fiske-Harrison warned him of the dangers but Evgeny insisted he wanted to get into a bullring.
It turned out he only wanted to wear the matador’s “suit of lights”, a stunning and elaborate “piece of kit”, as Fiske-Harrison explains, that one must earn the right to wear by fighting hundreds of bulls. Evgeny skipped that part, ordering a suit from one of the world’s best matador tailors, Pedro Algaba in Seville, at a price of around €4,000.
He had a photoshoot in it, but when the time came to enter a bullring – not with a bull, but a young cow – Evgeny sent his young female assistant to Povedilla instead. He never turned up. The assistant, Fiske-Harrison recalls, “spent the rest of the day looking like she had just fallen out of a plane.”
But behind the pomp, there was real power. And real influence. Evgeny breathed new life into the Evening Standard’s theatre awards, making them a big black-tie gala, joining forces with Anna Wintour, inviting people like Beckham, Campbell and Elton John, who was by then a Lebedev family friend.
Yet it was Alexander who, behind the scenes, controlled the purse strings and who was the real draw. It was Alexander who invited Boris Johnson, then London mayor, to speak at a Raisa Gorbachev Foundation gala dinner, providing him with a car and chauffeur. And 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.”
By 2010, Evgeny and Johnson were lunching together. They discussed Evgeny’s proposal for a Russian arts festival in London, with possible Kremlin support. By 2012, they were close enough that they slept on the streets together to raise money for an Evening Standard homeless veterans campaign.
In that same year, a few days before Johnson was up for re-election as mayor, the newspaper ran on its front page the headline: BORIS JOHNSON – THE RIGHT CHOICE FOR LONDON.
Then the trips to Italy began. The first was to Palazzo Terranova, a 17th-century villa in the Umbrian hills owned by Alexander. The setting, one regular partygoer 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 of drugs and orgies are untrue. The rumours that the building is bugged to collect kompromat are a fantasy, he says.
The parties aren’t “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. The talk, he says, was about politics. But not explicitly so.
“No one ever said: ‘this should go in the paper.’”
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. In April 2018 Johnson, by now foreign secretary, arrived at 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”, according to a fellow passenger. They even thought the British foreign secretary was going to be sick on the tarmac.
It wasn’t just other passengers who noticed Johnson coming and going. Italy’s counter-espionage agency did, too. It monitored Alexander’s activity in the country, along with other Russian oligarchs, and reported that he was still involved in “espionage operations” and still very close to the Kremlin.
Italian agents noted not just Johnson’s trips, but those of other British politicians. Tony Blair, for example, visited as recently as August 2020 with his two security officers. The Italians’ assessment was that Johnson in particular had put himself in a compromising situation.
Johnson didn’t seem to think so. A day after he was elected prime minister in December 2019, he went to one of the Lebs’ famous vodka and caviar parties at their mansion overlooking Regent’s Park, in honour of Alexander’s 60th birthday. It was a triumphant moment for both Johnson and the Lebs, whose newspapers had for years campaigned in support of him; for mayor, as foreign secretary, for prime minister. And it seemed to be appreciated.
A few weeks later, Johnson used his power as prime minister to nominate Evgeny to the House of Lords. By the start of February 2020, the House of Lords Appointments Commission was chasing him for the standard vetting materials. But it then thought to ask for more advice.
It approached the security services for their view on Lebedev’s nomination. It wasn’t until 17 March that the commissioners – a cross-party group of peers – met to discuss the vetting report. What they read worried them: Evgeny was a security risk because of his father’s past and his links to the world of former KGB officers. The chair wrote to the prime minister, advising him against making the nomination and recommending an alternative.
Two days later, Johnson gave one of his Covid press briefings. He instructed people to avoid unnecessary contact with others. That same day, though, he met Evgeny at his private residence at Downing Street. They discussed the nomination. Johnson decided to push it through against the advice of his Cabinet Office team and that of the security services. He described their advice as “anti-Russianism” and pointed out that Evgeny was not Alexander.
The commissioners received Evgeny’s name again and reluctantly signed off the nomination, but still asked the prime minister to take Russian interference in British public life seriously.
Evgeny busied himself with the choice of his title.
He wanted Hampton Court – he owns Stud House in its grounds, a grand pile he once joked was named after him – but, as it is a royal palace, he was only allowed to use Hampton. He wanted Moscow as well, but the Kremlin didn’t allow that, so he took Siberia.
Baron Lebedev, of Hampton in the London Borough of Richmond upon Thames and of Siberia in the Russian Federation now sits in the Lords as a cross-bencher, unaffiliated to any political party. His allies have pointed to this fact, and that neither he nor his father have ever officially donated money to the Conservatives, to show that his peerage is not a case of patronage.
But if not patronage, then what is it? A straightforward transaction – donations for a seat – would be easy to understand. In Evgeny’s case, a man whose friends say never previously showed an interest in the Lords, who appeared only to take his seat and give his maiden speech, it is difficult to see the value.
What Evgeny gets is clear: a say over this country’s laws for life, yet more status, access to the corridors of power, and gravitas. Johnson, meanwhile, has yet to provide a satisfactory explanation as to why he forced through the nomination.
And, perhaps, he thought he would never have to – until Russia invaded Ukraine. While his government talks tough on Russian oligarchs in London, while he adds more of their names to the sanctions list, and seizes more of their assets, at the time of writing, the Lebs remain untouched and conspicuously silent.
This piece appeared in the latest edition of the Tortoise Quarterly, our short book of long stories. If you were lucky enough to grab a Founding Membership back in the early days of Tortoise, you’ll receive your copy in glorious, old-fashioned print. If not, you can pick up a physical copy in our shop at a special member price.
Photographs Chris Winter/Shutterstock, Getty Images