The Curious Tale of the Russian Spy's Son and the Man who would be King of the World
With Rupert Murdoch and the Barclay Brothers pulling out all the stops to back the Prime Minister, one crucial media player with a very interesting background is often overlooked.
Life is One Big Party Game
On Sunday 29 April 2018, passengers at San Francesco d’Assissi airport in Umbria awaiting their flight to the UK were taken aback to see Boris Johnson, the UK’s Foreign Secretary, shuffle bleary-eyed into the Easyjet departure lounge. Johnson was without luggage, apart from a book on military strategy, and he looked like he was about to throw up.
Despite being one of the most senior members of the government, and an instantly recognisable figure, he was noticeably without a security detail.
Having been spotted, Johnson wearily posed for selfies with travellers, confessed that he had had a “heavy night” and wandered off into a corner of the lounge where he went to sleep on a chair.
A source later told the Guardian that, when the gate was opened, Johnson lurched towards it looking like he was about to fall over.
Our future Prime Minister had been visiting the lavish Italian home of his chum, the billionaire media tycoon Evgeny Lebedev, for one of his legendary parties. The two men befriended each other during Johnson’s two terms as Mayor of London after Lebedev – son of the billionaire Russian oligarch Alexander – bought the Evening Standard newspaper with his father in 2009.
In the decade since, Evgeny Lebedev has cut a curious figure on the London social circuit. Nicknamed “Two Beards” by Private Eye on account of his impossibly black facial growth and rumours about his sexuality, he has sought to brush off gossip by dating a series of well-known celebrities including the actresses Elizabeth Hurley and Joely Richardson and (almost) Spice Girl Geri Horner.
Evgeny has courted other famous friends along the way including Stephen Fry, Ian McKellen – with whom he co-owns a Thames-side pub – and Piers Morgan, who once described him as “one of the most… fascinating figures in English society”.
Readers of the Evening Standard have become used to seeing photographs of the newspaper’s proprietor splashed across its pages in bizarre photo shoots, usually promoting charities alongside celebrity pals. In 2014, for example, Lebedev took centre stage in a montage of shots alongside the athlete Victoria Pendleton, celebrating the bicycle riding scene in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Lebedev played Butch. On another occasion, he got Elton John to shave off his beard and eyebrows – for Comic Relief.
Evgeny Lebedev grew up in the UK during the 1980s while his father worked as a KGB agent, under diplomatic cover, at the Russian Embassy in London. Alexander Lebedev was later to make his fortune following the collapse of the Soviet Union and is close friends and business associates with former USSR leader Mikhail Gorbachev. The two men own a 49% stake in the Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta, which is often cited as a lone independent voice in Vladimir Putin’s increasingly totalitarian state.
But, as with so many narratives about modern Russia, that’s not the whole story. For while there is no ‘official’ censorship in Russia, media opposition voices have nevertheless been systematically shut down, using excuses such as ‘engineered bankruptcy’ or crippling fines for minor breaches of the law. Novaya Gazeta survives thanks to the involvement of the untouchable Gorbachev and because of the useful role it plays in seemingly disproving the accusation that there is no independent media in Russia. As one expert tells me, “Novaya has a strong “крыша” (roof) – which protects it within the Kremlin walls.”
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So, while there have been attacks on the newspaper in the past, any tensions have subsequently been defused behind closed doors. Novaya Gazeta survives because it knows the boundaries, because its owners are well-connected, and because it serves a purpose.
The Lebedevs have an opaque relationship with Putin. Despite Alexander portraying himself as a critic of the regime, he has increasingly taken a pro-Putin line.
In 2016, Ukrainian hackers revealed that Alexander Lebedev had actively sought to help the Russian leader win Western approval after the country’s invasion of Crimea two years earlier. A planned open letter comparing the annexation to Scottish independence never came about, but the oligarch did publish a piece in The Independent – another British newspaper owned by the Lebedevs – arguing against sanctions on Russia.
In the wake of the Panama Papers scandal in 2016, Alexander Lebedev wrote a lengthy op-ed in the Evening Standard insisting that Putin was no villain and that it was the evil Western bankers who were to blame for all that dark money. He has actively reinforced the myth of equivalence between Putin’s Russia and Western democracy and routinely used the family’s ownership of newspapers in the UK as a platform for this.
Earlier this month, while promoting his book, Alexander Lebedev gave a bizarre interview to the Spectator magazine in which he insisted that there is “plenty” of free press in his home country, before adding “it wasn’t the Russian people who poisoned [Sergei] Skripal, it was just a few guys”.
Evgeny Lebedev seems less interested in politics than his father and is often dismissed as a slightly ridiculous figure by the very people who enjoy his hospitality. A one time guest at his lavish dinners remembers how “he was always trying to lose weight and had identical food served to him but in half portions and on half sized plates”.
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The Toad of Toad Hallish mogul has a fondness for private jets and allegedly once sent one to London to pick up a shirt (although he denies this). In 2013, he decided he’d like to train to be a Matador and, having bought all the kit, arranged to have lessons with the legendary Spanish bullfighter Enrique Ponce. However, when he realised that he might have to actually face a bull, he seemingly lost his nerve and just posed for the photographs instead, to the fury of the Matador community.
But to dismiss Evegeny Lebedev as a purely farcical figure is to play down his exceptional contacts, his extensive media influence in the UK and his dedicated support for Boris Johnson over the past decade. From 2009 onwards, the Evening Standard was essentially Johnson’s Pravda, providing uncritical support for his tenure as Mayor of London and doing much to bolster and nurture ideas such as the lamentable garden bridge.
It’s always good to have a friendly press baron onside and Johnson seems to have eagerly played along and fostered the acquaintance. His rather tepid official correspondence with the newspaper owner during his time as Mayor belies what appears to have become a very close relationship. According to openDemocracy, Johnson was flown out to the Italian castle four times while Mayor of London – each time by private jet.
At that infamous Islington dinner party in February 2016 at which Michael Gove and Johnson plotted which side to support in the upcoming EU Referendum, Evgeny Lebedev played the part of the third man.
However, while the Johnson-Lebedev relationship might have seemed expedient and even understandable during Johnson’s tenure at City Hall, it didn’t end there. The Evening Standard remains a torchbearer of the Johnson legacy and our now Prime Minister was a guest of Evgeny Lebedev at least twice during his tenure as Foreign Secretary, attending the hedonistic parties in the Umbrian hills even as he represented the UK at the very highest levels of diplomacy.
During the Conservative leadership contest this year it was revealed that, while Johnson was at the Foreign Office, he was viewed as a loose cannon not to be trusted with secrets. In 2001, while editing the Spectator, Johnson had outed Dominic Lawson as a MI6 spy “for a laugh” – a claim Lawson denies – and the Secret Intelligence Service viewed him with lingering suspicion. As openDemocracy reported in July, after being appointed Foreign Secretary, responsibility for MI6 was “quietly shifted” from Johnson to then Prime Minister Theresa May. Once he was gone from the post, it was shifted back again.
It was right to be cautious.
The Party’s Over
The day before flying out to Evgeny Lebedev’s castle for that knees-up in the spring of April 2018, Johnson had been to a NATO ministerial summit in Brussels.
In talks with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and the Foreign Ministers of Germany and France, the agenda had been dominated by emergency talks on how best to deal with Putin in the aftermath of the Salisbury Novichok attacks which had happened just two months previously.
48 hours later, the country’s most senior diplomat – bleary eyed and without his security detail – was wandering deliriously about a regional airport looking for somewhere to sleep.
When approached by the Guardian about the ‘incident at San Francesco’ both Johnson and Evgeny Lebedev refused to comment on who was present at the party the night before or provide any further details. But now Johnson is Prime Minister there are legitimate reasons to probe further.
At the time of the party in Italy, Lebedev was under close scrutiny after selling a 30% interest in his newspaper group’s shares to an investor in the Cayman Islands. That sale had prompted the then Culture Secretary, Jeremy Wright, to launch an investigation – which was ongoing at the time of Johnson’s visit to Umbria.
Was it really appropriate for the Foreign Secretary, who was already being talked up as the next Prime Minister, to be cavorting in this manner, and doing so with the son of a former KGB agent, who was being investigated by his own government? And what does the lack of interest in this peculiar relationship say about the state of our own media?
Otto English will be back with Part 2 of this story soon.