LebedevThe KGB Spy Who Helped Put Putin in the Kremlin
John Sweeney digs deeper into the past of Alexander Lebedev, whose connections to the Russian President and the British Prime Minister are a source of major public concern
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The UK’s Secret Intelligence Service, MI6, was not keen on Boris Johnson, then UK Foreign Secretary, now Prime Minister, going to bunga-bunga parties thrown by Evgeny Lebedev, now Baron Siberia, in his palazzo in Umbria. But why?
Britain’s spies were not worried too much about the boy, Evgeny, a seemingly self-obsessed featherweight who once, while freelancing for the BBC, asked Alexander Lukashenko, the strongman of Belarus, what he thought about group sex. Their anxiety focussed on the father, a once and maybe current KGB/FSB actor, who helped put Vladimir Putin in the Kremlin. All of Evgeny’s money flows from this single fact, that Putin was grateful to his father for his service as a spy and he was rewarded handsomely for it. And Alexander Lebedev still owes fealty to the master of the Kremlin.
On the face of it, Alexander Lebedev looks like a model anti-Putin oligarch. He’s big mates with Mikhail Gorbachev with whom he part-owned the now closed Novaya Gazeta, the last good newspaper in Russia. He’s a liberal, or poses as such, and, like his son, he’s thick with the luvvies: friends with Kevin Spacey, John Malkovich, Sir Elton John, Ralph Fiennes who plays M in the Bond movies and Hugh Grant.
No wonder Boris Johnson ignored warnings from MI6 that the Lebedevs were to be avoided. But look into Alexander Lebedev’s past and the story gets dark, very quickly.
Alexander Lebedev joined the KGB in the early 1980s and worked first in Switzerland before moving to London. He had diplomatic cover but in reality, he was a spy, working out of the Russian embassy in Kensington Palace Gardens from 1988 to 1992.
With the fall of the Soviet Union, Alexander Lebedev then became a banker, a co-owner of the National Reserve Bank and, for a time, a multi-billionaire, one of the richest men in Russia. In 1997 Alexander Lebedev claimed his former business associate, Igor Fyodorov, had stolen $7 million from his bank. Fyodorov counter-claimed, filing a complaint to the Russian Prosecutor-General Yuri Skuratov, alleging Alexander Lebedev and others were up to criminal no-good. Lebedev and his associates denied this. The prosecutor’s office opened multiple investigations against Lebedev and his NRB bank, accusing the bank of tax avoidance and fraud.
In the late 1990s, Boris Yeltsin’s Government and family was mired in corruption – and they were being investigated by Skuratov. Who could get the troublesome cop off the Kremlin’s back?
Meanwhile, Skuratov realised he was being spied on and his prime suspect was Alexander Lebedev. Lebedev’s bank, NRB, had its own security service, known as SB KONUS (SB means Sluzhba Bezopasnosti or security service). Skuratov said on 7 September 1999 on the then independent Russian TV channel NTV, “the security service of Lebedev, Konus and others, put me and my family under surveillance”.
Skuratov said: “What I can say for sure is that Mr Lebedev used significant resources to counteract the investigation. His acquaintance with work for the special services [KGB] let him use various methods.”
Skuratov claimed personal stuff about his life and family popped up on the internet. Skuratov claimed “due to a glitch… on the internet” the private investigation was traced back to a security company, Konus, which worked for Alexander Lebedev’s bank, NRB.
And then, in 1999, a sex kompromat tape appeared showing a man looking very much like Prosecutor-General Skuratov with two women prostitutes half his age. Skuratov denies it was him.
Alexander Lebedev in his poorly-written book, Hunt The Banker, suggests that unknown “puppet-masters” may have had a hold over Skuratov, threatening him with exposure of the sex kompromat tape. Lebedev writes: “‘We wouldn’t want any trouble,’ they doubtless told him, ‘only…’ and so on.”
Strange words. Or, on the other hand, exactly what might you’d expect from someone who had been in the KGB. The sex tape was great ammunition for someone else who didn’t like the prosecutor one little bit: Vladimir Putin, then head of the FSB, the Russian spy organisation that replaced the Soviet Union’s KGB.
Putin went on telly to vouchsafe that the man with the prostitutes was Russia’s most senior policeman: “The man in the infamous video has been identified as the Prosecutor-General Skuratov… My opinion regarding this case is well known. It corresponds to the opinion of the president and the prime minister – Yuri Ilyich [Skuratov] has to resign.”
Thanks to the pressure from Vladimir Putin, Skuratov was sacked and all his corruption investigations collapsed. After Skuratov was sex-kompromatted, Putin got the keys to the Kremlin. And Alexander Lebedev became rich – very.
The only other person on the front cover of his book, Hunt The Banker, is Vladimir Putin.
There is, of course, no suggestion that either of the former KGB officers, Colonel Vladimir Putin and Colonel Alexander Lebedev and their entities, had any involvement in the sex kompromat operation against the prosecutor-general. Byline Times has asked Lebedev many times to comment on these matters but has never received a response.
At his peak, Alexander Lebedev was said to be worth $4 billion. When in 2008 one of his Moscow papers reported a common rumour, that Putin was having an affair with Olympic gymnast Alina Kubayeva, Alexander Lebedev fell from the Kremlin’s grace. The report was denied and Alexander closed the paper – but too late. Reporting on Putin’s private life is a red line and Alexander had made a great mistake.
His bank suffered multiple state investigations: by the Russian taxman, the fire safety people, so much so that he lists all of this in his book. He lost billions. That same year Alexander bought the Evening Standard, which he has openly said following Putin’s advice that Russian businessmen should invest in the West.
But the Kremlin was unforgiving. At one point Lebedev went on telly, was riled by a critic, punched him and he was in even more trouble. The fight on the telly would not, normally, have led to a trial but Alexander Lebedev was out of favour with the master of the Kremlin.
Then in 2012, it was Alexander Lebedev’s turn to be sex-kompromatted. He said he had been compromised by “a group of criminals and corrupt state officials with links to law enforcement… The tape was used to try to destroy my family. It failed.”
Alexander Lebedev then edited the sex tape and put on his own gloss on it, showing the world that he would not be blackmailed – and that he knows how to edit kompromat. But is this the kind of person you’d expect to be a close friend of the UK Prime Minister?
The hard truth is that this sex kompromat doesn’t happen to the people in the Kremlin’s favour. Ten years on, just before the war, Alexander Lebedev was doing well and his businesses based in Russia and Russian-occupied Crimea were thriving. Somehow Alexander Lebedev has got himself back into the Kremlin’s grace. How could that be?
Jacopo Iacoboni may have the answer to that question. He’s an Italian investigative journalist for La Stampa and he got his hands on a report for the Italian Parliament’s intelligence oversight committee on Alexander Lebedev. Iacoboni told me: “One of our sources in Italian intelligence literally says, ‘You never quit from the KGB. You are, you are a dead man if you try to quit the KGB.’”
The Italian intelligence report was not intended for publication, and its information may not be wholly reliable. But it suggests that Alexander Lebedev’s departure from the KGB was “not quite clear”. The report also observes that Boris Johnson met Alexander Lebedev at parties at his Palazzo Terranova mansion in Umbria thrown by Evgeny – parties with “X-rated content”.
The investigative reporter Jim Cusick first broke the story of the bunga-bunga parties in Umbria for openDemocracy. He told me: “When people ask what happens there? It’s probably easier if you answer by saying what doesn’t happen there. Somebody said, it’s like a country party where the rules that normally apply don’t apply. How far does the Bacchanalia go, how far how much is how much of normal decorum is just thrown to the side? Imagine a party without rules and maybe you’ll get there.”
Sir Andrew Wood, former British ambassador to Moscow and the diplomat who gave a copy of the Steele report on Trump’s shenanigans in Russia to the late Senator John McCain, told me before the war: “Putin requires more obedience from his oligarchs than even before. They are not independent actors.”
One former MI6 officer reflected on the strange friendship between the Lebedevs, father and son: “it’s just not credible that the Lebedevs don’t do something for the Kremlin. If Boris goes to the Lebedevs’ palazzo in Italy and shags someone, there’s got to be a sporting chance that someone’s filming it… Imagine if Putin was knocking off a woman in a place in Moscow owned by a British businessman, then, in my old job, I would be on to that immediately, I would be all over it like a bad rash.”
Boris Johnson may have put himself in a position where he could have been compromised.
We don’t know the full facts. But, if the former MI6 officer is correct, the Kremlin does.