The party co-hosted by Mikhail Gorbachev at Althorp earlier this month to launch a charitable foundation in memory of his wife Raisa was a sumptuous affair even by the standards of London’s glitterati. Guests were treated to a series of surreal tableaux: from people in 18th century dress sitting in trees “like a scene from a Watteau painting”, to strange figures patrolling the grounds with wolves straining on leashes. But the most intriguing question of all, says The Sunday Times, was the identity of the “unassuming, bespectacled” man who picked up the £1.3m bill. It was Alexander Lebedev, the ex-KGB man turned billionaire businessman, popularly known as “the spy who came in for the gold”.
Worth some $3.5bn, Lebedev is the 194th richest person in the world, according to Forbes. But that statistic barely hints at the influence he wields in Moscow. Lebedev is president of National Reserve Bank, one of Russia’s most prominent financial institutions, but his real wealth comes from his investments, reckoned to be worth six times more than his core banking business. In addition to sizeable holdings in Unified Energy Systems and Gazprom, Lebedev has a 31% stake in Aeroflot and has announced plans to launch Russia’s first “no frills” airline. The story of the Soviet spy turned captain of industry is not unusual in today’s Russia, says the Los Angeles Times. There has been “an explosion” in the number of top jobs held by former members of the security services in state-owned industry and private business since Vladmir Putin – himself a former KGB colonel – came to power.
Lebedev, 46, is the first to admit that the KGB taught its recruits the value of elitism. “Tennis was encouraged, so you could move easily in high society in the West,” he told The New York Times in 2000. The son of a professor of engineering, he trained as an economist at the prestigious Moscow State Institute for International Relations, becoming an expert on foreign debt and the emerging market economies of the Soviet bloc. Posted to London in the 1980s, he worked ostensibly as an economics attaché and covertly as a spy. Some in Moscow claim Lebedev “spent more time studying finance and the City than British secrets”, says the Sunday Express. “It stood him in good stead.” On returning to Moscow, he was taken up by Russia’s leading bankers; by 1995, he was chairman of the National Reserve Bank.
The 1990s were not easy years. In 1997, Lebedev’s home was raided by police investigating tax evasion. Moreover, as his son, Evgeny, told The Sunday Times, in those “wild west” days there was always the fear of an assassin’s bullet. Given Lebedev’s close connections to the Yeltsin regime, he has subsequently had to play a wily game to keep on the right side of Vladimir Putin. Lebedev is not afraid to speak out, says The Washington Post. He is a vociferous critic of corruption, and is increasingly seen as the political heir to his still-powerful patron, Gorbachev.
Putin might very well view him as a threat, says the Sunday Times, particularly given his increasingly popular profile. With his political career temporarily on hold, Lebedev has turned his attention to a reality TV show called Chance – a version of The Apprentice. He “may yet become Russia’s answer to Sir Alan Sugar or Donald Trump”.
The ex-Soviet spies who retain a taste for England
Alexander Lebedev might be the face of progressive Russian business, but there are aspects of his past that he refuses to shake off. A couple of years back, he tried to buy the statue of Soviet secret services founder Felix Dzerzhinsky, toppled from its perch in Lubyanka Square as the Red Flag fell. The plan, said a spokesman, was to place the monument in the lobby of his bank “to keep order”.
There’s no doubt that Russia’s old elites die hard, says the LA Times. Power remains the best way to make money in Russia and the KGB might have lost the Cold War, but its agents are certainly winning the peace. Former agents such as Lebedev, with their superior education, skill with foreign languages and “relative incorruptibility” are “sought-after as managers”.
As a former stalwart of the Soviet Embassy in London, Lebedev is at the heart of an even more elite club, says the Sunday Express: the group of “London spies”, who regularly meet in favoured hostelries such as the London Pub.
“Despite the terrible blows that the British secret service dealt us, we remain inveterate anglophiles,” says one of the most colourful, Mikhail Lyubimov, who, in common with his peers, continues to sport tweed jackets and Church’s shoes. “The atmosphere of Pall Mall reigns… the conversation is often in English and, naturally, like all true gentlemen, everyone drinks Scotch whisky”. Another club member is Mikhail Bogdanov, who puffs away at a pipe that once belonged to the notorious British traitor, Kim Philby. Like many others, he attended Philby’s espionage classes as a young agent, and confesses to finding them “immensely formative”.