Alexander Lebedev is telling the story of how he met his girlfriend, Elena Perminova, who is 22 and heavily pregnant. We are sitting in the dining room of Lebedev's house in the ultra-exclusive enclave of Rublyovka, just west of Moscow, early this year. The house includes an underground pool with a cherub-laden fresco on the ceiling, Italian marble floors and a huge ovoid window onto a grand staircase that, Lebedev says, is typical of classical Italian architecture. Outside, there are four or five guards milling around in the driveway. Former President Boris Yeltsin once lived beyond the trees on the other side of a nearby tennis court, now covered in snow. A black BMW with tinted windows, its engine running, sits next to a wall that wraps around the compound. Lebedev, 49, dressed in jeans and a white button-down shirt and black vest, is sporting his signature glasses with rectangular lenses. He has tousled gray hair and a mostly English accent that sounds carefully studied, because that's exactly what it is in the 1980s, Lebedev spied for the KGB while posing as an economic attaché at the Soviet embassy in London. Today, he looks more like a movie director.
"She was distributing drugs in a disco in Novosibirsk," Lebedev says of Perminova. "She was actually arrested when she was 16, and she cooperated with the authorities, and she almost got killed." The police, Lebedev says, were unable or unwilling to provide a safe haven for people who helped them arrest local drug barons. Perminova's father wrote to Lebedev, he says. At the time this was about five years ago Lebedev was still a deputy in the Duma and lobbying for a witness-protection program. He says that no one in the Duma leadership supported him, but that he met with Perminova's father and Elena and that eventually they started seeing each other. "We've been together since she was 19 or 20," he says. Perminova is a model and an economics student at Moscow State University. Throughout our two-hour breakfast, she alternately serves as waitress doling out espressos, porridge, and pastries stuffed with black caviar and as significant other, sampling the kiwi fruit and playing on her laptop.
At this particular juncture in Russian history, it is Lebedev's self-assigned role to play, simultaneously, the oligarch and the anti-oligarch to be the big, brash banking magnate whose estimated wealth prior to the financial crisis was around $3.7 billion and to decry the system that produces people like him, to live among the powerful while lambasting those who lord it over others. Before the global downturn, which Lebedev says has cost him $1 billion, he was a predictable, if persistent, critic of former President and current Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, routinely calling for an independent legislature, a free press and free elections, and a crackdown on corruption. Improving his image has been the Moscow tabloid he co-owns, Novaya Gazetta, which is known for publishing stories on the war in Chechnya, bribe-seeking officials and the nation's abysmal public services. Anna Politkovskaya, a journalist famous for her dispatches from Chechnya, was one of the paper's star reporters before being shot to death in 2006, presumably for writing the wrong story.
But since the Russian stock markets crashed in mid-September Bloomberg has reported that Russia's top 25 wealthiest people have lost a collective $230 billion Lebedev's campaign has acquired a new urgency. He has ridiculed the efforts of Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev to revive the economy, including bailouts for the oligarchs that he estimates at roughly $11 billion. He has announced plans for an English-language radio channel in Moscow; bought the London newspaper the Evening Standard; announced plans to launch a democratic political party with former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev; and (briefly) run for mayor of Sochi, host of the 2014 Winter Olympics.
"The system doesn't work," Lebedev says. "It has nothing to do with the ordinary Russian." He pauses for just a moment. "I don't think I'm an enemy of this state. I am a critic, yes. But they need an opposition who is going to correct their mistakes, and they need a different political system."
Lebedev seems an unlikely person to make that case. A few weeks earlier, near the center of Moscow in a stately pink building where he sometimes works and sleeps, Lebedev gave me a condensed history of the Russian state since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 the beginnings of post-Soviet capitalism, the rise of the oligarchs, the loans-for-shares scandal, his acquisition of National Reserve Bank, the rise of Putin, the fall of the oligarchs, his 28% stake in Aeroflot, the Khodorkovsky affair, the forthcoming launch of his restaurant in London, the end of democracy in Russia, Davos, and fellow oligarch (and Chelsea Football Club owner) Roman Abramovich.
The Oligarchs and the State
I ask Lebedev where the word oligarch comes from. "I think it was invented by Berezovsky somewhere in the '90s," he says dismissively, referring to Boris Berezovsky, the former oil and media magnate who prospered during Yelstin's rule but fled Russia facing accusations of fraud after Putin took charge. For most of that decade, between five and 10 businessmen (most notably Berezovsky, Mikhail Fridman, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Vladimir Potanin and Vladimir Gusinsky) ruled Russia. Their power reached its height at Yeltsin's re-election as President in 1996 the same oligarchs who financed Yeltsin's campaign went on to buy lucrative state assets at knock-down prices. When he took power in 2000, Putin immediately set out to rein in the oligarchs, offering them a straightforward deal: Keep your money, but stay out of politics. Khodorkovsky, now confined in a prison five time zones east of Moscow, is testament to what happens to oligarchs who don't play by the rules. The former head of Yukos was on the verge of forming a partnership with Exxon-Mobil, and had called for a more open and democratic nation both big no-nos in Putin's Russia before he was arrested in 2003.