Who wants to be a billionaire? Not, apparently, Alexander Lebedev, the self-described ‘Russian ex-oligarch’ who has tried billionaredom and found it not to his liking. Lebedev opens his new book, Hunt the Banker, with a nostalgic riff on his happy youth in a tiny Moscow apartment and the observation that ‘the ideal menu consists of buckwheat (60 cents a kilo), extra virgin flaxseed oil, vegetables and a little fish’. Money, he reckons, ‘warms only a shallow soul. It shrivels the heart, gives no peace, and problems proliferate’.
Why, then, did Lebedev leave a comfortable post as a KGB spy in London to pursue a career in banking in post-Soviet Russia? ‘A desire to accumulate experience and know the system from the inside,’ he says — the same reason, apparently, that drove him to become a Duma deputy, run for mayor of Sochi and Moscow, and later become a British media mogul via his co-ownership with son Evgeny of the Independent and the Evening Standard.
Sitting in Evgeny’s pop art-decorated office at the Standard’s Derry Street headquarters in Kensington, Lebedev appears every inch the oligarch that he insists he no longer is. He wears an artfully frayed designer jacket with sneakers and looks sleek, fit and younger than his 59 years. So what makes him different from other Russian plutocrats? ‘They don’t write books,’ he says. ‘And I’m no longer on the Forbes [rich] list. My business was destroyed by Chekists’: Chekist being pejorative slang for KGB, and later FSB, men — which is what Lebedev himself was. Or, if you subscribe to Vladimir Putin’s famous dictum that there’s ‘no such thing as a former KGB man’, what he still is.
Hunt the Banker is a strange confection of autobiography and sociopolitical manifesto. Lebedev’s career path — from the Soviet Academy of Sciences, a foreign posting to Libya, recruitment by the KGB’s first chief directorate and his posting as a spy in London in 1988 and then transfer to the economic security unit of Russia's newly formed foreign intelligence service in 1992 — is all covered in a few pages. But the bulk of the book is an impassioned critique of the corruption and venality not only of Russian business, the Kremlin, and of his old outfit, the FSB, but also of the western bankers, accountants and fixers who enabled the wholesale plunder of post-Soviet Russia. Western banks, he says, have become ‘machines for theft’. Global white-collar crime, he claims, has risen from $20 billion a year in the early 1990s to more than a trillion today. And it’s all the fault of the rotten western financial system. ‘All these Nigerians, Mexicans, Egyptians, Chinese, Brazilians and Indians were taught to steal by western auditors and bankers. The system was created by Anglo-American lawyers who stand alongside the people doing the plundering.’
For Lebedev, the West has lost any moral superiority it may have had over the former USSR by its collusion in the wholesale asset-stripping of the poorer parts of the world by their elites. ‘Over the past 25 years the West has degraded so much that I don’t see any difference in these political systems any longer. If I had to choose between Theresa May, Corbyn or Putin, I would choose Putin. He is the best politician.’
No difference at all between Britain and Russia — does that mean everything in the UK is for sale? Lebedev pauses for thought. ‘I don’t know a single politician in the UK who has any relationship to dirty money. I know lawyers. But there’s no direct political corruption here.’ Even so, the fabled British justice system, Lebedev reckons, is no better than that of his homeland. ‘You try to sue Credit Suisse. Even if you have money you’ll never win because all the top lawyers are under contract to them.’ His opinion is based on experience, he says: an attempt to sue a subsidiary of General Electric for £10 million, which he lost on appeal in 2015, convinced him that the London High Court was rigged in favour of major multinationals.
But what about the free press? According to Lebedev, Novaya Gazeta, the small independent Moscow-based daily in which he’s been a shareholder for years, ‘is more independent that the New York Times in all ways. It’s much more radical, much bolder, nobody has any journalistic influence on it. The New York Times is under all kinds of influences, very much’.
Russia has ‘plenty’ of free press, claims Lebedev, but for some reason consumers choose to watch and read the media that are loyal to the Kremlin instead. ‘What can you do about it?’ he sighs — apparently oblivious to the Kremlin’s ruthless takedowns of major independent television networks in the early 2000s and two decades of systematic official pressure on advertisers and investors in dissident media. ‘As Stalin said, “I don’t have other writers for you”,’ laments Lebedev, as though the tiny audience for independent media in Russia is a result of consumer choice rather than relentless Kremlin pressure.
At the same time Lebedev says he’s a passionate believer in supporting the dying newspaper industry. ‘It’s a mission,’ he says. ‘In order for newspapers to exist, someone has to finance them. Of course many hope that their papers will support their point of view, but I do not use my newspapers for that.’ Lebedev insists that he ‘never interferes’ in the editorial lines of his papers, in Russia or the UK. ‘There is a Chinese wall. I just give the money and don’t even look in that direction.’
So it’s just a coincidence that one of the few British columnists who writes sympathetically about Putin, Mary Dejevsky, works for the Independent? ‘I have never met her or seen her, how can I influence her?’ protests Lebedev. But he does praise Dejevsky as ‘the only journalist left in the West who once in six months writes some not-bad article about Russia. All the rest [of the coverage] is pure darkness. It’s just not fair. It wasn’t the Russian people who poisoned Skripal. It was just a few guys’.
In July the Guardian reported that a Saudi business consortium had bought a 30 per cent stake in the Evening Standard and the Independent in 2017-18, sparking concerns over the papers’ impartiality. The deal was his son’s, Lebedev explains — but as far as he is concerned the sale was just ‘a normal financial solution. So what if we sell a minority share?’ The Independent has ‘five times more’ critical coverage of Saudi Arabia ‘than the Times and Guardian put together’. The Evening Standard loses £10 million a year, says Lebedev, ‘so we need to do something. Let’s close it, how about that? Unfortunately there aren’t so many people who want to invest in newspapers.’
Saudi money is as good as anyone else’s, is Lebedev’s line. And he also has a soft spot for Saudi crown prince Mohammad bin Salman’s way of dealing with thieving princes: imprisoning them in a hotel until they agreed to return some of their plundered wealth. ‘I don’t suggest [that Putin] imprison all the oligarchs in the Kremlin and not let them out until they have paid $100 million dollars to the poor. Probably Mohammad bin Salman acted against the law, but in the end the sheikhs gave up a stolen $100 million, even if they kept 200 for themselves. Maybe it’s not such a bad idea.’
What’s definitely not working, he believes, are the West’s efforts to control runaway financial corruption — the overarching theme of Hunt the Banker. Britain’s Unexplained Wealth Orders, legislated in 2016, are used so rarely as to be useless, says Lebedev. ‘I am ready to name 50 names to you right now to whom you could come tomorrow and ask, where did you get your money from?’ More effective, he argues, would be an international court modelled on the war crimes tribunal in the Hague designed to hunt down and punish financial crooks — starting, in his opinion, with the big four international accountancycompanies, ‘the protectors of fraudsters around the world’.
Lebedev may well be a crusader for global fairness, calling out the hypocrisy of the West based on his own experiences as a businessman and media owner on both sides of the old Iron Curtain. Or, if you’re conspiratorially minded, he’s playing a more subtle game, preaching moral equivalence between Russia and the West in order to undermine western confidence in its own moral right to sanction and punish Putin.
Peter Pomerantsev, in his seminal 2015 study of 21st-century Russia, Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible, writes of an official propaganda campaign of ‘whataboutism’ aimed specifically at eroding the moral distinctions between, for instance, the Iraq war and Russia’s invasion of Crimea (which Lebedev, by the way, believes was ‘justified… if not completely legal’). By Lebedev’s own account, he’s not saying anything that Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump and Emmanuel Macron haven’t already said. Could it be that a former KGB officer and Russian oligarch is right to call out our system for being as rotten as that of his own homeland?
Owen Matthews’s first novel, Black Sun, is published by Transworld this month.