Posted on May 4, 2012 - by Venik
Evgeny Lebedev is a Russian billionaire. As a child, he wanted to be a cosmonaut ‘like all good Soviet children’. Today he owns a couple of British newspaper titles, dates glamorous women and has a pet wolf called Boris. But he’s no ordinary playboy
After giving evidence to the Leveson inquiry last week, Britain’s youngest newspaper proprietor Evgeny Lebedev tweeted the following: “Forgot to tell #Leveson that it’s unreasonable to expect individuals to spend £millions on newspapers and not have access to politicians.” It was a funny and refreshingly honest message after all the recent humbug and hypocrisy from media magnates about not wanting to influence the political class.
But perhaps we should no longer be surprised by such interventions. Since taking over the London Evening Standard and the Independent (both for a quid) Lebedev has cut an increasingly eccentric and impressive figure. The son of the billionaire businessman and former KGB agent Alexander, he was the most unlikely newspaper boss. He was known for appearances in the gossip columns, an unfeasibly black beard (yes, it’s real), dapper dress sense, dating the actor Joely Richardson and almost dating the pop star Geri Halliwell.
It was originally thought that his father had bought him the Standard in 2009 as a plaything; a bauble to keep him busy in Britain while Alexander got on with the serious business of running the newspaper Novaya Gazeta, condemning Putin’s swerve from democracy, and making more billions at home in Russia. When Lebedev junior announced his revamped Standard would be a freebie, readers and staff feared the worst. But over the past three years, a paper that had become bleak and intolerant has recovered much of its old verve. Meanwhile, just keeping the Independent going is a triumph. To be fair, he has done more than that – launching the cheap and cheerful paper the i, and boosting its web presence.
We meet in his Mayfair office, which is every bit as striking as Lebedev – elegant leather chairs, a table with every upmarket mag you could wish for, orchids and two Bacons on the wall for good measure. There’s a restraint to his showiness – the suggestion that he could put so much more on display, but chooses not to. As for Lebedev, he is dressed formally – with waistcoat and tie, all matching greys and blacks. He could be a 19th-century Russian prince, and yet he could turn into John Travolta circa Saturday Night Fever any second.
The outer office, staffed by young, beautiful people speaking a number of languages, leads to Lebedev’s, which is even bigger. It’s stuffed with iconoclastic modern art. Lebedev, who studied history of art, gives me a guided tour. He speaks gently in an accent that still has a hint of Russia – he moved to London at eight. “That’s Fuck Face,” he says, referring to a Chapman brothers sculpture of a child with a penis for a nose. We move on to a mock-up of an Evening Standard banner by Gilbert & George. He says the Bacons are just lithographs, only worth about £30,000 each.
We sit down next to an orchid. It’s cold and unusually fresh (even the air seems expensive). An assistant brings in coffee – it tastes unusually good.
Did Lebedev, 32 next week, always want to run newspapers? “No, I wanted to be a cosmonaut, like all good Soviet children.” He says his experience of newspapers was largely confined to work experience with his father. “It was quite – what’s the right word? – unknown. Two days after the paper was acquired, Jonathan Rothermere [the previous owner] suggested I should take out all the senior executives.” In the Russian sense? He grins. “No, not in the Russian sense. For lunch. I’ve learned so much in the last three years, and I’ve got more and more interested in the business model, and trying to survive at a time when everybody’s hailing the death of print journalism. When we bought the Independent, its parent company had set a date for closure, May 2010. And the Standard was on its knees, losing £30m. Now it’s going to break even this year.” It’s apparent how much he loves his newspapers (the Standard because he adores London, the Independent because it’s a thinking paper) and values a strong, free press.
Lebedev stresses he’s not in papers for money – that he couldn’t be. So what does he want out of his papers? Well, he says, he hopes to change the image of the moneyed Russian. “The perception is of Russians as dodgy, shady businessmen or ruthless, bare-chested politicians, and we’re not all like that.”
Then there is what he calls his project. Lebedev is as hands-on, as interfering, as any of the legendary media magnates. Not in an overtly political sense (he and the Standard went with his friend Boris Johnson for London mayor, while the Independent said Boris would be disastrous), but in a broader, benign way. His hope, which is as Panglossian as it is commendable, is to improve world leadership; to look at countries and systems that fail and examine why. So yes, he makes no bones about using his influence – the world of celebrity can be useful (Bono and Elton John have guest-edited the Independent) and his name will provide access to many of the world’s leaders. Over the past year, he has visited Gaza, Somalia and Ethiopia, interviewed presidents and mayors, victims of violence and perpetrators, and written a series of nuanced articles. It seems he is rapidly becoming his own favourite foreign correspondent.
Why does he think he should author these? “I think it’s almost a crime to have the ability to see these places and understand them, and give a balanced account of what’s going on, and not do it.” But most proprietors would leave it to editors to send their best reporters. “If you send somebody else, it’s not really your project. In the past, I’ve delegated too much to other people. I’ve had a restaurant and been involved in a fashion label, and I’ve got somebody else to come up with the concept or design, and just been an investor. I realised I’m more interested in doing it myself.”
I can’t help thinking newspapers have given him a belated sense of purpose. It can’t be easy growing up in the shadow of such a successful father – Lebedev senior is not only an intellectual and possessor of a $3.5bn (£2.2bn) fortune, but also showed himself to be a decent pugilist when he rose from his seat in a TV interview to punch a fellow guest.
Lebedev calls his father a man of “great courage”. He seems more gentle than his father. Would he wallop a guy? “Depends how far I’m pushed.” When did he last hit anybody? “Not for a long time.” Actually, he says, he and his father are similar. “We are both quite shy and gentle until we get pushed too far … then the gentleness disappears. But that doesn’t happen often.”
Does he have any qualms about how his father made his fortune in the 1990s? “No, because there’s never been a question of his acquiring his cash like the top oligarchs have, which is basically by splitting the country’s natural resources. There’s a well-documented history of how he made his money, first by being a financial adviser, then acquiring this tiny bank and growing it.”
Lebedev’s grandparents were academics. His family lived in Moscow and were “comfortable”. He is both critical and defensive of today’s Russia. When he talks about it, he sounds like a member of an old ruling class. “Simple Russians, people who live in the provinces, like a strong figure such as Putin.”
What was it like when his family became absurdly rich? “Unlike the other oligarchs, there wasn’t suddenly a big change in terms of yacht, villa, private jet. I don’t want to seem immodest in saying that. My dad continued living in the same apartment, my grandfather’s apartment, with my mother’s parents in Moscow until my parents separated.”
Everything about Lebedev is so immaculate, perfumed with privilege – the beard looks as if each hair has been individually trimmed. Look, I say, this is a pretty lavish lifestyle, isn’t it? “Yeah, but not by traditional oligarchs’ lifestyle.” So Roman Abramovich would say this is rubbish? He smiles. “Yeah, he’d say, ‘Why don’t you fucking own the whole building? Why are you sitting in a building with other people? Why have you got a lithograph rather than a fucking real Bacon?’ Hehehehe.”
Who is his favourite oligarch? “I don’t really keep friendly relationships with them.” Your least? “All of them, really.”
Does he hate being called one? “Yeah, because you paint every one with the same brush stroke.” He says the material want experienced in the Soviet Union led to excess, and defines a typical oligarch. “They are driven by cash and nothing else. It’s a combination of having access to money and not having a lot of education or aesthetic understanding. Taste, you know. You suddenly just want everything, and most importantly, you want to show everybody you have it.”
I ask if he is a billionaire in his own right. “Well, yes we, what’s the word, we share, so you could call me a billionaire.” Does he ever wish he had less money? He looks astonished. “I’ve never thought about that. If money in some way spoiled me or made me vulgar … or, if I’d gone the route of a lot of wealthy young teenagers, and spent all my time lying on beaches with supermodels, snorting coke and wasting my life … “
And has he ever done that? “I’ve … done what teenagers do … ” He’s had his coke years? “I did what all teenagers do. I wouldn’t say coke years, no.” Months? “Minutes … I could have been wasting my life away, and it is for that reason you said, when people are daunted by what their parents are.”
Does it become hard to trust people when you are so rich? “You just have to use your judgment and carry on life. You can’t start suspecting people, otherwise you’d just go mad. I think I’ve got pretty good judgment of character.” Has he ever thought, why do all these women fancy the billionaire Evgeny Lebedev? “They don’t!” Anyway, he says, he enjoys his own company, isn’t going out with anybody, and is a bit boring.
He never thought of himself as a playboy; he insists it was a cliche. Perhaps it was his choice of girlfriends? Well, he says, the Halliwell thing was rubbish, and Richardson would not be the choice of most playboys. “Joely is an extraordinary human being. I don’t think the word playboy and her could be used in the same sentence. She’s an extremely exquisite, sophisticated person.”
There is no fleet of flash cars, he says. What does he drive? “A Jag.” And not a single yacht? “Nope, not even a rubber dingy.” What’s the flashest thing he’s bought? He struggles. “I’m thinking of buying a duck-billed platypus who could just walk around the office.” Really? “Yeah. Oh, and I’ve got a wolf.” Here? “No, I’ve got a flat in Italy, and I have a wolf there. His name is Boris. He likes to nibble on people’s backsides. And consumes a lot of kilos of meat a day.” He says perhaps that’s the main difference between him and your everyday oligarch. “Russian oligarchs like to go to St Tropez, I like to go to Umbria. It’s just rural Italian peace. There’s nothing there, just farmers and wolves.”