“I am probably the biggest equity investor in the history of modern Russia”
— Alexander Lebedev, 2009
A Russian oligarch. A KGB spy. One of the world’s richest people. A recent father at age 49. His biography unfolds like the trailer of a Hollywood potboiler but the life of Alexander Lebedev, Russian billionaire, is very much real. The most recent addition to his empire has been the acquisition of London’s premium newspaper, The Evening Standard, at a princely sum of a mere $1.60. With this, he has garnered a 75.1% stake in the newspaper that he “fell in love with” when he was a young spy.
Lebedev was close to the instruments of espionage from the time he was in a cradle. Born to parents who were both academics, his father was politically influential and known in the circles of the Soviet-approved intelligentsia. Lebedev attended the prestigious Moscow State Institute for International Relations and soon after his graduation began pursuing a PhD in economics. But he eschewed a scientific and economic career for one in the KGB because at the time “it was the one of the most attractive careers.”
He was posted in London under the guise of an economic attaché for the Soviet embassy and rose to the rank of KGB lieutenant colonel. Although the Soviet Union faced a meltdown in the 1990s, Lebedev was well knotted in the political fabric and his connections helped him embark upon a new path.
Unlike most of his peers who privatized the rich natural resources of Russia for personal gain, Lebedev built up his wealth through banking. Making his money buying and selling South American and African bonds, he ventured into high risk, high reward deals which, by his own estimates, earned him around half a million US dollars in commissions. Flush with quick money, he formed his first company, the Russian Investment-Finance Company, which took over the much troubled National Reserve bank in 1995. The bank later became one of Russia’s biggest banks and one of only two large banks to survive the Russian financial crisis in 1998.
Today, Lebedev owns a 30% stake in Aeroflot, the national airline, 26% of Ilyushin Finance, which owns a significant share of the Russian aircraft-building industry, and stakes in Sberbank, Gazprom and Unified Energy System. Along with good friend Mikhail Gorbachev, Lebedev also co-owns Novaya Gazeta, with a 49% stake in the Moscow newspaper. He is so close to Gorbachev that every year he bankrolls a celebrity charged glamorous party in London to raise money for the Raisa Gorbachev Foundation, named after Gorbachev’s late wife.
Yearning to dip his toes into politics, Lebedev unsuccessfully ran for Moscow’s mayoral post in 2003, but the same year was elected as a deputy to Russia’s lower house, the Duma. Five years later, as the global downturn began to eat into his millions, Lebedev again donned his entrepreneurial hat, quitting the Duma to return to full-time business. The banking magnate’s wealth prior to the financial crisis was estimated to be $3.7 billion, but reportedly shrank approximately $1 billion in the aftermath.
Ranked 39th richest in the country by Forbes in 2009, the Russian is known more for his disagreements with former Russian President Vladimir Putin than for flaunting his wealth. His reputation for being disarmingly frank precedes him and he is one of the few oligarchs who has used his position at the Kremlin to champion free speech and rail against corruption. Russia’s mafia hates him after he championed legislation limiting gambling. Oligarchs despise him as well, after he proposed a windfall tax on natural-resources billionaires.
Lebedev comes across as a cultured and well-read person equally at ease with quoting Dostoyevsky as he is recalling William Cromwell. But he does not care much for his fellow elite, whom he likens to King Lear: “Some people have to impress with all their acquisitions…all these boats and aeroplanes and properties but there is no happiness.” With his guarded smile, trademark rectangular glasses and non-laced plimsolls, Lebedev apparently splashes his money only on two things – art, and boutique hotels throughout Europe, now totaling seven.
Critics are of the opinion that the true Lebedev is cloaked by a facade. Olga Kryshtanovskaya, a prominent socialist is convinced that he is, “a master of intrigue who is behind all the curtains.” Nikolai Petrov of the Carnegie Moscow Centre says, “It’s unclear who his political protectors are. He’s a pretty closed guy.” Yet, all of this drama furthers the mystery of Mr. Lebedev, endearingly known now by so many as the ‘good oligarch.’
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© Thomas White International, Ltd. 2019