Following the old adage about our enemies’ enemies, anyone who dislikes billionaire Vladimir Putin is supposed to like billionaire Alexander Lebedev. Yet without in any way denigrating folk wisdom, one finds it hard to apply in this instance, though our papers don’t seem to share this problem.
Parallels are being drawn between Lebedev and Pussy Riot, with the altogether correct conclusion that justice in Putin’s Russia falls short of our standards. Fair enough, a quick phone call from the Kremlin can indeed open or close any case, and those that stay open often have the verdict decided in advance. But that makes neither Pussy Riot less hideous nor Mr Lebedev more innocent.
Lebedev has been charged with hooliganism for beating up a fellow guest on a Moscow TV show. Taking exception to Sergei Polonsky’s perfectly innocent remarks, the oligarch got up and threw a well-rehearsed combination of punches, knocking the unsuspecting man off his chair to the floor.
The Times refers to the incident as a ‘punch-up’, implying bilateral action. It wasn’t. It was a savage, surprise attack that was neither provoked nor reciprocated.
Now Lebedev’s pugilistic exploits may earn him several years in prison, which on the surface of it doesn’t sound like terrible injustice. Nor is the vicious attack a groundless accusation: anyone with access to YouTube can watch it in living colour. Fair cop? Not according to the accused, who doesn’t mind venting his views urbi et orbi. And he can.
Unlike other Russian billionaires Mr Lebedev has easy access to British newspapers. After all, his family owns several of them, The Standard and The Independent being the jewels in their portfolio. About a year ago, the whisper started that Lebedev was also about to acquire The Times, but we’re not going to indulge in rumour-mongering, are we?
His self-defence is as virtuosic as his boxing technique (not every brawler can throw such short, straight punches, especially in combinations). ‘Anyone in my position would have done the same,’ says Lebedev. ‘The only thing I regret is that people might now perceive me as a violent person, which I am absolutely not.’
Perish the thought, whatever would give anybody that idea? Publicly beating up a man who doesn’t share our opinions is a perfectly normal, non-violent thing to do. Especially for a career KGB officer, which Lebedev was.
His son’s comment is breathtaking in its effrontery: ‘My father has spent his life trying to promote freedom of expression and justice in his fight against corruption in Russia.’ Of course he has. Shame on you for thinking KGB officers may devote their lives to anything other than promoting human liberties or, as The Mail described it, ‘quality journalism’.
Lebedev Jr was alluding to Russia’s Novaya Gazeta, which his father owns in partnership with Gorbachev. The paper has indeed taken an anti-Putin stance, and several of its correspondents, including Anna Politkovskaya, have been rather unceremoniously bumped off in assorted dark alleys – though not in ‘the shithouse’, as Putin once identified his preferred killing venue.
But even if, at a moment of weakness, we accept that Lebedev is animated by a noble spirit, rather than political ambitions or a personal squabble with his KGB colleague Putin, we still may find it hard to contain some disbelief. Much as we crave seeing Lebedev in the light shone by his son, facts just won’t let us. (Russophones can get these on kompromat.ru.)
Upon graduation from the Institute for International Relations, the notorious KGB breeding ground, Lebedev joined his alma mater’s sponsoring organisation and in 1987 was posted under diplomatic cover to the Soviet embassy in London. This was a more prestigious posting than Dresden, where Putin served, which may partly explain the colonel’s persistent resentment of Lebedev.
Exactly what assignments Lebedev carried out here isn’t known. Yet at the start of his ‘business’ career he liked to threaten his competitors with KGB ‘torture chambers’, boasting about his experience in their use.
After the 1991 transfer of power from the Party to the KGB, otherwise known as ‘the collapse of the Soviet Union’, the ruling elite felt compelled to portray Russia as a new oasis of freedom, democracy and free enterprise. To that end, state assets were transferred into the tender care of ‘appointed’ oligarchs, mainly drawn from three groups: komsomol (Young Communist League) functionaries, KGB officers and common criminals. In their moral principles and modus operandi the three groups were barely distinguishable, so their fusion into a single entity proceeded apace.
Lebedev was one of those who drew the long straw. He started a finance company that instantly prospered, then in 1995 bought the National Reserve Bank. How he managed in just a couple of years to put together enough money to buy even a struggling bank is a mystery, but then Russia is full of them.
What’s important is that government-owned Gazprom, the world’s biggest gas producer, instantly transferred $300 million into the bank, even though it seemed to be on its last legs. But then, to use the Lebedev mantra, any major energy company, be it BP, Esso or Shell, would jump at the chance of transferring their hard-earned into a moribund bank days after it was acquired by someone with little experience in business. Wouldn’t it?
In due course, Lebedev bought a big share of Aeroflot and never looked back – until now, that is. For eventually a rift appeared between the ‘appointed’ oligarch and Putin.
Such oligarchs don’t really own their money – they keep an eye on it and are allowed to use some. This arrangement is contingent upon their behaviour. If they just enjoy their instantly acquired wealth and jump when Putin tells them to, they are welcome to their toys, such as jets, yachts, English football clubs or, in Lebedev’s case, London newspapers. But, as Mikhail Khodorkovsky will agree, the moment they launch unauthorised forays into politics they’re in trouble.
Lebedev too got ideas above their station. ‘Money for me,’ he once said, ‘is rather an opportunity to… affect public life.’ Now indulging in anti-Putin politics leaves an oligarch only two options: either do a Berezovsky and go west, preferably to London, or do a Khodorkovsky and go east, to a Siberian prison camp. Lebedev has rejected the former, so the latter may await.
Yet only someone who knows nothing about Russia or indeed people in general can portray him as a ‘freedom fighter’ committed to ‘quality journalism’. I don’t always understand the meaning of ‘quality’ as a modifier, but, assuming they mean high quality, one would suggest that perhaps The Independent and The Standard aren’t the brightest-shining examples of journalistic excellence. Under Lebedev’s stewardship the latter has reduced its price to nothing, which is about what it’s worth.
No, Mr Lebedev is committed to something else, and I wouldn’t venture a guess as to what that might be. Neither am I going to deny that, if Putin’s poodle Abramovich had indulged in TV violence, he probably would have got away with it.
But by the standards of any civilised country, what Lebedev did would be classified as assault. That Russia isn’t a civilised country shouldn’t mean that Lebedev’s thuggery wasn’t assault. If he’s thrown into jail, I, for one, won’t shed any tears.
What does vex me is that chaps like him are allowed to buy means of affecting public opinion in England. Free enterprise should be encouraged – but not allowed to become a suicide pact.