The Billionaire Who Wants to Change Russia

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.

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