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Oligarch, reinvented

Evgeny Lebedev, son of a billionaire, owns newspapers, restaurants and a mansion near London. He bel

Evgeny Lebedev, son of a billionaire, owns newspapers, restaurants and a mansion near London. He believes he can change the image of Russians in Britain – just don’t mistake him for a football club owner.

One evening last summer, Evgeny Lebedev met Prince Charles at a reception in London. The prince, leaning politely towards the Russian, began the conversation in the instinctive manner of experienced royalty. "Have you been interested in football all your life?" Lebedev had to let the prince down gently: he owns newspapers, not a Premier League club.

Evgeny, son of the Russian billionaire Alex­ander Lebedev, reflects on his encounter with Prince Charles with amusement as he sits in his art-filled office (the Chapman brothers' sculpture Fuck-face - a figure with a penis for a nose - sits in one corner). He has lived in London since 1998 and become a model English gentleman, if one from another era and a remote social class. There is the pillared office in Mayfair, the immaculately groomed beard, the tailored suits. There is the home in the parkland of Hampton Court where deer graze freely, an old wooden swing hanging from the branch of a tree and a sunken lawn sweeping back from the terrace. To sit on one of his wrought-iron garden chairs, a butler-delivered cup of tea in your hand, is to find yourself in a Henry James novel.

The affection for a distant, pre-war England, complete with staff, in part explains Lebedev's professional interest. To be a newspaper proprietor in 2011 - he owns the London Evening Standard, Independent and Independent on Sunday - is in some ways an exercise in nostalgia. And no newspaper tugs at the memory of a bygone age more than the Standard, the paper of now-vanished street-sellers. Sitting at a large, round table in his office, Lebedev marvels that he owns "the London printed title". Yet he is adamant that he can and will make his publications adaptable to the digital world, and commercially successful.

To some extent, he has already achieved his aim. Lebedev bought the Standard for £1 in January 2009. He was 28 at the time and had never thought his future lay in newsprint. There are diverging tales of what prompted the purchase. Lebedev says he met Lord Rothermere, owner of Associated Newspapers, at a dinner, and it was he who suggested the Russian might buy the paper. But Geordie Greig, the Standard's editor, says that he had the idea first. The two men met while Greig was editing the society magazine Tatler. Lebedev was planning a fund­raising party for the former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev's charitable foundation, and Greig, in a deft strategic move, offered to co-host the event. Not long after, Greig tells me, "I called up Evgeny and said, 'I've got a brilliant idea. Why don't you buy the Standard?' He had a one-word response: 'OK.'"

Lebedev says he was quickly convinced of his decision. "What interested me in it was that it's such a London brand, and London is, for me, the greatest city on earth." He often talks like this - passionate, fulsome, vague - in his low, lightly accented voice. Over the past two years, working closely with Greig, he has transformed the business model of the Standard. By cutting distribution costs from 30p to 4p per copy to reader and making the paper free ("a eureka moment", says Greig), they have increased circulation substantially. According to the recent National Readership Survey, the Standard now has an average readership of more than 1.5 million for each issue, up from 500,000 in 2009, and an improvement of 16 per cent on last year. As Greig points out, the paper now has a larger readership than the Times, Guardian, Independent and Financial Times.

Hacked off

Lebedev also sought to change the image of the Standard. In May 2009, Greig released adverts apologising to readers for the paper's former negativity and he now runs frequent campaigns on social issues in its pages - for the "dispossessed" of London and on literacy, among other things. Lebedev has invested a reported £20m in the paper and is intent on improving the quality of its journalism - he has no interest in sensational stories and is aghast at the excesses of tabloid behaviour. Phone-hacking, he says, is "completely illegal and corrupt . . . I'm very proud to say that, at least under my watch, it hasn't been done on any of my newspapers."

In the year to September 2010, the Standard halved its losses to £16.9m. Lebedev predicts that the paper will break even this year and move into profit in 2012 (but won't reveal exact projections). The Independent also had one of the fastest-growing websites last year, he says. But the paper, which he bought in March 2010, has a steadily declining readership (its circulation for May fell to 179,000, down 8 per cent on last year). Would he take it free, too? "We're not ruling anything out . . . but we haven't reached a decision yet." He notes that the Independent is a distinct product - a national morning paper, with a different distribution model from a London evening paper - but evidently there is change afoot.

According to an interview in the Guardian, his father hinted that the Independent's editor-in-chief, Simon Kelner, might be replaced and some staff made redundant. He was reported to have said that he found the newspaper "a bit boring" and that he was more entertained by the Daily Mail. Evgeny, when we speak on the phone the day after the interview is published, is unimpressed; he says the report was based on an off-the-record conversation and that his father's comments were taken out of context. "That is not ethical journalism," he argues. His father is now considering legal action against the Guardian.

Lebedev concedes, however, that the Independent needs to be "invigorated". The first step was to create the i (a slim-line daily newspaper, sold for 20p, which publishes bite-sized articles and commentary). His attention is now turning to the main newspaper, which needs "TLC, as they say - and that's what we're planning on doing in the next three to four months".

Lebedev works hard - Greig says they talk every day - and he is serious about making his newspapers a success. He sees no reason why the wider newspaper industry in Britain - the "most elaborate and sophisticated in the world" - cannot survive. "It's all about being inventive and thinking of ways of preserving those newspaper brands. It may not be in print, it may be digital, but whatever format, I hope these titles come up with a way of preserving their future." Rupert Murdoch, he says, is "inspirational" in the way he has innovated into his old age, finding new ways to pull in revenue.

But Lebedev will not be copying the Austra­lian proprietor's paywall model, in which readers are obliged to pay for online access to News International titles. He believes that paywalls work only for publications with specialist content, such as the Wall Street Journal or Financial Times. "On the websites we have, people tend to be very promiscuous. If people suddenly find that they have to pay, they just switch."

He observes that many journalists on Murdoch papers are "hugely frustrated" at the decline in readership since the introduction of paywalls (in November last year the papers reported an 87 per cent drop in online readership). As a result, "At this point I don't see how [a paywall] could possibly work. We're doing something completely different: we're making it work with free content."

As for the Guardian's "digital first" strategy, he says that he interpreted this as a sign that the Guardian Media Group will be "shrinking down their operation, which has been awaited for some time now. They have an extraordinary amount of journalists, so I suspect they're saying their future is digital."

In the context of the newspaper industry's struggles and experiments, Lebedev is proud of his success at the Standard. Will he be buying more titles? He smiles. "I can't really tell you that. It depends what comes up - if an interesting opportunity comes up, I'll always look at it."

Newspapers are not Lebedev's sole interests. He owns a sushi restaurant in St James's, central London, and a hotel in Umbria, and also raises money for charitable causes. His wealth comes from his father, who made his fortune (as much as $3.6bn in assets alone) in airlines, banking and potato farming and has major holdings in Aeroflot and Gazprom.

Journalists often mistakenly report that his father owns the British newspapers, but the son is the sole proprietor. The misconception must be frustrating. "I wouldn't say that," he replies. "Perceptions get formed in very strange ways. To begin with, he was the spokesman and then I got much more involved."

Now, he is speaking more openly about his role and is eager to distinguish himself from Alexander, who lives in Moscow. "This is very much my world, and Russia is very much his world," Lebedev says. Still, the two men speak most days, giving each other advice on their respective ventures. They are as much like friends or brothers, he says, as father and son.

Worlds apart

Lebedev was born in Moscow in 1980. When he was eight years old, his father, as a senior officer in the foreign intelligence division of the KGB, was posted to Britain. Lebedev discovered Alexander's profession at the age of ten when, rooting through drawers in a desk at home in London, he found medals rewarding him for his service. He asked his mother about his discovery and she said that the medals were fakes - gifts from friends playing a joke. But his parents eventually told him the truth.

Lebedev is conscious of the stereotypical image of KGB agents as ruthless hard-men. "The KGB took bruisers who are truly there to enforce, but foreign intelligence was a sophisticated job abroad, where you analysed political and economic situations," he says. He insists his father was accepted into the service because he was a "brilliant student".

Alexander left the service in 1992, and the family returned to Russia. "I remember missing it and wanting to go back. I have loved London since I was a child," he says. He returned as soon as he could and began studying as an undergraduate at the London School of Economics in the late 1990s.

Back in Russia, his father began to build his business empire, helped by President Boris Yeltsin's turbulent reforms. The early 1990s were fruitful years for those, such as Alexander Lebedev, who were able to take advantage of the country's new openness to international markets and the huge sell-off of state-owned assets. Some decried the subsequent accumulation of wealth as theft. But as Richard Sakwa, professor of Russian and European politics at the University of Kent, says: "It was not so much that property was stolen in the 1990s, but that it was left proprietorless. People like Lebedev certainly used the lax laws as an opportunity to amass great wealth." He moved quickly, establishing the Russian Investment-Finance Company and buying the National Reserve Bank, which became one of the largest in Russia.

As Sakwa points out, at least the assets he acquired were transformed into active capital, and were not purely for personal gain. One of Alexander Lebedev's many investments was in the thrice-weekly Novaya Gazeta, founded in 1993 and also supported by Mikhail Gorbachev. It remains one of the few politically liberal publications in Moscow. The younger Lebedev is not involved in that paper, but says it is close to his heart, "because it is the only printed medium out there that is not afraid to tell the full truth. And a lot of the time, people pay with their lives for what they say." He refers not only to its investigative journalist Anna Politkov­skaya, found murdered in the lift of her apartment block in 2006, but also to the killings of her fellow reporters Igor Domnikov in 2000 and Anastasia Baburova in 2009.

Lebedev says that Russia likes to present itself to the world as a democratic country with a favourable investment climate, but in reality the atmosphere is fearful: individuals are monitored and businesses raided repeatedly by the police. In June, his father said he would sell off a large number of his interests, including his 26 per cent stake in Aeroflot (but retain the newspaper, bank and potato farms). "His business has been under attack now for the last . . . well, ever since [it began], and you just get used to constantly fighting and struggling," Evgeny says. In November last year, the bank's offices were raided on the orders of the Federal Security Service, successor to the KGB. As a result, a number of private and corporate clients withdrew their money. "It becomes a situation where you think: why bother?"

Yet Alexander Lebedev remains involved in Russian political life. In 2003, he ran for mayor of Moscow against the incumbent, Yuri Luzhkov, who held the post from 1992 to 2010. Then, in September 2008, he announced that he was setting up the Independent Democratic Party of Russia together with Gorbachev, but the project never came to fruition. More recently, he has said that his anti-corruption initiative Our Capital City will join Vladimir Putin's newly created All-Russia People's Front - a coalition of civil society organisations, widely seen as a vehicle for Putin's campaign for re-election to the presidency. Given the hostility the Lebedevs experienced under the Putin-led regime, it is a surprising move. But Evgeny says his father's great ambition is to combat political corruption in Russia in any way he can. "If you want to do anything in Russia, you need to be part of the bigger scheme that the prime minister is setting up . . . You know, it's always better to fight from within than without."

Predicting the course of Russian politics is a dangerous game. Lebedev believes that Putin and Dmitry Medvedev are negotiating who should stand for the presidency (Putin handed over to his protégé in 2008 after serving two terms). He imagines that, come the election in March 2012, a swath of alternative candidates will be put up just "for decoration". "I heard on the radio recently people being asked why they like Putin, and their responses were because he's got a good body, because he likes fishing, because he's a real man, he can tackle a tiger, he's strong and he made Russia strong. That's what we've always had - strong leaders - whether they were tsars or Soviet leaders."

He argues that, when Yeltsin was elected in 1991, there was an opportunity for credible political reform. It was quickly lost, however, as Yeltsin's programme of economic liberalisation produced a wave of corruption that has since submerged public life in Russia. "I'm not sure where the country could go if something drastic isn't done about it," he says.

He partly blames the west, citing the way it treated Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union. "They didn't consider it an equal . . . and that wounded a lot of national pride in Russia."

When you hear Lebedev talk about Russia - a country where "it's impossible to do anything unless you're given permission" - his ambitions in Britain make sense. If his father's principal aim is to combat corruption (he is setting up a foundation for investigative journalism), Lebedev's is to defend freedom of speech. He gave an address on the subject at Christ Church College, Oxford, in May. As we discuss the recent spate of superinjunctions, he becomes animated. "It's wrong for judges to stamp out that freedom, freedom that for centuries people have fought for. For me, coming from a country without such freedom makes me appreciate it and value it more than people do in this country."

Yet when he looked at a list in the Daily Mail of people who had taken out superinjunctions ("Some of them I know, some of them I don't") he didn't think any of the stories was worth reporting. They were "tittle-tattle", he says, salacious tales. He wants his newspapers to have loftier aspirations, and says that is why he likes the Independent, because it "stimulates thought" rather than sullying its pages with celebrity gossip.

Renaissance man

Such a conviction fits with his carefully refined image. Lebedev is steeped in Russian culture (and laments the intellectual depletion of his country during the Soviet era - the exodus or extermination of thinkers, writers and artists), but, as Greig says, he also has as wide a knowledge of Renaissance art as he does of vorticist poetry. He prides himself on being well read, and well connected. The newspapers are one part of a grander vision; he is in discussion with leading cultural organisations about curating a festival of Russian arts in 2013. He also makes a point of forging political relationships and has met David Cameron, whom he professes to admire. "I think he will prove to be a great prime minister. He's confident, he makes decisions."

“I am proud to call him a friend and a Londoner," gushes London's mayor, Boris Johnson, when asked for his thoughts on Lebedev. "This great city of ours would be a lot poorer without him and the vibrant, creative Russian community who contribute so much." Johnson does not spell out the financial dimension of that contribution - but it's not hard to see why politicians, especially Conservative politicians, are keen to associate themselves with a wealthy young man who is willing to invest in ailing British institutions.

But Lebedev, I suspect, longs to be respected for more than his ability to spend money. After years of being known for his elegant presence on the London society party circuit, he wants to be taken seriously for his ideas and professional success. Hence the speeches about freedom of expression, the campaigns for social causes and his scorn for celebrity-baiting. And above all his mission is personal. He despairs of the stereotypes of Russians in London - beautiful girls in fur coats, ruthless politicians and oligarchs with shady business interests. "That said, I can't blame anyone for having those stereotypes, because that's all we've exported so far."

Lebedev wants to invert the perception, to show the world that the land of his birth is more sophisticated than your typical Chelsea-dwelling Muscovite. The days are over - he hopes - when a prince of the realm should assume that he is only interested in football.

Sophie Elmhirst is an assistant editor of the New Statesman

UPDATE: On Friday 1 July, it was revealed that Simon Kelner will be stepping down as the editor of the Independent, and is to be replaced by Chris Blackhurst, the City Editor of the Evening Standard. In an email to the Independent's staff, Evgeny Lebedev said of Kelner: "Simon's contribution to The Independent over the past 13 years has been considerable. I am sure you will agree that he has been a powerful and impressive force for the paper and I would like to say how grateful I am to him for all he has done." He also implied that there would be further changes: "We face challenging times in our industry and I know we all have to be innovative and deft in our strategy to maintain our papers."

Sophie Elmhirst is a freelance writer and former New Statesman features editor.

This article first appeared in the 04 July 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Afghanistan