Dark Money: Inside Alexander Lebedev’s hunt for a trillion-dollar pool of dirty cash

He's survived assassination attempts, threatened exile and crooked courtrooms. But his latest adversary is the most sinister yet.

The first page of Alexander Lebedev’s new book begins with a time-worn sentiment: “Money can’t buy you happiness.” The 255 pages that follow demonstrate in graphic detail the truth behind the cliché. Lebedev, an ex-oligarch, former KGB agent and one-time banker, has had a fate buffeted by the slings and arrows of an outrageous fortune. Money — its advantages, its trappings, the things it can and can’t control — lurks constantly in the shadows of his exorbitantly eventful life.

You sense it in the rosy reminiscences of his spartan childhood: “As a boy it took me three weeks to save the seven kopeks needed for an ice cream,” he writes, “and as a student I thriftily collected the deposit on bottles of the cheap alcohol I and my friends drank.” It jingles throughout Lebedev’s Zelig-like CV: the economic focus of his KGB dealings; his role in the Soviet Embassy in Kensington working with proto-oligarchs; his career as a bank owner (which he transforms thanks to his skills as a “financial Mozart”); his time as a buccaneering entrepreneur in the new era of Russian capitalism; his purchasing, in 2009, of the majority of the Evening Standard.

Money is the root, too, of his bubbling disgust for the oligarch class-at-large, atop the bloated floating fridges of the Monaco marina with their stench of warming Krug and tanning oil. “The whole Dolce Vita scene is an ostentatious sham,” he writes. “Behind it is cynicism and envy, loathing and servility, and always straightforward human fear.” Of the ultra-rich, he says: “They have lacklustre eyes, look abysmal and have a toxic personality and an off-putting physical appearance.” (Who wants to be a billionaire? Not Alexander Lebedev, thank you very much.)

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