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.)
This is small change, however. When I meet Lebedev in his son Evgeny’s corner office in Derry Street (the Evening Standard’s command centre), it soon becomes clear that his target is far bigger than simply a few rotten apples. Perched on the edge of a leather sofa, he is at his most animated when he is on the topic he knows best — that of a global financial scandal, hidden in plain sight. There’s a playful mischief about Lebedev that makes him seem much younger than his 59 years, and his appearance — with his frameless eyewear and designer trainers — is closer to Silicon Valley grandee than former KGB operative. But he is deadly serious about this latest crusade. Forget a few pot-bellied, lobster-red billionaires. Lebedev’s real obsession is not with the wealth you can’t avoid — it’s with the money you can’t see.
“What I’m trying to tell is the sad story of over a trillion US dollars stolen from all over the world by white-collar criminals, mostly owners or CEOs of banks and corporations,” he begins. “That money is then laundered through offshores, and hidden in Western banks and funds.”
Lebedev paints the broad strokes of this gargantuan scam in the early chapters of his book. It runs thus. Ordinary people deposit money in their bank accounts. Individual banks then convert that cash into US dollars. Those dollars are then siphoned, by the natural mechanisms of the global market, into “an immense, fetid reservoir”, located between “33 unassailable offshore tax havens protected by lawyers”. Next, a “financial crisis” is declared, and the money is said to be gone — only to end up, soon enough, in places like London, Paris and Geneva: deep, steep-sided wells of rotten liquidity, swimming with bottom-feeders, as opaque as ditch water. “Every day the money of millions of people pours into the pockets of an elect circle of people, and nobody does anything about it,” he writes.
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