alexander lebedev

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.)

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

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.

“When a policeman told me that they had precluded an attempt on my life, I laughed. But it turns out it was all true”

“This is as big a problem as global warming, but it’s not admitted at all,” Lebedev tells me. “My voice is like one in the desert.” He calls this global, daily, rolling heist “the third colonialism”. There’s certainly an air of imperial plunder to the image he paints — the small but almighty elite separating ordinary people from their modest resources; the brazen gall and staged-managed public image. “One hundred billion USD is siphoned out of Africa every year by these means,” he tells me.

“These banks and funds are known. They are HSBC, Blackrock, Blackstone,” he says. “When a Russian fraudster comes into Heathrow Airport he is being met by [lawyers from] Linklaters or Clifford Chance or Skadden, Arps, who are offering services to get him political asylum.

“A few tens of thousands gain from this — lawyers; those who sell property; some offshore jurisdictions nominee directors; sellers of yachts, boats; their manufacturers. And a few dozen banks and funds. But a tiny amount of people,” he says. “The beneficiaries of this trillion are probably a few tens of thousands.” Meanwhile, “Africa, for example… is bled dry.” And there is scant sign of a trickle-down effect, even in the cities where the money eventually settles. “Ordinary Londoners can’t afford to buy a house because of this,” Lebedev says. “It would have been much cheaper were these ten thousand not allowed to buy property here with this dirty money.”

Dark Money: Inside Alexander Lebedev’s hunt for a trillion-dollar pool of dirty cash
The Russian Embassy in Kensington

The cause and effect is easy enough to trace. Lebedev’s theory begins in global financial fraud, but it ends in political unrest, personal instability, public rage. Today a financial scam — tomorrow Trump, Orbán, Brexit, Boris.

“All of these voices, from Putin to Bernie Sanders… They do, probably, by intuition, address this issue I’m trying to raise. Countries and politicians have to stand up and say: ‘We can’t allow this to happen any more.’

“Look at Africa. Europe is unhappy with the influx of immigrants. But if you extract 100 billion USD from Africa per year, nobody can survive. And then you bring in just half a billion in charity, of which half is stolen on the way? Charity is the least controlled substance in the world… there are simple ways to steal it,” he sighs. “Is it any wonder?”

***

Lebedev’s rueful tone is born of experience. His long career has seesawed often between victory and oppression — wild success and extravagant wealth at one minute; assassination attempts and threatened exile the next. A hardworking student and a talented linguist, the young Lebedev was quickly picked up in Moscow by the First Directorate of the KGB, in a role that eventually saw him, under the Gorbachev administration, positioned in London to mop up economic intelligence.

Soon, in the early 1990s, as perestroika kicked in, a tidal wave of privatisation swept through the former Soviet Union. “At that moment in time I possessed a hard-earned £500 and a 1977 Volvo with left-hand drive,” he writes. Moscow, meanwhile, “had turned into a one big fleamarket and presented a dismal
aspect, but I viewed life through rose-tinted spectacles.”

“This is as big a problem as global warming, but it’s not admitted at all. My voice is like one in the desert.”

Back in his hometown, Lebedev set about on a series of business escapades — most of which fell flat on their faces. “For example, we bought a wagonload of women’s shoes from South Korea, only to find they were all size 34 and for the same foot,” he says. “Another time we bought a batch of televisions that did not work.” These failures, and the dismal atmosphere in his freezing basement office, sent Lebedev into a deep anguish. “I sat on the sofa and stared fixedly at one point, acutely aware of my own uselessness.”

By 1995, however, Lebedev’s fortunes had reversed. A string of shrewd financial
moves led to the businessman acquiring the National Reserve Bank, a relatively small institution with a shaky recent history. Soon, under Lebedev’s control, the NRB had grown to become one of Russia’s most powerful and successful banks. Lebedev’s personal wealth soared to well over $1 billion.

Lady Luck soon departed. And the thugs moved in. Lebedev’s success had attracted the scrutiny of the FSB, Russia’s new post-Soviet domestic intelligence service. Various factions and rivals wanted a piece of his growing empire. Balaclava-clad gunman stormed his offices in a ploy to spook his depositors. He was pressured into selling off many of his investment assets, including a stake in airline Aeroflot. A gun was fired through his office window, leaving a pockmark on the wall behind his desk “at the level my head would have been if I’d been sitting at my desk”. It was soon followed by a hand grenade, which severely injured a security guard when it detonated.

“When a policeman told me that they had precluded an attempt on my life, I laughed. But it turns out it was all true,” Lebedev tells me. “But my attitude to all that is quite philosophical. Whether it’s bullets, or a hand grenade under my table, it probably happens much quicker than you can blink.”

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

Other attacks have been more subtle. “I’m sure that my telephone, which I haven’t changed for a few years, is listened into by probably every single secret service in the world,” Lebedev tells me. “The secret service of Luxembourg was tapping my phone,” he claims. “They were putting under surveillance anyone they thought was rich (for example, a Russian with a very bad biography) and then putting him under attack, and then sending lawyers related to them to clean it up. It was a scandal, with a few people fired. But then they hushed it. It should have been much bigger.

“I was involved in certain things, where my enemies would do their best to find anything about me to compromise me. So my idea is that I’m as open as if I’m standing in Trafalgar Square. It depends whether you’ve got anything to hide. My personal view is that I don’t care.”

Back in Russia, similar methods of extortion have been more successful. “The new Facebook over there is Telegram,” Lebedev explains. “And there are anonymous media on there, beyond any control, that are being used by blackmailers. They write something about you, knowing your family life, and then they demand that you pay to hush it up,” he says. “It’s a very interesting phenomenon. It’s only in Russia that these things could take place. Because in Russia there is a lack of independent media, and the new media loves to attack the Russian Bureaucracy.

“And it looks like Putin loves to read Telegram. He loves to know the inside story. Then he calls some of his closest subordinates and asks whether that’s true or not.”

"I’m sure that my telephone is listened into by probably every single secret service in the world"

Which brings us, of course, to the Evening Standard, and the different shades of free media in the United Kingdom. In July, The Guardian reported that a 30 per cent stake of the Evening Standard and the Independent has been sold “to offshore companies fronted by a Saudi businessman, Sultan Mohamed Abuljadayel, in 2017 and 2018”. The claim was that these British papers could now be influenced by a Saudi state-connected conglomerate. An Ofcom report in September cleared the investors of having any “intent to influence” in a statement Evgeny Lebedev said “completely vindicated” the newspapers. For Alexander Lebedev, the move was simply a nifty business solution. “It’s making a £10 million loss because of the market trend that is against classic newspaper. So if someone sells a non-controlling stake to a third party, what’s wrong with that?”

Though Lebedev has “never met MBS” (Saudi premier Muhammad Bin Salman), he does admire his hard-nosed bias for action. “He was the only guy who stood up against the fraud in Saudi Arabia. He has arrested a few hundred sheikhs, some of whom are his closest relatives. And he has extracted from them $100 billion. This has been invested back into the budget of Saudi Arabia, and will probably be much better spent on the 40 million people living in that country,” he says, underlying the thought experiment with a mischievous smile. “Of course, from a legal point of view, this was not the correct way — but it works. And you have to have guts to do that.”

Faced with the third colonialism, however, the wider financial system seems gutless to the point of complicity. Western institutions, all too ready to jump on their high horse in the face of Russian or Middle-Eastern heavy-handedness, are on shaky ground, according to Lebedev. “Who created the system? ‘Offshore’ was created by British lawyers. Auditors are the ones who protect the money launderers,” Lebedev says, identifying the ‘Big Four’ financial service firms as particular culprits. “Their only purpose is to stamp the papers and prove to the regulators that the rest is fine.”

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

“I’ve talked to a couple of prime ministers of this country about this. And they always say that it’s very complicated. It’s not.” The most straightforward solution, he claims, is a supra-national high court — similar to something that might deal with international war criminals — being established to investigate these crimes. “You can’t recover the money using the current legal system. You have to set up a special court. The current way is broken.”

***

There is a small, glinting comfort in this thoroughly modern immorality tale. One of the more subtle takeaways from Lebedev’s book, of course, is of the great, hidden unhappiness of the billionaire class — the class which Alexander used to include himself in, and the class that is populated by the beneficiaries of this fraudulent system. Lebedev quotes a conversation he had with a wealthy oligarch in the final pages of his book. Why, he asked the billionaire, do you keep buying things? “With every new purchase, I hope my sleep will improve,” was the response. The robber barons may be taking from us — but they’re chipping away at themselves, too.

“I’m frankly much happier being off the Forbes list,” Lebedev says. “People treat me normally now. Even when I’m talking to some of my friends who are on the Forbes list, I’m looking at them like I’m choking, as if they come from a different planet.”

"My enemies would do their best to find anything about me to compromise me. I’m as open as if I’m standing in Trafalgar Square."

Does Lebedev have any baubles that he covets? Surely a car, a yacht, a villa? “My most treasured possession is the seal of my great grandfather, which my mother has given me,” he says. “He was a baker in the mid-19th century. Recently I have got into baking, and we’ll be launching some buckwheat products in London soon. It’s amazingly healthy and pretty tasty, buckwheat. We picked it up from the Germans, and I’ve improved it,” he laughs.

“Money is a huge burden on your shoulders. Sometimes, the worries about money — and everything that has to do with the money — really possess you,” Lebedev explains. “The only amount of money you need is enough to take care of your day-to-day needs and that of your family. You don’t need those luxuries. It’s bad taste.

“There’s much more to be gained by investing this money into improving the lives of others. Everything else is a waste.”

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