The strange world of Evgeny Lebedev

Private jets and elephants – London’s weirdest media tycoon

Features

26 Sep 2015

Evgeny Lebedev’s famous friends are eager to tell you what a darling he is. Piers Morgan says that he is ‘one of the most charming, well-connected, exotically attired and fascinating figures in English society right now’. Stephen Fry says that ‘for a man of his power, status and wealth, he is endlessly teaseable and humorous’. Boris Johnson says that he is ‘a major force for good’ and ‘a very generous soul’. And Boris’s sister Rachel calls him ‘a wise old beard (or two) on young shoulders. He’s much smarter and funnier than people think.’

You get the picture. Evgeny likes to be ribbed, especially if the person doing the ribbing is a celebrity. He doesn’t seem to mind that people think he is gay when he says he isn’t. He laughs at that ‘two beards’ nickname, Private Eye’s allusion to his alleged closeted homosexuality — though one of his former employees suggests that he might not understand exactly what the name means.

Still, you’d expect a young man in Lebedev’s position to take himself more seriously. He is, after all, only 35, a Russian and already a big cheese at the establishment’s high table. With his father Alexander — the KGB-man turned banking oligarch, aka ‘the spy who came in for the gold’ — he owns the Independent newspapers, the London Evening Standard and the television channel London Live. When the father-son act took over the Standard in 2009, and the Independent in 2010, the old journo guard dismissed them as a bad joke. ‘I think it’s one more example that we are no more a serious nation,’ said Perry Worsthorne, the former editor of the Sunday Telegraph. But the ‘Lebs’ (as Matthew Freud calls them) have turned that perception on its head. It’s now widely agreed that they have saved the Evening Standard and sharpened up the Independent’s act. Evgeny takes a lot of the credit. Journalists (not just the ones he employs) queue up to write generous profiles of him and applaud his business acumen (the less said about London Live, the better). GQ magazine made him one of their ‘Men of the Year’ for his entrepreneurial achievements — although one suspects that the tribute might have had more to do with his natty dress sense.

Dig beneath the media acclaim and the luvvie gushing, however, and a different Evgeny Lebedev emerges. Talk to some of those who work for him, off the record, and they describe a mysterious, lonely and slightly ridiculous figure. ‘I think of him as the poor little oligarch boy,’ says one of his former employees. ‘You get this real sense of loneliness from him.’ ‘There is a strangeness about the way he exerts his authority,’ says another. ‘He doesn’t really have friends. He has a lot of celebrity friends but that’s not the same thing… he lacks a sense of other people’s lives.’

The real Evgeny sounds like a cross between Jay Gatsby and Toad of Toad Hall. He’s a young man who has everything but is always hankering for more. ‘He’s ridiculously faddy,’ says one of his former private staff. ‘He’s health-obsessed, but he can’t stick to anything.’ Fitness coaches come and go. It’s said he once took up something called the Dolls’ House Diet, which involved eating from a tiny plate using miniature cutlery. It didn’t last.

Some of us have a weakness for taxis; Evgeny has a weakness for jets. One of his ex-employees (he has a high staff turnover) says that he orders private flights and cancels them on a whim. ‘Sometimes he changes his mind about where he wants to land mid-flight,’ he says. Such capriciousness can drive his underlings mad. The same ex-employee says that once, when preparing for a party at one of his two palatial homes in Italy, Evgeny decided he wanted to wear a shirt he had left in London. A jet was promptly flown out to fetch the missing item, but when the shirt came back the young mogul decided he didn’t want to wear it after all. (His spokesman said he doubted this story was true.)

But it won’t do to write Evgeny off as a spoilt brat. He’s more complex than that. He’s an aesthete and an adventurer, or at least he’d like to be. While other scions go yachting in the Med, Evgeny prefers to travel to Ethiopia with his father to look at religious carvings. ‘The two things he most respects are courage and intelligence,’ says Amol Rajan, the editor of the Independent.

Yet his romantic sensibilities can also turn into farce. Take, for instance, the time he fell in love with the idea of being a macho matador and decided he wanted to write an in-depth article on bullfighting. He enlisted the help of Alexander Fiske-Harrison, the writer and bullfighter, who gave him a lesson in the noble art. Lebedev was then introduced to the legendary Spanish bullfighter Enrique Ponce and it was arranged for him to enter the ring for real on a ranch in Castilla-La Mancha. However, as soon as the appointment was booked, Lebedev’s enthusiasm seemed to desert him and he failed to show up. To rub salt into wounded Spanish pride, Lebedev then had himself photographed back at his hotel wearing the Traje de Luces, the suit of lights, the official dress of the matador. This is not the done thing for an amateur. ‘I’d never dream of wearing it,’ says Fiske-Harrison. ‘It’s like a journalist turning up to a war zone dressed as a four-star general.’ Fiske-Harrison never heard from Lebedev again. An Independent staffer said Lebedev had had to attend Margaret Thatcher’s funeral.

Evgeny wants above all to distance himself from the vulgar rich Russians in London. ‘They are driven by cash and nothing else,’ he once said. ‘It’s a combination of having access to money and not having a lot of education or aesthetic understanding. Taste, you know. You suddenly just want everything, and most importantly, you want to show everybody you have it.’ Evgeny prefers to recite poetry, go to the theatre, or look at (and buy) art. He’s also very keen on his sense of smell and likes to surround himself with candles and flowers. In his London office he reportedly keeps a ‘library’ of 150 scented oils. Scent, he says, is ‘like a time machine… If I smell lilacs, for example, I’m immediately transported back to my childhood, because there are a lot of lilacs in Russia.’

He’s said to have a good eye for the finer things, too. ‘His taste is exquisite,’ says Sarah Sands, his editor at the Evening Standard. Her predecessor Geordie Greig, now editor of the Mail on Sunday, has also said that Evgeny has ‘incredible visual sense’.

Is he all that clever, though? He may hail from a family of Russian scientists — his mother is a microbiologist in Moscow and her grandfather was head of biology at the Soviet Academy of Sciences. But one of his former staff insists ‘he’s not actually very bright’. Whereas Alexander is said to be switched-on and inquisitive, his son is apparently disengaged and ponderous. Rajan scoffs at that suggestion. ‘He has a terrifyingly good memory and, as someone who works for him, he can be terrifyingly sharp. He likes to absorb a lot of information before he makes a decision and he always notices if something he has asked for isn’t done.’ Another journalist who worked closely with him says he found it hard to decipher Lebedev’s intelligence: ‘He’s just too odd. You have these baffling meetings with him where he doesn’t really say anything and you leave not really knowing what the hell that was all about.’ Lebedev’s real genius, perhaps, is for parties, for bringing together famous people and navigating his way through the social matrix of the British elite. He entertains on an outrageous scale and he always likes to put on a show. The Evening Standard Theatre Awards used to be a relatively low-key affair; under Lebedev, it has become one of London’s glitziest annual events. And, of course, it gives Lebedev another opportunity to throw an extravagant bash. He gets his friends Anna Wintour and Dame Judi Dench to help him arrange the evening — no expense spared — and invites the likes of David and Victoria Beckham, Naomi Campbell and Benedict Cumberbatch to his after-party. At one of his Christmas parties at his (rented) flat in Portland Place, guests guzzled down an estimated 14.5 kilos of caviar.

And then there’s the weekends away at the Lebedev houses in Italy, Palazzo Terranova in Ronti and the Castello di Santa Eurasia in Umbria. The only time he tones down the extravagance, according to one source who worked with the family, is when his father comes to stay.

Lebedev’s fans are quick to tell you that his life is not all indulgence. He does charity. At some point, for instance, he resolved to use the power of his newspapers to save elephants. A noble aim, everyone agreed, and the Standard and Independent duly launched Christmas appeals. Hacks felt compelled to find as many elephant-related stories as they could. At the Standard, this proved quite challenging. ‘It was a nightmare,’ recalls one reporter. ‘We are a London paper, and it was hard to make the point that there aren’t that many elephants in London.’ Sarah Sands insists, however, that the abundance of elephants trampling all over her pages was no problem at all.

Some suspect that Lebedev’s altruism is as much about promoting himself as anything else. He seems to enjoy using charitable causes to arrange photo-calls with his celebrity chums, whether it’s having Elton John shave off his beard and eyebrows for Comic Relief or sleeping rough with Boris Johnson to raise awareness of the plight of homeless ex-servicemen. After the government decided to support the Evening Standard’s Homeless Veterans campaign, an email was sent round instructing staff not to say anything before the Chancellor had made the announcement. ‘Very importantly,’ added Geoff Teather, the digital editor, ‘Evgeny wishes to tweet [the news] first. Once he has done others may re-tweet etc.’

Who cares, though, if Evgeny is touched by narcissism? The fact is, his media empire has raised a lot of money for the vulnerable — including middle-aged hacks who would otherwise be unemployed. At a time when print media is dying, he and his father have ploughed an estimated £120 million into British newspapers, and no journalist should sneer at that. The Lebedevs have shown themselves to be bold and innovative: they dared to make the Evening Standard, which had been close to bankruptcy and virtually written off by the Rothermeres, into a free sheet. Now it turns a profit. They launched the successful i newspaper, a concise version of the Independent costing just 40p, and re–energised the Independent website. The Indie lost just £4.6 million last year, compared with £22.6 million in 2010-11. Even London Live, after a miserable start, is picking up: some 2.4 million Londoners now watch it each month. In July, the channel had more viewers than Sky Atlantic or the Comedy Channel.

It’s widely agreed too that, in Sarah Sands and Amol Rajan, Lebedev has appointed two capable and imaginative editors. Evgeny’s vanity may creep on to the society pages and he still publishes columns on his pet subjects under his own byline. But both Sands and Rajan are adamant that he does not interfere in editorial decisions. ‘Happily, the people he’s interested in are interesting people who make for good copy,’ says Sands. Nevertheless, Standard journalists say they have to be extra cautious when writing about ‘FWEs’ — Friends With Evgeny.

‘It’s naive to expect someone to put that much money into newspapers and not have an interest in what is going in them,’ adds Rajan. ‘But I can honestly say that he never spikes stories and he never puts stories in.’ Rajan says there is no truth in the rumour that Lebedev pressured him into endorsing the coalition before the general election — a move that appalled much of the paper’s reader-ship and quite a few of its staff. Cynical hacks noted the presence of David Cameron and George Osborne at Lebedev’s birthday party two days after the election and couldn’t help but wonder if that had anything to do with the Independent’s line. But this conspiracy theory is scoffed at by Rajan. ‘He’s friends with a lot of politicians from across the spectrum,’ he says. ‘Tristram Hunt was at that party too and, to be fair, you’d hardly expect lots of Labour politicians to be out celebrating. Evgeny’s not really into party politics.’ A senior Tory who also attended that party saw things differently: ‘For getting the Indie on side, he deserves a bloody peerage.’

Lebedev’s own politics are, according to Rajan, ‘libertarian, which is one of the reasons he supported gay marriage even though it meant everybody again thinking he must be gay’. He’s certainly not a narrow ideologue; he likes any politician as long as they have star quality. He invites Nigel Farage to his parties, even though the mere sight of the Ukip leader makes the luvvies wince. Farage even wrote an occasional column for the Independent, alongside Owen Jones.

Lebedev grew up here (his father came to London to spy in the 1980s and he attended Holland Park Comprehensive; five years ago, he finally became a British citizen). As the child of a Soviet family, he says he values British democracy and understands the importance of free speech better than most. That did not stop him giving £20,000 to the celebrity-led Hacked Off campaign to muzzle the press. His office insisted that the donation was not to do with the Leveson inquiry into phone-hacking but was intended to support ‘public interest’ journalism — though it did suggest that, to the owner of the Indie and Evening Standard, famous friends matter as much as press freedom. But let’s not carp. In many ways, the young Lebedev adds to the gaiety of the nation and if he left we’d probably miss him.

(Lead photo: Steve Forrest/NY Times/Eyevine)


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