Sam Bright reveals how the Russian Ambassador claimed the owner of the Independent and Evening Standard had “much contributed to strengthening Russian-British relations”
The Russian Ambassador to the UK, Andrey Kelin, who is now banned from the parliamentary estate, expressed strong support for Boris Johnson’s decision to ennoble Moscow-born media mogul Evgeny Lebedev, Byline Times can reveal.
This newspaper has obtained a copy of a letter sent by Ambassador Andrey Kelin to a UK representative on 31 August 2020, in which he celebrated Lebedev’s nomination to the Upper House.
“The Russian Government does of course welcome the appointment to the House of Lords of Mr Lebedev,” Ambassador Kelin said – adding that Lebedev was “a Russian national who has much contributed to strengthening Russian-British relations.”
The Ambassador’s letter was sent in response to the Garter Principal King of Arms – the principal heraldic advisor to the monarch. The Garter Principal King of Arms was requesting permission for Lebedev to be assigned the title: “Baron Lebedev of Kingston upon Thames and of Moscow in the Russian Federation”.
Contrary to some reports, the Russian Ambassador did not disapprove, writing in his letter: “It is our understanding that territorial designation of British peers is a purely internal British matter. We trust that the respective British authorities will take decisions on this matter as appropriate, of which we will be happy.”
Lebedev was ultimately conferred with the title “Baron Lebedev of Kingston upon Thames and of Siberia in the Russian Federation” – leading to some speculation that the Kremlin had turned down his request, potentially due to frosty relations between the Lebedev family and Vladimir Putin’s regime. However, this letter suggests that no such concerns were held by Moscow and that the decision to switch the designation from Moscow to Siberia was made on the advice of British representatives.
The Johnson Connection
Evgeny Lebedev was nominated for a peerage by then Prime Minister Boris Johnson in July 2020, and elevated to the Lords in November of the same year. The peerage has been the subject of considerable controversy, not least when the Sunday Times reported that Johnson had pressured the UK security services to reverse their assessment of Lebedev’s appointment after officials said that elevating the Russian to the Upper Chamber “could be a threat to national security”.
Johnson “took a personal interest in the case” after meeting with Lebedev in March 2020, reported the Sunday Times. “A former advisor said [that Johnson] refused to accept the verdict of the security services and would not drop the issue,” the paper reported.
The minutes of this discussion between Johnson and Lebedev were not recorded. Johnson denies that he overruled security advice but has said, “it’s very, very, very important that we get the message over that we’re not anti-Russian.” Lebedev has supported the release of all advice related to his nomination.
The friendship between Johnson and Lebedev stretches back to the former’s tenure as London Mayor, when Lebedev would host Johnson annually at his palazzo in Perugia, Umbria. These trips were paid for by Lebedev, with a Freedom of Information request showing that the 2014 trip cost £2,625 for a two-night stay.
During his time as London Mayor, Johnson said of Lebedev: “I am proud to call him a friend.”
Evgeny and his father Alexander had purchased the capital’s free daily newspaper the London Evening Standard in 2009 and The Independent a year later – becoming influential players in the London media scene during Johnson’s time in City Hall.
Documents show that Evgeny attempted to lobby Johnson to support his pet projects during this period – including a Russian Arts Festival in the capital. The festival was aimed at “transforming global perceptions” of Russia and the minutes of a 2010 meeting between the pair show that Lebedev claimed he would be able to “lead discussions in establishing further substantial support from the Russian Government”. Ultimately, Johnson provided no support and the event didn’t materialise.
In particular, however, concerns have revolved around Evgeny’s father – and the family’s patriarch, Alexander – who served as a Russian spy in London from 1988 to 1992.
Following his time as a spy, Lebedev senior moved into the financial sector, amassing vast personal wealth. He was listed as the 39th richest Russian by Forbes in 2008, with an estimated wealth of $3.1 billion. This fortune diminished significantly, but not entirely, after one of his Russian newspapers published an exposé about President Vladimir Putin and his alleged affair with a famed gymnast.
In an interview with The Observer in 2009, Alexander was damning about Putin’s cronies, saying that, “They don’t read books. They don’t go to exhibitions. They think the only way to impress anyone is to buy a yacht.”
However, despite this apparent acrimony between Alexander Lebedev and Vladimir Putin, the Canadian Government ruled in May 2022 that the Russian oligarch should be sanctioned for being among those who have “directly enabled Vladimir Putin’s senseless war in Ukraine”.
For his part, Johnson celebrated his landslide 2019 General Election victory by attending Alexander Lebedev’s 60th birthday party at the Russian’s £6 million mansion overlooking Regent’s Park in central London.
When serving as Foreign Secretary in April 2018, Johnson also flew directly from a high-level NATO summit to the Lebedev palazzo in Umbria. The NATO meeting focused on the West’s response to the poisoning of a former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury.
Johnson seemingly abandoned his security team for this trip – a breach of government protocol – and was pictured at San Francesco d’Assisi airport looking dishevelled, clutching a book about war strategy. Alexander Lebedev attended this party and, according to Tortoise, offered to mediate between Johnson and Putin. Johnson has maintained that no Government business was discussed at the party.
Alexander Lebedev is not among the 130 oligarchs that the UK has targeted with sanctions following Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. Ambassador Kelin, however, has been banned from the parliamentary estate.
Evgeny Lebedev has publicly opposed Putin’s invasion, calling on the Russian President to “bring this terrible conflict in Ukraine to an end” and “stop Russians killing their Ukrainian brothers and sisters.”
Evgeny Lebedev and the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office have been approached for comment.
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