A Russian media baron at the centre of a row over a ‘suppressed’ secret intelligence report today breaks his silence to dismiss claims he gathered damaging information on
Evgeny Lebedev, owner of
The party, where guests included actress Joan Collins, pop star Pixie Lott and glamour model
Evgeny Lebedev, pictured centre along with future prime minister Boris Johnson, left, and his sister Rachel JOhnson, right at the Evening Standard’s 1,000 Most Influential Londoners party at Burberry, Regent Street on November 7, 2012
Mr Johnson has been criticised for blocking the report’s publication until after the Election on the grounds that the Government needs more time to censor sensitive information. Committee chairman Dominic Grieve says he fears the findings will never see the light of day.
The shelving of the publication has led to increasingly sensationalist claims on the internet, including about Mr Lebedev’s party.
The issue was seized upon by Labour, with Shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornberry making political capital out of the ‘utterly unjustifiable’ delay and questioning the relationships fostered by Mr Johnson’s chief adviser, Dominic Cummings, during the three years he spent in Russia in the 1990s. Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab objected to the insinuation that No 10 was ‘in the grip of a Kremlin mole’.
Mr Lebedev, 39, moved to London aged eight to be with his father, Alexander, who had diplomatic cover for his KGB work, and has remained in the UK ever since. In 2009, the pair joined forces to buy a 65 per cent share in the Evening Standard. A year later, Evgeny Lebedev also bought The Independent and launched the i newspaper. The media baron, who campaigns on conservation issues, once owned a pet wolf, which he called Boris.
Evgeny Lebedev, left, arrived in Britain aged eight to be with his father, Alexander, right, who had diplomatic cover for his KGB work, and has remained in the UK ever since
Mr Lebedev writes in today’s Mail on Sunday that he was amazed to read that he was ‘a possible spy’, and by the presumption that Russians living in UK constitute a ‘fifth column’.
He says: ‘Various papers produced Stalinist lists of “enemies of the people”; influential Russians in the UK who, it is implied, advance the Kremlin’s agenda. I have never met Vladimir Putin. I have never given a penny to a political party. I made the list because of a party I held with friends at my house in Italy… I am proud to be a friend of Boris Johnson, who like most of my friends has visited me in Umbria. And I hate to disappoint, but nothing happens there that produces “Kompromat”.’ Referring to the ISC report, Mr Lebedev writes: ‘The Government has not released this Russian interference report, meaning I am in the Kafkaesque situation of being accused in public and possibly libelled in newspapers based on illegal leaks, without the right to know what I am accused of, or the right of reply.’
Cummings a KGB target? He was more interested in vodka!
BY HARRY COLE
An American businessman who employed Dominic Cummings in Russia in the 1990s has scotched wild claims that the Downing Street aide was recruited as a Russian spy, saying his fondness for vodka made him a very unlikely target.
Boris Johnson’s right-hand man spent three years in Russia from 1994 to 1997 working for Adam Dixon, a US entrepreneur who was attempting to build an airline in the post-Soviet state.
Earlier this month, Labour’s Shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornberry wrote a bizarre letter to the Government demanding Mr Cummings’s time in Russia be investigated as someone had told her of their ‘serious concerns’ that he was a spy.
Mr Dixon laughed off the idea, branding it ‘very strange’. He said: ‘You would have had to be very perceptive back then to have spotted Dominic as a great talent. I was fond of him at that time. I was much more worried that he was going to be a train wreck.’
He told The Times that Mr Cummings was ‘an ardent student’ of the Communist revolution, and was prone to swigging vodka from the bottle, adding: ‘There were a lot of young people like Dominic who were fascinated by what was going on [in Russia at the time] and as a result were there. He was sort of panhandling for a job and that’s why he ended up with me. It didn’t go very well.’
Mr Dixon said it was extremely unlikely anyone in Russia would have thought to target Mr Cummings as a future asset due to the pro-Western policies pursued at the time by President Boris Yeltsin and the widespread disruption after the collapse of the USSR.
Mr Dixon said: ‘He definitely drank too much and was obstinate and could be self-defeating and harmful to getting a business going properly. If somebody had spotted him then as a talent that was inevitably going to work its way to the top, I would have been very surprised.
‘He is too much of a patriot/chauvinist and too independent to be a mere spy. Even back then Dominic was very consistent that the UK should have absolute independence.’
He adds: ‘Trial behind closed doors is the justice of a banana republic. This isn’t the country Britain is supposed to be. Where people are judged on their origins rather than their contributions to society or on their accent rather than what they say. Don’t judge me because I’m Russian, judge me on what I’ve done for this country, and what I intend to continue to do.’
The party in Umbria is understood to have been referred to in the ISC report – without giving the ‘kompromat’ claims any credence – but only in the redacted annex, which will remain confidential.
According to an account by openDemocracy, a campaigning Left-wing website, Mr Johnson travelled to Mr Lebedev’s villa in the hills near Perugia in October 2016, shortly after he became Foreign Secretary. He was with his now estranged wife Marina Wheeler but without his usual entourage of close-protection officers. It was one of several visits Mr Johnson has made to the villa, dating back to his time as London Mayor.
OpenDemocracy claimed Ms Price took ‘advantage of the free-flowing champagne on [Mr Lebedev’s] private jet from London and the pure Russian vodka on offer’ at the party before making a toast at dinner. The website alleged that she called Mr Lebedev ‘You Guv’ then announced that ‘champagne and Pricey don’t mix’ and ‘lifted her top to expose her breasts, turning to face the Foreign Secretary [Mr Johnson] as she did so’.
It added that Ms Collins reportedly expressed her shock at the spectacle and that ‘one of Mr Lebedev’s four-strong team of armed personal bodyguards, headed by an ex-SAS soldier, escorted Ms Price from the dinner table. She was not seen again over the weekend’.
Newspaper reports also claimed that nine Conservative Party donors from Russia were named in the report, including Alexander Temerko, who has worked for the Kremlin defence ministry and who has gifted more than £1.2 million to the Tories over seven years.
During the ISC’s research for its report – simply titled Russia – it was told that Moscow had built up a network of friendly British diplomats, lawyers and parliamentarians over the decades in a way that posed a significant threat to the UK’s institutions and way of life.
A senior Whitehall source, who has read the suppressed report, told this newspaper that it concluded that Russia had helped to boost the Leave vote in the 2016 referendum through vigorous social media activity and the output of the Kremlin-funded Russia Today television station. Remain supporters have long claimed that Moscow wanted the UK to back Brexit in order to destabilise the EU.
The source said: ‘The committee concluded that Russia’s actions were likely to have had some bearing on the result, but stopped short of saying that it made a critical difference.’
Britain has been infiltrated by an ugly strain of Russia phobia
BY EVGENY LEBEDEV, proprietor of the Evening Standard and The Independent
All my life I have been asked by fellow Russians whether I feel like an outsider in the UK, where I am a citizen and where have lived since I was eight years old.
The answer, until very recently, has been No. Yet I have been forced to rethink this, as an ugly strain of Russophobia has infiltrated Britain.
Newspapers that pride themselves on tolerance and inclusivity have written, almost explicitly, that Russians like me are a ‘fifth column’ in modern Britain. One obscure publication, without a shred of actual evidence, has called me a ‘possible spy’.
Newspapers that pride themselves on tolerance and inclusivity have written, almost explicitly, that Russians like me are a ‘fifth column’ in modern Britain. One obscure publication, without a shred of actual evidence, has called me a ‘possible spy’
My loyalty to this country has been questioned. My social and business activities have been treated by sections of the media and the Government as tantamount to acts of treason.
Before the release of a parliamentary report on ‘Russian interference’ in the UK’s political process, many news outlets published hysterical speculation on me and my family.
Various papers produced Stalinist lists of ‘enemies of the people’; influential Russians in the UK who, it is implied, advance the Kremlin’s agenda.
I have never met Vladimir Putin. I have never given a penny to a political party. I made the list because of a party I held with friends at my house in Italy.
Others have attempted to link me to an international network behind the election of Donald Trump and the Brexit vote. This barely merits a response, as a simple glance at my newspaper titles will tell you.
When I bought the Evening Standard in 2009 and The Independent in 2010, both newspapers were less than a month from closure.
Now The Independent flourishes online, continues to hold political, business and cultural leaders to account across the world, and is a leading digital news source in the UK and US.
The Evening Standard provides a free news service to millions of Londoners. Circulation has increased more than fivefold and we have established it as the country’s pre-eminent campaigning newspaper. We have raised nearly £20 million for London causes.
I have always taken great pride in the strict editorial independence of both titles, as personally uncomfortable as it has been to me at times.
I am proud to be a friend of Boris Johnson, who like most of my friends has visited me in Umbria. And I hate to disappoint, but nothing happens there that produces ‘Kompromat’. It would be straightforwardly racist to conflate British Muslims with Islamic terrorist atrocities, just as Jewish Britons ought not to be blamed for Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians.
This is why I feel I must speak out against those who would vilify British Russians for the policies of the Kremlin.
The Government has not released this Russian interference report, meaning I am in the Kafkaesque situation of being accused in public and possibly libelled in newspapers based on illegal leaks, without the right to know what I am accused of, or the right of reply.
The Evening Standard on Tuesday published calls for the report to be released. It should be released. I would be very surprised if I were even mentioned. But again, we cannot know.
Trial behind closed doors is the justice of a banana republic. This isn’t the country Britain is supposed to be.
Where people are judged on their origins rather than their contributions to society or on their accent rather than what they say.
Don’t judge me because I’m Russian, judge me on what I’ve done for this country, and what I intend to continue to do.