Model wife of billionaire newspaper baron Alexander Lebedev fights to save her husband from Putin's jail
22:04 GMT, 1 December 2012
Russian model and fashion icon Elena Perminova is a familiar fixture in the world of haute couture. But today, the striking Siberian-born 26-year-old wears a deep frown.
Elena has unquestionably done well out of the rough-and-ready capitalism of post-Soviet Moscow and yet now she faces the grave threat that the father of her two young sons could be thrown into jail for up to five years.
Even more chilling is the fact that her husband Alexander Lebedev – former KGB spy, billionaire businessman, funder of several British newspapers including the Independent and the London Evening Standard, and anti-corruption campaigner – may be facing a Russian mafia contract on his life after irritating criminal warlords with his fight against gambling.
Happy family: Alexander Lebedev with Elena Perminova with sons Nikita, three and Egor, one
Indeed, Mr Lebedev’s eldest son Evgeny, 32, divulged last week that his father fears being sent to prison could effectively mean a death sentence. ‘It’s an easy place for somebody to be taken out. It’s very concerning,’ he said.
If Mr Lebedev is imprisoned (or worse) for his part in an on-air television spat, he will be seen as the latest victim of Russia’s clampdown on dissent.
The precedents are clear: lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, who uncovered large-scale Government corruption, died in police custody in 2009 and two members of the punk band Pussy Riot are now inmates of modern-day gulag labour camps.
Whistleblower: Nataliya Magnitskaya, mother of Sergei Magnitsky who died in police custody, grieves over her son's body during his funeral at a cemetery in Moscow
Fatal decision: Magnitsky was held in Butyrka remand prison, a maximum security prison, where he was repeatedly pressed to sign a confession admitting he had been responsible for the tax scam but he refused
Putin is apparently taking his own stand against bureaucratic and political corruption – ironically following much of what Lebedev’s Russian newspaper started.
And if anyone doubts life can be alarmingly cheap in modern Russia, consider the case of Alexander Litvinenko, fatally poisoned with radioactive polonium in London in November 2006.
Clampdown: Russia's President Vladimir Putin is taking a stand on corruption
Surrey Police are currently investigating the suspicious death two weeks ago of another exiled Russian, Alexander Perepilichnyy, who was a witness in a huge corruption investigation.
At the Lebedevs’ house in the exclusive Rublyovka district on the outskirts of Moscow, Elena admits she is nervous about even discussing her husband’s case.
‘I worry so much for him,’ she says.
‘I know he’s a good man. I know how much good he has done selflessly for other people, his charity work, helping children with leukaemia. What is going on is so unfair. My little children love him so much and I do too.’
The ‘crime’ that could see Mr Lebedev, 52, behind bars stems from a cantankerous and provocative television debate in September last year when, in a moment of high drama, the former spy suddenly punched another guest, businessman Sergei Polonsky.
The incident became a short-lived
internet sensation, but would have been soon forgotten without the
intervention of President Putin, who labelled the act ‘hooliganism’ –
the same offence that saw the Pussy Riot pair condemned to the gulags.
then, almost a year passed before the authorities decided to act. Elena
doesn’t blame Mr Putin for the legal action, but the competing Kremlin
factions who constantly vie to please him.
prosecutors dressed up the charge as ‘hooliganism driven by political
hatred’, which carries a sentence of up to five years.
a prison term would harm his business career. Indeed, the pressure is
already showing – last week he publicly sought an investor to help run
the Independent titles in Britain.
Moment of madness: Independent owner Alexander Lebedev lashes out at Sergei Polonsky during a Russian TV debate
Meanwhile, Elena freely admits that the televised punch was not her husband’s finest hour.
called me immediately afterwards and told me what happened. He said, “I
don’t really understand it myself. Polonsky began to taunt me. He
wanted to hit me so I had to hit him first.”
‘I thought he had probably just pushed him away, until I saw the show.
watched it at my maternity clinic – I was eight months pregnant at the
time – and I was shocked. I’ve never seen him do anything like that
'But equally, I
never expected it to be taken so much further. But these days, you make
a little slip, a mistake, and they say, “Ah, we’ve got you . . . ” ’
a chateau near Paris, Evgeny’s home at Hampton Court, and their two
children, Nikita, three, and Egor, one – to whom Mr Lebedev is plainly
devoted – has she not suggested to him that he steers clear of
politically sensitive subjects or decamps permanently abroad like so
many other wealthy Russians Her eyes flash angrily.
Worried: Elena Perminova is nervous about even discussing her husband's case
‘He won’t. This is his motherland and why should he go What did he do wrong here He has never done anything bad,’ she says indignantly.
‘He’s a man of principle and I admire him so much for this,’ she quickly adds.
‘When we had our first child, then the second, he became a bit calmer,’ she says, referring obliquely to Mr Lebedev’s relentless campaign to expose corruption in the murky Russian undergrowth that connects crime gangs to bent officials.
‘But he is very strong. He knows what he wants and what he has to do.
‘I understand that people say, “He must get away from here – there’s a threat for his family.” No one feels it like I do, believe me. I realise much more than most people what the risks are. But he will not leave.’
Elena has more insight than most into the workings of the Russian justice system. Indeed, had she not met Mr Lebedev, she might still be in prison herself after her first serious boyfriend – twice her age – forced her to become an ecstasy dealer from the age of 16. She was caught and in 2007 sentenced to six years in prison.
‘It was only thanks to Sasha [her affectionate name for Alexander] I wasn’t sent to jail,’ she says.
Thanks to his intervention, her sentence was suspended as she had co-operated with police to trap a Mr Big who had sinister official protection.
The memory is painful and Elena is close to tears as she recalls how, already a well-known model in Siberia, she was arrested in a sting operation. ‘I was alone in the cell, this tiny iron cage,’ she says.
‘There was a stinking toilet and no soap. I remember I had dirty hands from the fingerprinting, and I couldn’t wash them.
‘There was an iron bed clamped to the wall and floor, and 20 dogs around the cage. I was so shocked.’
She decided to help detectives ensnare the drugs baron. This led to a dramatic police operation with hidden microphones, thousands of dollars covered in a special powder, and a spectacular car crash staged to stop him escaping.
With the dealer arrested, a major
supply chain dried up, and for ten days Elena was given full-scale armed
guards to protect her from his gang. But they lost interest and,
despite risking her life to become an informer, she faced prosecution.
father begged Mr Lebedev, then an MP, to help. ‘He was a true hero for
me – someone who flew in to save me. My parents could do nothing.’
Today, Elena is brutally honest over
her own behaviour. ‘I committed such a terrible sin,’ she says. ‘Only
now I’m a mother can I see this.
‘I am confessing now to you that I
really regret so much that I have done this. Now I live a normal life
with fitness and health, I’m a deeply family-orientated person – and I
just can’t imagine myself in drugs.’
her experience has given her a clear understanding of the risks her
husband faces. She is adamant on what his enemies are seeking to do,
saying bluntly: ‘I think the task is to destroy his business, ruin his
reputation in society and punish him too. Maybe jail, maybe something
Poisoned: Former KGB spy Alexander Litvinenko, 43, pictured left in good health and right during his last hours, died in Intensive Care Unit of University College Hospital after radioactive polonium-210 was found in his body
Dressed casually at home, where she pads around her Russian home shoeless in vintage Levi jeans and a dark-blue Louis Vuitton top, she knows some things are more important than her jet-setting life.
‘I come from an ordinary family,’ she says. ‘I grew up with a simple lifestyle in Siberia. I have been with Sasha for eight years. It’s a comfortable life but this is not in my veins, and I know what the important things are.’
Despite her husband’s legal problems, Elena has been in great demand on the international fashion circuit – and is now firmly established as a star of a select and chic Russian fashion pack.
A favourite of Chanel and Dior, she has been photographed at home by Karl Lagerfeld and was last month shortlisted for Glamour Russia’s Woman Of The Year title, which went to her friend, supermodel Natalia Vodianova.
Elena also devotes many hours to charity work, but she insists that international success in the fashion world means nothing without family. ‘Money doesn’t mean stability to me. Of course it’s important and good, but being close to your family is so much more important.
Death sentence: Russian billionaire Alexander Lebedev fears a jail term would make him vulnerable to assassination
‘I want my husband to be with me, healthy, free and alive with our children, not in jail. If Sasha does go inside, I will be waiting for him. We will keep fighting to get him out. We are not going to give up. He’s a strong man. But I can’t imagine how it will be for him inside there.
‘He always says that’s not the most horrible disaster that can happen to us . . . I agree that somewhere there’s a contract out on him.’
The possible motive has led to fevered speculation in Moscow: it could be Mr Lebedev’s hard-hitting investigative Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta – which he co-owns with Mikhail Gorbachev – has upset someone important. Or revenge for his exposing crooked dealers or digging into political murders that officials prefer not to solve.
Or it could be more overtly political – his support for the most articulate of all opposition politicians, Alexei Navalny, whom he eased on to the board of Aeroflot.
Meanwhile, there have been raids by heavily armed, masked police on his National Reserve Bank, repeated warnings, and dirty-tricks campaigns on the internet.
‘After what we have seen I wouldn’t be surprised if they plant drugs on him or a weapon in his pocket. It can happen,’ Elena says.
‘When I wake up in the morning, I go straight to Google, type in his name, hands trembling, to see what is going on.’
Mr Lebedev was ordered to sign an official document stating he would not leave the country. He found a loophole and refused to sign – but he has not left, and will not do so.
Last week he admitted he is resigned to going to jail, saying: ‘One must prepare for the worst.’
Elena is more bullish: ‘He shouldn’t stay even for a week in jail. He shouldn’t be put in jail at all.’
Mr Lebedev is submitting a 600-page dossier of legal arguments as to why the hooliganism and a related charge don’t stand up in his case.
The response of the authorities to this submission may well give a clue as to the state’s intentions for him.
If he does go down, it will be seen as political, as a Kremlin order.
‘What’s happening is just nonsense,’ says Elena. ‘We need people at the top to realise what’s going on here.
‘If it goes ahead, can you imagine how much it will ruin the image of Russia and its judicial system The world will know about it immediately. That anything can be done here, just on an order from above.’