Alexander Lebedev, the ex-KGB agent turned millionaire banker turned newspaper tycoon, remains one of Russia’s greatest mysteries. He speaks his mind, has pissed off Vladimir Putin by once owning a newspaper that gossiped about his personal life, and yet he has managed to become one of Russia’s wealthiest men. The question in Moscow has always been: who is his krysha (literally: roof, what it means: protection/cover)? Today we may have gotten the answer.
Lebedev announced on his website that one of his social groups, Our Capital, was joining Putin’s “All-Russia People’s Front,” a new initiative likely designed to build support for the premier as disillusionment with United Russia grows.
“Today we are ready not only to co-operate with the [new] Moscow leadership but also to support the People’s Front created upon Vladimir Putin’s initiative,” Lebedev said on his website, adding that he hoped to focus on the fight against corruption. As the surprise in Moscow set in, he added a second statement seeking to explain himself, saying he wouldn’t compromise his principles and noting that he has long been a man who lived with duality.
“We have strong opinions, views and values that we will not change,” he wrote. He went on to list the dissidents "we" used to read, saying "we" told anti-Soviet jokes and listened to Voice of America, all the while being a member of the Communist Party and serving as a spy.
In his career, both in business and politics, Lebedev has avoided criticizing the Kremlin directly, focusing his wrath mainly on Yury Luzhkov, Moscow’s ousted mayor. But at the same time he’s always fashioned himself as an outsider. So why the change?
Lebedev’s main business, the National Reserve Bank, has come under lots of pressure lately (and that’s the main source of his wealth, through which he can run things like England’s Independent and Evening Standard newspapers). This week, he put up a video looking into a recent raid on the bank by masked security officers, and giving concrete claims of corruption against them. Yesterday, he removed the video and said he had put it up by mistake, that that version wasn't meant for public consumption. Today, he announced he was headed to the (people’s) front.
In February, Lebedev wrote Putin asking him to help sort out his problems. Was the answer: ok, but join my new electoral project first?
In some Moscow circles there’s a theory that Lebedev is the “approved opposition.” The thinking goes: He co-owns (with Mikhail Gorbachev) Novaya Gazeta, the country’s leading opposition newspaper, not in a direct affront to the Kremlin but so the Kremlin can say: “Look! We DO allow opposition!”
As much as Lebedev has always attempted to appear independent, it’s also been clear that he plays by the rules. And when the rules say “Putin has a new movement that just might be useful as an electoral tool so why don’t you join it?” you do.
For those interested, the video that Lebedev removed from his website was uploaded by a YouTube user and here it is: