‘I left the KGB with £500, a 1977 Volvo and the rose-tinted belief that anyone could succeed in business’

He grew up in a shared flat in Moscow and went on to own a major Russian bank – but success did not always make Alexander Lebedev popular. Here, in the first of three extracts from his new biography, he recalls his early life, and how he warned Gorbachev of the economic troubles that would bring down the USSR

Wednesday 11 September 2019 14:59
‘I used to practise fencing with my older brother Alexey’
‘I used to practise fencing with my older brother Alexey’

I was born on 16 December 1959 in Moscow, in the maternity hospital on Proletarskaya Street. We lived in a communal apartment on Avtozavodskaya (Automotive Factory Street) and a little later, when I was three, the family’s fortunes improved to the extent that we moved to a small 36-square-metre apartment of our own. At that time my parents could hardly have imagined how their younger son’s career would develop.

My father, Yevgeny Nikolaevich, had a doctorate in engineering and was a professor in the education department of the Bauman Higher Technical College in Moscow (now the Moscow State Technical University). There he forged elite engineers for the land of triumphant socialism. My mother, Maria Sergeyevna, taught history to the next generation of Soviet people and, later, the language of the ‘probable adversary’, namely, English. They had no idea what the First Directorate of the KGB of the USSR might be, and for them millions of dollars were to be found only in the novels of John Galsworthy and Theodore Dreiser.

I owe my secondary (and very middling) education to School No 17, which offered ‘intensive study of the English language’. It was what was known in those days as a ‘specialised school’. I had the privilege of attending a representative specialised school at the height of the Soviet Era of Stagnation. We had some fine teachers of, for example, English and literature: reading and studying Shakespeare and Robert Burns in the original was seen as nothing out of the ordinary. Many years later, already in adult life, I was able on a couple of occasions to surprise British friends by reciting Hamlet’s monologue.

I studied well enough, but consistently got bad marks for conduct, which meant my parents were regularly called in to the school to hear expressions of concern. These were not infrequently about tricks I got up to with Sasha Mamut, with whom I had been friends since first grade. He was eventually moved to a different class: from B to C.