'Independent' owner's hotel is raided in row over charity fund

Nick Curtis
Saturday 06 November 2010 01:00 GMT

A hotel complex in Ukraine, belonging to Alexander and Evgeny Lebedev, the owners of The Independent and the London Evening Standard, has been raided by police in an apparent row over the preservation of playwright Anton Chekhov's nearby house.

British theatrical stars such as Sir Tom Stoppard and Kenneth Branagh are implicated in the situation.

Staff at the 500-room, 20-hectare leisure development in Alushta were reportedly forbidden to use phones, and computers were confiscated by 100 officers of the police and security forces yesterday. The operation took place three days after Alexander Lebedev was caught up in a similar raid by 50 masked and armed police on his National Reserve Bank in Moscow, which he blamed on commercial rivals.

But he believes the Ukrainian crisis was triggered by an article earlier this month in the Standard's Londoner's Diary, which suggested that the Lebedev family and British fundraisers and theatre stars had done more than president Viktor Yanukovych's administration to restore Chekhov's crumbling dacha in Yalta, 40km from Alushta.

"I think it is a coincidence that this happened after what happened in Moscow," said Alexander Lebedev. "I think it is to do with that article. I know the Ukrainian government is very sensitive about what is written about it, and they always think it is the proprietor [behind negative stories].

"This is a complex of hotels, restaurants, a spa and aquapark," he continued. "It is a seasonal business, and makes about half a million dollars a year, but every penny in profit I have made from it I have put towards the Chekhov house, the Chekhov theatre, or a cathedral I built nearby."

Chekhov left the house known as the White Dacha, where he wrote The Three Sisters and The Cherry Orchard, to his sister Masha after his death in 1904. She maintained it, through the Russian Revolution and subsequent Nazi occupation, until her own death, aged 93, in 1957. Steadily the house fell into disrepair, which worsened as the first, nationalist regimes governing newly independent Ukraine saw no mileage in commemorating a Russian writer. In 2008, the Anton Chekhov Foundation was founded in the UK to preserve the house, with the support of Stoppard, Branagh, Kevin Spacey, Ralph Fiennes, Christopher Hampton and Michael Frayn.

"At the time of the establishment of the ACF in 2008, the museum was relying on private donors such as Mr Lebedev and minimal sums from the local authorities," said spokesman Alexander Walsh. "Previous Ukrainian governments had showed no signs of wanting to support the museum."

The ACF alone stumped up £27,000 to repair hurricane damage to the house in February 2010, including a "generous donation" from Alexander Lebedev's son, Evgeny. But Mr Walsh stressed that President Yanukovych's government had reversed earlier policies, and funded a major refurbishment of the museum.

Sir Tom Stoppard said he had been to see the partly restored house a year or so ago, along with fellow writer Christopher Hampton, with the ACF. "We didn't receive a sense that it was being supported at the Yalta end – [the investment] was all coming from outside," he said. "The house simply would not be there in its present form without the Foundation and extra funding from the Lebedevs."

Regarding the raid on the Lebedevs' hotel complex, he added: "In the broadest sense it's a reminder that cultural politics are part of politics, and in some way they punch above their weight."

Alexander Lebedev told the Evening Standard the staff at his hotel were "very scared" and that he was considering closing the Alushta complex "even though I am a major taxpayer and a major employer in the area".

Spacey, the Oscar-winner and director of the Old Vic, said: "Chekhov's White Dacha is a valuable memorial to a great writer, and the support given to it by the Lebedev family should be applauded."

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