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Artillery Row

We need more Lord Lebedevs

Evgeny Lebedev’s peerage should be celebrated – other members of the Lords have much closer links to the Kremlin.

What does it mean for British liberal democracy when the son of a senior Russian KGB agent, a 90s era Oligarch with complex relations with the Kremlin, is elevated to the House of Lords? The appointment takes place in the context of an inquiry into systematic Russian interference prevalent in British life. The announcement seems almost farcical. The timing of the government’s release of the list of 36 peers, which includes Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s own brother but did not include John Bercow, the former Speaker of the Commons, could not have been more surreal. Or perhaps merely gauche.

The fury against the appointment emanating from every corner of British society is eminently understandable, I would like to take the heterodox view and defend it

I do not know if the rumours of Theresa May having kept Russia related intel from Johnson while he was her Foreign Secretary are true. Those rumours are indicative however. It is more than your run of the mill kleptocracy when the Prime Minister, who is doing his best to  downplay the report, genuinely likes the fellow and routinely parties with him. The optics of the appointment actually tell us more about Boris Johnson than they do about Lebedev or his record, abilities and capacity to bring value to the House. The fury against the appointment emanating from every corner of British society is eminently understandable, I would like to take the heterodox view and defend it.

Many reasonable commentators have pointed out that ennobling socialite press barons is a fine and harmless British tradition. Lebedev is very well dressed and he has dash. He will surely bring fresh blood to Parliament. I am told that he throws fantastic parties. This is all to the good. We can only hope that he will turn Westminster Parliament into the set of the next “Party Like a Russian” music video.

Much of the criticism of the appointment has understandably focused on the symbolic absurdity of it rather than on any substantive criticisms of Lebedev personally. After all, there are far more malicious, outrageous, dilettantish and ignoble characters to be found in the ageing and ever expanding House of Lords. My British contacts inform me that around a dozen members of the chamber are already viscerally disdained by the British intelligence community as de facto traitors to the nation. These are, to repeat, peers – without naming names –  who are actively distrusted by British intelligence agencies for their clubby connections to wealthy and influential Russians.  So why not?

We should attempt to be fair to Lebedev: he is not himself a Russian oligarch

We might be forgiven for flippantly asking: what difference does one more make? Is Lebedev a bigger threat to the maintenance of British state secrets than British peers whose ancestors had lived in the UK for centuries, and yet who make money directly from dealings with Moscow? Almost surely not. In fact, we should attempt to be fair to Lebedev: he is not himself a Russian oligarch. I empathize with the position of a son who does not want to be associated with the sins – or business practices – of his prominent father.

Lebedev is a British educated gentleman who has lived in England since he was eight and who has almost no political influence to speak of back in Kremlin court politics. His newspaper holdings actually took the opposite line of Moscow’s intel operations on central questions such as Brexit and he more or less saved that failing paper (a phrase that will now for all time be associated with America’s own playboy Commander in Chief).

Colleagues and acquaintances who had worked for The Independent have informed me that he had never complained about Russia-related stories. He cannot be accused of spiking such pieces, nor of any improper meddling in the reporting. He was doubtless very silly in his youth. Sure, he tried to save the elephant. Who amongst us would not want to save elephants? The worst judgment that can be made of Lebedev is that he is an extravagant, hedonistic, peacock aesthete of a Russian dandy enjoying himself ceaselessly and with panache. Most of which has also been said about me.

Let him who has never tried to hug an elephant cast the first stone!

As my colleague, British national treasure, Mark Galeotti wrote in the Moscow Times:

“It is hard to believe that Johnson was unaware of the media storm it would provoke. He probably feels that he is currently at his strongest politically, with the news cycle still dominated by Covid-19, parliament on recess, and his majority overwhelming, such that this is the best time to reward his friends and ride out any ensuing turbulence. He may have been less aware, though, of the potential damage to the U.K.’s international credibility.”

The greatest risk of the appointment is in fact as Galeotti sagely notes, of the UK seeming to be more compromised than it actually is. Symbolically, the appointment very much resembles a season conclusion cliffhanger in the “McMafia” series. It is a Balzacian act of grace that redeems the underlying crime that besmirches a family name and raises it to triumphal heights of respectability – with the added benefit of throwing contempt in the faces of one’s critics. In terms of chutzpah, Boris Johnson has outdone himself on this occasion. Bravo to him. Thirty years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, we are beginning to approach the dynastic transition phase of imperial breakup, where we get to see the ways in which the  inheritance of numerous newly minted fortunes plays out. The first generation of the international Post-Soviet de facto aristocracy are being transmuted into actual aristocrats. Will they prove worthy of the opportunities handed to them?

A parting anecdote: a Russian speaking journalist friend of mine who was then working for the BBC had accompanied Lebedev on his journalistic junket by private plane to Belarus, where he quizzed “the last dictator in Europe”, Alexander Lukashenko on his opinions on group sex. Which is exactly the sort of transgressive dadaist thrill that anyone might entertain if they were a billionaire playboy who got to interview the arch conservative, repressive and repressed Lukashenko. I would have given him a peerage for that alone.

Lord Lebedev, you and I would get on just fine and I await my invitation to the next bacchanal!

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