It is a grey morning in the middle of London Fashion Week, and Elena Perminova arrives alone, promptly and without fanfare, at the Vogue shoot in Soho. Her beautiful face, wide-eyed with the fullest of mouths, is devoid of make-up. Her naturally fair hair – not a highlight in sight – is pushed back by a simple, brown hairband, decorated with a small wire flower. She is astonishingly tall, with endless legs encased in skinny stonewashed jeans, and she’s wearing a Rick Owens jacket and a pair of high-heeled, buckled, black ankle boots. “I bought them in Moscow,” she says quietly, in her faltering English. Her Russian accent is thick and honeyed, with a deep Eastern purr, but she
is undeterred, making polite conversation and going out of her way to be easy-going.
This is all surprising, given that this 22-year-old is the girlfriend of Alexander Lebedev, the 49-year-old Russian oligarch, philanthropist and media mogul who, in January, acquired the loss-making London Evening Standard from Associated Newspapers for £1. What’s more, she is expecting his baby in June. “It’s a boy,” she says happily, stroking her barely perceptible bump.
Lebedev, the former KGB agent who fell in love with Britain after being based here during the Cold War, has become a familiar name after buying the Standard as “an act of public service”. A self-made billionaire (Forbes recently listed him as the 358th richest person in the world, although he admits to having lost an estimated $1?billion as a result of the credit crunch), his company – which owns Russia’s National Reserve Bank – also part-owns Novaya Gazeta, a Moscow newspaper with a liberal bent, which has openly criticised Vladimir Putin. Despite this, he has taken pains to allay fears that he will interfere with the Standard’s editorial policy. Nor will his proprietorship be as fraught with risk as it is in Russia, where four of his journalists have been assassinated.
All of this makes the open, unguarded simplicity of Perminova even more attractive. Unlike many of her wealthy female compatriots who have decamped to London, Perminova has so far kept a low media profile. But, with Lebedev’s new role, this could be set to change. There are inevitable plans, she says, to spend more time here, and “we are going to have the baby here”. While she can still fly, the couple visit London twice a month for four or five days each time, staying in a favourite hotel near St James’s Park while renovations on Stud House, their 18th-century home in the grounds of Hampton Court Palace, are under way.
“I love being in London – it’s like one long party,” enthuses Perminova of their evenings, usually spent with Evgeny, Lebedev’s flamboyant, London-based, 29-year-old son (by his first wife, Natalia, from whom Lebedev separated in 1998), and Evgeny’s girlfriend, the actress Joely Richardson, 44. “Kevin Spacey, Elton John, Hugh Grant, John Malkovich – I have met them all,” Perminova grins. But official outings are kept to a minimum. “We will go to parties if it involves supporting friends, like Natalia Vodianova or Geordie Greig,” she says.
The couple step into the spotlight once a year, when Lebedev and Evgeny host a white-tie ball in aid of the Raisa Gorbachev Foundation, which raises money for children with cancer. At last year’s event, held at Stud House and attended by Benicio del Toro, Vivienne Westwood and Emily Blunt, among others, Perminova wowed in a bespoke trouser suit. “Otherwise,” she points out, “we are very low key.”
“She and Lebedev are a very subtle couple,” says Victoria Davydova, editor-in-chief of Russian Tatler. “They are not a target for the tabloids. They are much classier than that. They are well known as Russians who love Moscow for all the right reasons. I know they plan to spend more time in London, but they will always be real Russians to us.”
Perminova first met Lebedev under extraordinary circumstances. Aged 16, and still living in her home city of Novosibirsk, in Siberia, “Elena was in love with an older man, who used her to push ecstasy tablets,” explains Lebedev from his mobile, having just shown Gorbachev around the offices of the Standard. “She tried to say it was wrong. She was arrested and convinced by the police to co-operate in a sting on another much bigger dealer. She was wired up, involved in a very dangerous car chase, and then still ended up in court, alongside this drug dealer, who was threatening to kill her.”
He pauses momentarily. “There is no plea bargain in Russian law, or witness protection. She was going to go to prison for six years, despite helping the police, and her life was in danger. I was campaigning for this law to be instated in Russia at the time. Elena’s father heard me on the radio and wrote to me. I contacted him, and then met Elena. We only started dating much later…”
“Sascha helped me find a good lawyer,” Perminova says, referring to Lebedev by his nickname. “I ended up getting a suspended probationary sentence. He is my rescuer, my guardian angel.”
“When I heard about Elena, I had all sorts of preconceptions,” says Joely Richardson, who, through her relationship with Evgeny, finds herself in the strange position of being Perminova’s virtual stepdaughter. “But as soon as I met her, they were dispelled. She is much, much younger than me, and yet sometimes I can’t believe how much older, wiser and smarter she seems.”
Perminova left home at 16, much to the disapproval of her parents, who had worked hard to give her a decent education. “We had no good clothes, no modern goods, no trips to Disneyland,” she remembers. For her and her older sister, entertainment was a playground with an iron see-saw, and a sandpit in the garden. When their father came back from a business trip in China with chewing gum and Snickers bars, it was like magic. “We had never eaten things like that before,” she says. “We shared them with our friends. We were like heroes.”
Perminova, who is the first to acknowledge that her unborn child’s upbringing will be very different from her own, is determined not to spoil him. “I want him to be content in simple ways,” she says. She is adamant that she will, for at the least the first year of the baby’s life, bring him up without a nanny. Nor will she work during this time. An economics student at Moscow State University, she is working hard to complete her academic year before she comes to London to have the baby. Her final year will be deferred.
As a child, all Perminova wanted was to be a model. (She has posed nude for Playboy. “It’s a prestigious magazine in Russia – nothing to be ashamed of,” she shrugs.) But, she says, her aspirations have changed. One day, she hopes to work at Lebedev’s right hand, but, for now, she is happy to sit back and learn from the master. “Sascha is my mentor,” she beams. “He is teaching me about the world.” New Year was spent – with Evgeny and Richardson – in a remote Egyptian hotel with no electricity. Last summer, the two couples spent a fortnight driving around Mongolia, sleeping in tents and washing their clothes in the river.
“We don’t like yachts or nightclubs,” says Perminova. “But I do like shopping.” When she comes to London, it is the first thing she does. “I love your young designers,” she enthuses, naming Christopher Kane and Gareth Pugh. She isn’t averse to some prettiness from Erdem, Rodarte, Lanvin or Alberta Ferretti, either.
Although she loves London, Perminova’s heart will always be in Moscow. There, she and Lebedev live a relatively simple life. “Most of all, we love to cut holes in the ice on the Moscow River and fish for bream,” she says.
Alexander Lebedev is telling the story of how he met his girlfriend, Elena Perminova, who is 22 and heavily pregnant. We are sitting in the dining room of Lebedev's house in the ultra-exclusive enclave of Rublyovka, just west of Moscow, early this year. The house includes an underground pool with a cherub-laden fresco on the ceiling, Italian marble floors and a huge ovoid window onto a grand staircase that, Lebedev says, is typical of classical Italian architecture. Outside, there are four or five guards milling around in the driveway. Former President Boris Yeltsin once lived beyond the trees on the other side of a nearby tennis court, now covered in snow. A black BMW with tinted windows, its engine running, sits next to a wall that wraps around the compound. Lebedev, 49, dressed in jeans and a white button-down shirt and black vest, is sporting his signature glasses with rectangular lenses. He has tousled gray hair and a mostly English accent that sounds carefully studied, because that's exactly what it is — in the 1980s, Lebedev spied for the KGB while posing as an economic attaché at the Soviet embassy in London. Today, he looks more like a movie director.
"She was distributing drugs in a disco in Novosibirsk," Lebedev says of Perminova. "She was actually arrested when she was 16, and she cooperated with the authorities, and she almost got killed." The police, Lebedev says, were unable or unwilling to provide a safe haven for people who helped them arrest local drug barons. Perminova's father wrote to Lebedev, he says. At the time — this was about five years ago — Lebedev was still a deputy in the Duma and lobbying for a witness-protection program. He says that no one in the Duma leadership supported him, but that he met with Perminova's father — and Elena — and that eventually they started seeing each other. "We've been together since she was 19 or 20," he says. Perminova is a model and an economics student at Moscow State University. Throughout our two-hour breakfast, she alternately serves as waitress — doling out espressos, porridge, and pastries stuffed with black caviar — and as significant other, sampling the kiwi fruit and playing on her laptop.