Evgeny Lebedev

Two ways to see the darker side of Russia

Evening Standard Friday 25 January 2013

Evgeny Lebedev on his father's impending trial and a night with Uncle Vanya star Anna Friel

Tense times chez Lebedev again as my father’s spurious court case looms large.

Yesterday he appeared at Moscow’s Ostankinsky court for the first day of his trial for so-called politically motivated hooliganism. As it happened, the case was postponed, but in a way this only prolongs the awful tension for our family. He’s a tough guy, my dad, and when I spoke to him last night he seemed in pretty good spirits, talking about how he’ll battle to win the case. In the backs of our minds, though, we all know that few get acquitted by Russian courts.

A sinister foe

The man Dad knocked off his stool in that now-infamous TV spat, Sergei Polonsky, is currently in jail in Cambodia, accused of forcing some local sailors to jump into the sea at knifepoint. So he won’t be at the trial. But, as Dad said to me yesterday, this isn’t about Polonsky any more, this is about Alexander Bastrykin, the head of the Investigative Committee in Russia. This organisation — a kind of more malign and corrupt version of the FBI — is as sinister as its name sounds. And Bastrykin hates my father. Or, more to the point, he hates my father’s corruption-exposing newspaper, Novaya Gazeta. I can’t think why that might be, can you?

Echoes of McCarthy

Dad compares Bastrykin to a Russian McCarthy. Truman and Eisenhower may have been presidents while Joe McCarthy was carrying out his witchhunts, but they couldn’t control him. President Putin is the same with Bastrykin. He is not involved with Bastrykin’s reign of terror and probably can’t do much about it. After Dad said that last night I looked up McCarthy and found another parallel between the two out-of-control apparatchiks: a violent hatred of journalists. McCarthy once beat up a journalist who’d been criticising his anti-communist madness. Bastrykin last year drove one of our editors at Novaya Gazeta out to the middle of a forest where — according to our journalist — he threatened to kill him for exposing corruption in Bastrykin’s department. Bastrykin later admitted harassment and apologised, although he has still never confessed to the murder threat. Believe me, these are not nice people.

Anna and Uncle Vanya

I’m not complaining, but theatreland is certainly giving Uncle Vanya a good airing. There have been not one but two productions on in London lately. I saw the starry Anna Friel version last night and went for dinner with her afterwards. I was treated to the sight of the paparazzi in full animal mode. As we walked to the car they were like a pack of hyenas, shouting, running backwards, falling over each other, tripping on bikes locked to railings, sprawling on the floor. Then they waited outside all through dinner before repeating the whole assault as we left. I thought Leveson might have calmed all that stuff down but clearly not.

Anna made me laugh during the meal. When the two Vanyas were on together, lots of people got them mixed up and bought tickets for the other version by mistake. Expecting to see her as Yelena, they got the highly stylised version in Russian with English subtitles. They missed a treat: Anna gets Yelena’s regret at her disastrous marriage decision down to a tee, trapped as she is in a dull but wealthy marriage to a difficult old man. By turns tearful and almost hysterically laughing, she captures perfectly the nature of manic depression — and sexual frustration. For an English rose, she plays the Russian tortured soul very well.

Skulls under the snow

The Brits have not been so good at dealing with that other Russian speciality — snow. Particularly the headmasters and headmistresses. I find it amazing that 5,000 schools were shut this week, citing health and safety. And it seems to be the same pretty much every year, doesn’t it? Despite the Moscow winters falling to minus 20, I can’t remember my school there ever closing for the snow. Indeed, I vividly recall us digging through the white stuff and frozen earth behind the schoolyard. Crazy but true: we were hunting for skeletons. The school was built on the site of an old leper and plague graveyard and we kids used to dig up the skulls and use them for footballs. A word of advice if you’re planning on doing the same: wear tough shoes. Kicking frozen skulls in plimsolls is not good for your toes. Now, I wonder what the Health and Safety Executive’s stance is on that?

Save the child soldiers

There’s one more week to go until the phone lines close on our campaign to raise funds and awareness of Unicef’s work helping rescue and rehabilitate child soldiers in the wartorn Central African Republic. So far, we have raised more than £225,000. That has smashed the record for the amount raised for an individual charity in the Christmas Appeal of our sister newspaper, The Independent, which is spearheading the campaign. I find it a huge testament to the British public that you have been so generous to a cause in a little-known, faraway country — what other nation could be so giving?

As events since my visit have shown, there has never been a more urgent need for the cause to raise money. The children I met who were in the process of being rehabilitated suddenly had to be moved hundreds of miles to the capital city of Bangui when rebel militias launched a huge offensive in the area of the Unicef base. Since then, rebels have massed outside Bangui and there are reports that government soldiers have been threatening the poor kids because of their previous lives as rebel soldiers. Unicef has had to move them a number of times and is working to keep their location secret, though reports from Bangui are that the situation is calmer now.

It is in situations like these that Unicef’s status as an apolitical body that works on behalf of children with all sides in a conflict becomes so important. Whatever happens in this troubled country, whoever succeeds in the power struggle in the coming months, Unicef will continue to help free and re-educate child soldiers, thanks to your generosity. So please, until our donation lines close on January 31, give generously.