She trekked 5,000 miles on camelback, married an Uzbek horseman while struck by the ‘romantic madness of the steppes’, then later a Russian billionaire – who fled the UK without warning in July after Putin came looking for him. Alexandra Tolstoy’s life is worthy of her cousin’s epic novels – but for her it’s all too real
hen Alexandra Tolstoy’s Russian billionaire partner failed to turn up to her father’s surprise 80th birthday party, she put it down to his habitual – and infuriating – inability to be on time for anything. It was only when his bodyguard called to tell her that Sergei Pugachev, the man once known as Vladimir Putin’s banker, had “gone away” that she realised he was not just late, he was not coming at all. Tolstoy went back to her family party.
“I wasn’t too worried. His bodyguard said he wouldn’t be able to make the party, that he was all right but he’d had to go away and he couldn’t say more,” Tolstoy says. “I only discovered he had disappeared when I read it in the newspapers.”
Being “all right” is not a given for Russian businessmen who, like Pugachev, have fallen out with the Kremlin – they can sometimes be made to disappear for good.
Faced with a freeze on his business assets, a court order to hand over his Russian and French passports and the threat of extradition to Moscow, Pugachev, 52, whom the Russian Federation accuses of misappropriating £655m in public funds, did what police vernacular would call “a runner”. After bidding Tolstoy and their three young children goodbye that morning, saying he was off to “a meeting in the City”, Pugachev vanished.
Tolstoy says she did not hear from him for 10 days and had no idea where he was until, three weeks after his daylight flit, Pugachev surfaced in Nice on the French Riviera, where he owns a château.
“Afterwards, I realised he must have planned it all. I think he was really frightened by the tracking device [that was found on the family car]. Sergei’s a survivor and knows what he’s doing, but he doesn’t always tell me. It’s so I’m protected and don’t have to lie about not knowing,” she says.
Since then, Pugachev, unable to return to Britain where he faces arrest, has lived in the south of France. Tolstoy, 41, reluctant to uproot the children from the family home, remains in London.
Disappearing lovers, death threats, international intrigue, an unlikely and doomed marriage to a dashing but penniless Tatar horseman encountered on the Russian steppes … the life of Alexandra – officially Countess Tolstoy – reads like a chapter from one of her distant cousin Leo Tolstoy’s novels. Anna Karenina, I suggest. She laughs as if the idea has never occurred to her, but admits it is one of her favourite Tolstoy books.
The eldest of Anglo-Russian historian and writer Nikolai Tolstoy’s four children, Alexandra, who grew up in Oxfordshire, describes herself as an adventurous, rebellious and often naughty child who liked to take risks and, aged 11, announced that she wanted to go to boarding school. With good A-level grades and a guaranteed place at Edinburgh University to study philosophy, her father decided she should spend her gap year in Moscow, rediscovering the family’s heritage. Tolstoy loved the country so much that she wanted to live there.
“I fell in love with the place and decided to study Russian. That visit changed the whole course of my life.”
After graduating, and a brief and uninspiring stint on the equity desk of a City bank, Tolstoy set off on an adventure that most of us might not consider as an option: with three girlfriends and a Royal Geographical Society grant, she travelled the Silk Road across central Asia to China by horse and camel.
She wrote a book about the 5,000-mile trek, and embarked on a further trip to Mongolia and eastern Siberia, before signing a contract with the BBC to make the TV series Horse People With Alexandra Tolstoy, about cultures dependent on horses.
During her Silk Road expedition, Tolstoy had met Shamil Galimzyanov, an Uzbek showjumper employed as a guide, who liked to ride bare-chested and would become her husband in 2003. At the time, Tolstoy told the Evening Standard they were “made for each other” and that her family “instantly adored him”. “After two days my parents said ‘you have to marry him’,” she said.
Reports of their society wedding mention a Mongolian yurt set up in a meadow near her parents’ Oxfordshire home, a balalaika band flown in from Paris and Galimzyanov carrying off his bride on a snow-white horse.
It was “rash and unthought out … the romantic madness of the steppes”, declares Tolstoy 12 years on. “At no stage did anyone say: how are you actually going to earn money for a home and family? I was the breadwinner and he would get angry because the roles were reversed, then I would become resentful because I was working all the time. And we just weren’t intellectual or emotional equals. But I come from a family where nobody divorced. I felt I had made my life and I had to stick with it. Then I met Sergei.” Tolstoy pauses. It was her Count Vronsky moment.
“I was so vulnerable, it made it seem even more dramatic and in my mind more right. He was such a contrast. Here was someone I could talk to, someone who understood me.”
Tolstoy had first met Pugachev, then a Russian senator and trusted friend of Putin who had separated from his wife, when asked to give him English lessons while she was living in Moscow with Galimzyanov. A year later, they met again at an awards ceremony attended by the Russian president. Within months, Tolstoy had left her husband and was pregnant by Pugachev.
So began a life of private jets, flowers, palace hotels and grand romantic gestures. With Pugachev boasting a $15bn (£9.6bn) business empire, affording a home and family was no longer an issue. Not that this is the driving force behind their relationship, she says: “He was very passionate, very romantic and made extravagant gestures. He did sweep me off my feet. Shortly after we met I had to go filming with the BBC in Siberia near the Arctic. Sergei had given me a satellite phone so we could talk and I was complaining about being cold and that all we had to eat was horsemeat and potatoes. Suddenly, two of Sergei’s guys turn up with biscuits, caviar and avocado, as well as a new jacket, trousers, chocolates, everything. Another time I was filming in Spain and he sent a plane to pick me up at the tiny local airport at the end and flew me to meet him in Paris.
“I remember saying to my cousin that I wished he didn’t have all this stuff – the private planes and money. I didn’t want to think I was wooed by that, or that I would be so shallow. But I never had such an emotional connection with anyone else.”
Three babies followed in quick succession. The children – Alexei, known as Aliosha, aged six; Ivan, five, and Maria, three – speak Russian, English and French, and their names are provisionally down for Eton and Harrow. “Sergei isn’t convinced about boarding schools. It’s a very English thing,” she says.
She would like more children, but is not hopeful: “The day before he disappeared I found out I was pregnant. I’d already had a miscarriage, and Sergei said this time I must try really hard not to be stressed. Then he disappeared, which was pretty stressful, and I had another miscarriage.”
Today, Pugachev is embroiled in a battle with the same Russian state of which he was once a privileged member. He once owned two major shipyards, the world’s biggest mine and large tranches of real estate in Moscow and St Petersburg, as well as the Mezhprombank, which he co-founded in the 1990s. Pugachev, who left Russia in 2011, claims that after relations between him and Putin cooled, the Kremlin tried to seize or destroy his business empire. The Russians counter-accuse Pugachev of siphoning off vast sums of taxpayers’ money given to Mezhprombank by the Russian central bank at the height of the 2008 economic crisis. Since then, the Russian authorities froze his assets, had him put on Interpol’s wanted list and obtained a court order in Britain forcing him to hand over his passports and stay put while the investigation continues. The court gave him a £10,000 a week spending limit.
This has prompted his international lawyers to prepare a case for the European Court of Human Rights, arguing that the British courts acted against international law in seizing his documents. A spokesperson for Pugachev said: “The British are doing Moscow’s dirty work, and we cannot understand why.” His lawyers have also submitted a $12bn (£7.2bn) compensation claim against Russia. The case is likely to rumble on for years. In the meantime, Tolstoy exists in a gilded limbo, unsure of what happens next.
“There have been death threats [against Sergei] for some time, and I know there’s an order out to get rid of him by the end of the year,” she says, adding that she became “really frightened” when what turned out to be a GPS tracking device was found attached to the minivan she uses to ferry the children around.
“It was made to look like a bomb and was clearly meant to intimidate me,” she says. The Russian state investigation agency, the DIA, denies this, and a British judge concluded that the “devices” were only meant to keep tabs on a man who it was feared – justifiably, as it turned out – would flee the country.
“I don’t feel my life is in danger,” Tolstoy says, “but I am sure we are being watched and that our phones are bugged. That’s why we never discuss arrangements over the telephone. It’s really not a nice feeling.”
After Pugachev vanished, the fear turned to anger when a team of private investigators, who Tolstoy says were employed by the Russian government, turned up at her home with a search warrant issued by a British court.
“They came here knowing I was alone in the house with the children and wouldn’t even let me call my mother,” she says. “I was screaming at them that whatever they wanted was nothing to do with me.”
The concept of being “alone” in Tolstoy’s airy mansion is relative. She has two nannies, who work alternate fortnights, and a housekeeper, but no security staff. They are all in France with Pugachev. She is not your average single mum, but insists she is a hands-on parent: “I read a lot to them. At the moment I’m reading the Little Grey Rabbit books, which they love, and I do the school runs and bath times too,” she says.
“The children are young and accept the situation, but you never know how much it’s affecting them. Last week I was putting Aliosha to bed, and we were saying prayers, and I suggested he thank god that we are safe. And he said: ‘But we are not safe. Those bad people came right into our house’. I feel really resentful about that. The children and I have absolutely nothing to do with Sergei’s business.”
Like Tolstoy herself, the family home is a curious mix of grandeur and ordinariness. The front door opens on to a large hallway in which the laundry is drying on a metal airer. The open-plan living room, with one wall almost entirely covered with six large black-and-white photographic portraits of the children, is strangely pristine for a family home, even one with a housekeeper. Perhaps the children will make a mess when they get home, but in their absence there are no toys scattered across the floor, and none of the sundry detritus that usually marks the presence of youngsters.
With Pugachev’s income curtailed by the freezing order, Tolstoy says she is reluctant to ask him for money, and is living off a private income bequeathed by her late step-grandfather, Patrick O’Brian, author of the historical naval novel Master and Commander, later made into an Oscar-winning film. “Sergei is supporting us, but without the money from my grandfather it would be really difficult,” she says.
There is no suggestion she is on her uppers, and she does not claim to be. Tolstoy is still smarting after giving an interview to a journalist friend who wrote in the Mail on Sunday that she claimed she was unable to live on £10,000 a week, making her sound like a modern-day Marie Antoinette.
“I never said it wasn’t enough to live on,” she says, becoming agitated. “The journalist asked me about the court decision to freeze Sergei’s assets and give him £10,000 a week for living expenses. It’s not me getting the money. What I said was hugely misinterpreted. I was not complaining or asking anyone to feel sorry for me, and I really resent the suggestion I was. I have an amazingly privileged life and I’m extremely grateful for it.”
But behind the bluff of confidence, Tolstoy appears anxious and a little lost. She apologises several times during our interview, saying she is “feeling terrible” and has had trouble sleeping. She picks and worries at her gold lacquered fingernails throughout. She can afford physical comforts, but not the luxury to complain about the uncertainty, worry and fear of her situation. “Alexandra is putting on a brave face,” one of Pugachev’s assistants tells me later.
Above all, Tolstoy seems restless, and anxious to be doing something, or going somewhere: “Sergei is quite controlling. He has this idea of what women should do and not do. He respects my opinion and is proud of me, but he would prefer I stayed at home and enjoyed a social life,” she says, suggesting it is not her idea of fun.
“A lot of Russian oligarchs would have married a different kind of person, “ she adds. “My life now is very different to how it was before. What I miss is the freedom of travelling in the desert, which is liberating and calming. I get quite anxious, and having that kind of simple life is incredibly relaxing.
“I’ve lived in a tent and was extremely happy. I have children now and I wouldn’t want to go back to that for their sake, but I can envisage going back to it if I had to. Maybe one day, when the children are grown up. I’ve definitely not had a calm life, but I’m certainly not complaining.”