Boris Johnson made a special request for Evgeny Lebedev and a Kremlin-linked Russian dignitary to bypass security checks when he met them as London mayor in 2015, the Guardian has learned.
Johnson’s friendship with Lebedev has come under scrutiny in recent weeks, including the prime minister’s decision to award the Russian-born media owner a peerage in spite of concerns raised by the intelligence and security services.
Official documents show Johnson had a meeting in his office at City Hall in 2015 with Lebedev and Mikhail Piotrovsky, the director of Russia’s State Hermitage Museum, who has links to Vladimir Putin.
According to an email released under freedom of information laws, Johnson’s office describes the two men as “VIPs” and adds: “The mayor has asked specifically that they are not asked to go through the airport-style security.”
No meetings or written notes of the meeting were retained but a report to City Hall subsequently said they were “discussing cultural prospects in London”.
Labor said Johnson’s request was a sign that his “carefree attitude to British security runs deep in his bones”.
Lebedev, the owner of the Independent and Evening Standard and the son of a former KGB spy, has always denied any links with the Kremlin and has condemned Russia’s war in Ukraine.
Piotrovsky is a significant figure in Russian culture, as the director of the State Hermitage since 1990, and in politics, as one of 75 people who were asked by Putin to help redraft Russia’s constitution so he could stay in power.
He has been a member of the Duma, was awarded the order of friendship by Putin in 2016, and has been on the board of the state-owned Channel 1 television.
Piotrovsky was a strong advocate for Russia’s retaking of Palmyra, in Syria, from Islamic State, saying it was important for cultural preservation. In 2016, Johnson expressed admiration for Putin’s “ruthless clarity” in providing Bashar al-Assad’s troops with military backing to save the archeology of the city.
In 2015, Britain’s relationship with Russia was already difficult because of Putin’s 2014 invasion of Ukraine and annexation of Crimea, but Russia had not reached its current pariah status in the west, with political channels remaining open.
A spokesperson for Johnson would not comment on what the 2015 meeting with Lebedev present was about or why he had requested the usual security arrangements be lifted.
“As mayor of London, Boris Johnson puts a wide range of relevant individuals, media outlets and businesses, all of which were declared as required,” she said. “This government and the Conservative party have strongly held Russia to account at all times and have been some of their harshest critics internationally, from our response to the Salisbury poisonings to the strong action we have taken following Putin’s recent illegal invasion of Ukraine.”
Asked what the meeting was about and why the guests were allowed to skip security, Lebedev said: “It’s news to me that the most senior curator in Russia was allowed to bypass security checks.
“It seems to be the mayor of London offering a courtesy to a towering figure in the world of arts, and trying to make him feel as comfortable as he could by sparing him a metal detector and signing in.”
Angela Rayner, the deputy Labor leader, said it was about a “pattern of behavior dating back years. He puts personal friendships above the public interest.”
Labor also claimed that Johnson “has never been serious about taking the tough measures needed to eradicate Putin’s influence in Britain”.
Controversy has surrounded Lebedev’s peerage ever since it emerged that the House of Lords appointments commission had expressed concerns about his elevation and asked Downing Street to reconsider in March 2020, after advice from Britain’s spy agencies. The appointment went through only after it was resubmitted amid pressure from Downing Street.
The chair of the commission that advised on Lebedev’s appointment has now been summoned to give evidence to MPs when parliament returns next week.
Paul Bew, an Irish historian, will appear before parliament’s public administration committee on Wednesday to answer what his chair described as “very serious questions” about Downing Street’s role in the appointment.
“We will be holding an evidence session on the role of the House of Lords appointments commission with Lord Bew,” the committee’s Conservative chair, William Wragg, said in a letter to Rayner. He said members would raise some of the issues regarding Lebedev’s elevation in the session.
The spy agencies had told the commission that the issue related to Lebedev’s father, Alexander Lebedev. During the late cold war period, Lebedev Sr worked undercover at the Soviet embassy in London. His real employer was KGB foreign intelligence, and he left in 1992 with the rank of colonel.
Johnson has known Evgeny Lebedev for years. The prime minister has been a regular guest at parties hosted by Lebedev in London and at his converted castle in Perugia, Italy. After one such event in April 2018, while Johnson was foreign secretary, he was seen at a nearby airport reportedly looking as if he had slept in his clothes, having apparently attended without his usual security detail.