CEE banking souvenirs: Seed capital

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Russia's Lebedev goes with his gut feeling when it comes to gifts.

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Euromoney has been given some unusual souvenirs by bankers in central and eastern Europe (CEE) over the years, from a yurt moneybox – sadly abandoned in a Bishkek hotel room for reasons of space – to a heart-shaped Albanian handbag-hanger.

Even by these high standards, however, the parting gift from Alexander Lebedev stands out.

Once one of Russia’s leading bankers, Lebedev has pulled back from the sector during the past decade after his National Reserve Bank was repeatedly targeted by state security services.

Today he is better known as the owner of various newspapers, including local opposition paper Novaya Gazeta and the UK’s Evening Standard and Independent.

As part of our 50th anniversary coverage, however, Euromoney was keen to speak to him about the early years of post-Soviet banking. This involves a lengthy wait as Lebedev, although now officially off the Forbes list of billionaires, maintains oligarchic traditions by being extremely late for meetings.

Fortunately, the Moscow headquarters of his National Reserve Corporation boasts a restaurant on the ground floor, to which we are ushered. There, seated beneath framed Evening Standard front pages – praising Theresa May and condemning Jeremy Corbyn – we are served an array of baked goods made with buckwheat and linseed.

Enthusiasm

As we munch our way through platefuls of rolls and breads, washed down with copious quantities of sea buckthorn tea, Lebedev’s assistant explains that her boss’s enthusiasm for buckwheat stems from his visits to Austria’s Mayr Clinic, where it is served daily for breakfast with a glass of sheep’s milk yoghurt.

As a result, the former banker has apparently become an evangelist for the virtues of the grain and its benefits for “gut health”. Last year, we are told, he gave a presentation on the subject in London. “Free of charge,” his assistant adds.

When the man himself finally makes an appearance, he is more interested in talking about his campaign to combat money-laundering in Russia and his autobiography – due to be published in English later this year – than either buckwheat or his banking past.

Nevertheless, Euromoney is not allowed to leave without a bagful of wholesome treats from the next-door ‘Linseed and buckwheat’ bakery, owned by Lebedev’s wife Elena Perminova.

Whether they had a dramatic effect on our gut health is open to question, but they certainly came in handy during long taxi rides in Moscow’s dreadful traffic.

CEE bankers take note – the way to journalists’ hearts is through their stomachs, not their handbags!