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In Conversation with Countess Alexandra Tolstoy

Countess Alexandra Tolstoy is the daughter of Count Nikolai Tolstoy-Miloslavsky, the current head of the noble House of Tolstoy, distantly related to Leo Tolstoy, and the former partner of Sergei Pugachev, a Russian oligarch who was once worth $15 billion and was amongst Putin’s inner circle. Nicknamed ‘Putin’s Banker’, Pugachev owned a coal mine, shipyards, designer brands and one of Russia’s largest private banks before a catastrophic fall from favour placed him at number 3 on the Kremlin hit list. 

A superficial browse of Alexandra’s delightfully aesthetic Instagram page evokes the traditional rural cottage idyll; her three young children in shorts and little leather shoes reading or playing outside; carrying a roast goose to a carefully-decorated table for supper in a candle-lit dining room; nursing a cup of tea on a rocking chair beside the aga. Before this, she was quite the adventurer, having made documentaries with the BBC about her horseback expeditions, and trekking 8,000 kilometres on horse and camel across the Silk Road in 1999. 

But, Alexandra’s presently unassuming country lifestyle, or, indeed, the life of adventure in her earlier years, is miles from the shrouded world of Russian high society, and from the 200-acre estate in Hertfordshire and $40 million beach-front Caribbean villa she recently enjoyed with her husband, whose fortune went from $15 billion to $70 million – and now refuses to give her and the children even a penny. 

In 2008 Alexandra met Sergei, then one of Russia’s most influential men, who had bankrolled the Russian government; but, following Putin’s eradication of the oligarchy, and the disappearance of a $1 billion loan from the State to his bank which went under a year later, Sergei had to flee Russia in fear of his life, allegedly receiving death threats to himself and their children. In 2015, the Russians pursued Pugachev in the British courts to reclaim the missing $1 billion, for which he was found liable, and his passport was seized and his assets worldwide were frozen: he fled illegally to France, for which he was sentenced to two years imprisonment in the UK – meaning he couldn’t return to be with Alexandra and the children. 

After visiting Sergei at their château in France, where he was physically violent towards her, locked their passports in a safe and smashed her mobile phone, Alexandra managed to return with the children to the UK and now lives between her small country cottage in Oxfordshire and their London townhouse, which she was forced to sell in a deal with the Russian authorities (though thankfully can remain in residence each month until it sells). 

Alexandra’s confidence and safety were worn by years of threats and continual surveillance from the Russian authorities, alleged harassment from the British legal system, and, indeed, later by the cruelty and intimidation by her very husband. Having momentarily enjoyed the luxuries of a billionaire lifestyle, she’s now entirely without financial support from Sergei, retains no luxuries from their relationship, and has sold all of the designer clothes, bags and shoes she’d once owned: but she says she’s all the happier because of it. 

I telephone Alexandra on a sunny afternoon during lockdown, which she is spending at her parents’ house with the children; suffering from asthma, she thinks it safer to be with other adults, just in case. She picks up the telephone, and I can hear the excited chatter of the children who are going into the sitting room to be read a Just William story by their grandfather. 

Alexandra is cheerfully conversational, and I congratulate her on the release of the recent BBC documentary about her and her husband’s complex relationship (‘The Countess and the Russian Billionaire’); it’s hard not to be compelled by the remarkable situation of her marriage to one of the world’s richest men, and we soon discuss the astonishing details: 

While living in London with Sergei, the couple became aware of surveillance placed upon them by the Russian state; Sergei’s security company found GPS trackers planted under their cars (which were initially suspected to be explosive devices), including the car used exclusively by Alexandra and the children. Indeed, after the breakdown of her relationship, it was Sergei himself who began monitoring Alexandra, placing individuals outside her London house every day to intimidate her. I was fascinated to know whether, in a contrary sense, this had prepared her and the children for lockdown, as she’d already become so accustomed to feeling great isolation, especially in their French château, “which was sort of isolation anyway”. 

“I think what’s prepared me has been all those adventures I did, like riding the silk road, riding through Mongolia; I went for months when it was pre-mobile phone – we had no connection with the world outside … When I was eighteen I lived in Moscow for six months and really did nothing but read books and learn Russian. I think those prepared me more than anything, really.” 

But, when Alexandra had first met Sergei, she’d recently ended an unhappy marriage and fell very much in love with the oligarch, despite the potential risk involved with someone so closely linked to the elite levels of Russian politics: “I was obviously a thrill-seeker; I loved an adventure and I loved the feeling of adrenaline and excitement. It was the love story of my life, and it did feel dangerous … he was this very powerful person, and he did turn on me sometimes in the early days, but there was this drama of winning him back round; I didn’t realise that this was all very dangerous abusive pattern.” 

Alexandra believes Sergei spun a false narrative to malign her and distract from his own culpability for the disastrous failure of his business interests; particularly, Sergei blames his downfall on the fact that Putin supposedly disliked his marriage to a foreigner, which she frustratedly contests: “It’s a very narcissistic thing to do; he made up this whole narrative [in the documentary] which suited… it’s all about belittling me, and by saying that – particularly to his close family – it gave them a narrative that it was my fault that everything had gone wrong for him; he blamed it on me, saying that Putin didn’t like me. But it’s absurd … Putin just wouldn’t care about that.” Having once enjoyed an intensely close friendship, even spending many holidays together, by the time Alexandra met Sergei, he had only seen Putin “once, in all those years.” 

Alexandra asks if I’ve watched ‘Dirty John’ on Netflix, and compares theirs to the romance underpinned by the manipulation of the sociopathic significant other: “I just find the psychology of being a sociopath – or narcissism – so fascinating; this creating of narratives that are literally just complete lies, but I think they end up half-believing them…” She later asks if I’ve read And Quiet Flows the Don, saying that “the relationship at the beginning is very, very similar; it just feels so full of danger and it’s very raw, and often angry, but then very passionate … to me, it felt really like I was so in love.” Reflecting on their relationship, and his moments of physical violence and control over her, she says that “there were signs there,” but she “just didn’t know how to read or understand them.” 

“I think the real truth was that, yes, he wasn’t bowing down to Putin, but he also had a business partner who he was very close to for years, and that business partner left… [and it was at this point that Sergei began having business difficulties]; Sergei himself was no kind of businessman. It was shocking how he had absolutely no clue about finances, about running a company; it was shocking … basic accounting, he didn’t even understand. I think that probably this business partner had been the brains, and Sergei had been the ‘power broker’…” 

Despite the tumult of threats, financial loss, and romantic decline, complicated with the duty of raising small children, Alexandra seems at harmony with her present situation, and this is thanks to her newly unostentatious lifestyle – that of ‘the billionaire’s wife’ just didn’t suit her: “My whole confidence got so smashed when I was with him; he was so very manipulative, very denigrating about my riding, my exhibitions, my travel… and so, I began to focus on all these things which a ‘normal’ kind of oligarch’s girlfriend would focus on. I suppose that I was not very confident anyway, and I felt I needed to live-up to these very ‘shiny’, perfect girls and I was a bit Bridget Jones-like in comparison to them, so felt probably a bit inadequate … I should’ve just carried on the way I was … I didn’t realise, but it accentuated how lost I’d become, and it also made me much more dependent on him, so I think he liked it, because it isolated me from my family.” 

She now considers the trappings of her private-jet-chic “vulgar”, and has since sold almost all that which she’s kept, realising “bogged down” the luxurious tokens of her billionaire lifestyle: “The really cathartic moment was last summer … I thought ‘I have to sell these ridiculous handbags, I have to sell them’… because they’re actually quite liquid – it’s money that I can use to pay school fees and I can educate the children… I suddenly managed to make myself look at them and think it’s not really me anyway.” 

“I think it’s difficult for anybody in those circumstances to be creative; how can you be original? Some people don’t care about aesthetics, but for me, to be creative is really part of my DNA.” Alexandra tells me how her appreciation for books and visual arts were “completely crushed: I couldn’t do anything”; the luxury afforded to her nevertheless impeded her fundamental desire to be productive and freedom to explore creatively. I note how impossible it must be to represent oneself in a society where value and status is projected through selfsame designer clothes and modern houses, which is entirely different to the way she represents herself now. 

In the autumn, she held a sale at her house and gave proceeds to a charity which supports underprivileged children and adults with autism living in St. Petersburg, who she says are completely unsupported by the state. Selling her designer clothes and handbags allowed her to “start again”, and to “be herself”. Just that morning, she’d been contacted by a friend who was a yacht broker, who was sad to see the couple’s old yacht on the charter market, but Alexandra felt no loss: “I thought to myself ‘it’s amazing’… I literally miss nothing about that lifestyle … planes, boats, trains, automobiles, houses: nothing.” 

Now, Alexandra has reclaimed her creative autonomy and a certain intellectual freedom which was repressed during her years spent with the billionaire: “We all have different tastes, but if our taste isn’t reflecting who we are or where we are in life, that lack of harmony can make you feel not very happy.” Her Instagram page has allowed her to present her own image to the world, one which she finds to be truly representative, unlike that of the media which is seemingly always speculating. 

Talking about her pursuit of an exquisitely domestic lifestyle, Alexandra says that “it’s not just aesthetic, it does also go with a kind of freedom of thought, doesn’t it? If I look at my children, they’re incredibly curious about a lot of things I’m not sure their peers would be curious about – my oldest son is obsessed with carnivorous plants, and the middle one is making things all the time … I think that, somehow, that aesthetic – they sort of go hand-in-hand. When I was with Sergei, I stopped reading so much of that 19th-century literature which I’m so passionate about … With the life I live now, emotionally and mentally I can romantically dream and escape – whereas then, it was so stultifying.” 

I wonder if, like her fashion sense, her interior design interests were affected during her time with Sergei, as one might imagine they would be, but she says that they weren’t: “Weirdly, the interior decorating never changed… I could afford more things, but [Sergei] didn’t really give me the opportunity to do very much … the taste never changed there at all. When I was in Sergei’s château, he wouldn’t really let me do anything anyway”. I say how I find so much more satisfaction in accumulating individuals pieces and creating one’s own eclectic aesthetic, which she certainly concurs: “I totally agree! It completely goes when you can buy it all… and who doesn’t love a bargain?” Earlier that day, she proudly tells me, she’d found wonderful vintage Hungarian fabrics and embroidery to re-use for the children’s little wooden caravan, making curtains: “that’s just so rewarding”. She tells me that Sergei did have “really good taste”, but, I was surprised to learn, collected artwork for its style, “rather than for the sake of them being expensive pieces.” 

Alexandra seems to be regaining her confidence since the ending of her relationship and peak surveillance a few years ago – in the documentary, there’s recent footage of her and her children riding scooters to school in the morning, something she never could have done a few years ago. She says that “every day is difficult, and I often don’t sleep at night … it’s that philosophy of ‘dust yourself down’, and carry on trying … I don’t ever stop putting myself out there and trying.” 

In the past year, Alexandra’s rebuilt her travel company, which she founded before the marriage, built a fashion business, which I’m told is going well, and been writing for lots of magazines; she’s even made amicable progress with the Russian state, and has since returned without threat… But it seems to me that her greatest solace in the idyll she’s struggled to provide for her children: “they’ve got this big pond, and a rowing boat, and a little caravan, and a wigwam,” and is rescued by the stillness of the country. Now free to raise them in a lifestyle similar to that of her own childhood, they won’t be familiar with the world of Russian high-society which had caused such anguish for their mother: though it remains that their father, who they haven’t seen in four years since his escape to France, remains in the top three of the Kremlin hit list…

This article was emended on 10/05/2024 to correct information about Tolstoy and Pugachev’s relationship.

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