Alexander Lebedev may be dying. The former-KGB spy turned London newspaper proprietor is strolling by the banks of lavender at his boutique Umbrian hotel, looking the picture of health in his skinny jeans, cropped white hair and plimsolls without laces.
But as he walks, he mentions casually that he is being treated for mercury poisoning. Medical tests have shown a mysterious spike in his blood mercury levels to 14 times the normal limit.
His Belgian endocrinologist has warned him that it may well be high enough to enter his nervous system, then his brain, and begin to kill off his memory.
“Though if I wake up tomorrow morning and cannot remember Putin, that would be nice,” he says.
Mr Lebedev’s condition has echoes of another former KGB spy, Alexander Litvinenko who was poisoned in London in 2006. It also reads like a discarded plotline from a John Le Carre novel: The Spy Who Got a Bad Cold.
But the truth is, Mr Lebedev’s dry, dark one-liner also cuts to the heart of the questions that surround him: is he the Kremlin’s puppet, or its critic?
[Alexander Lebedev is a Russian billionaire who owns a third of Aeroflot. He is part owner of Novaya Gazeta and owner of London-based newspaper the Evening Standard. Lebedev, a former KGB officer, was a member of Russia’s state Duma in 2004-2008.]