An English countess tells how she ‘lost herself’ in a ‘vulgar’ life of excess during her relationship with a Russian oligarch in a new BBC documentary.
Aristocratic beauty Alexandra Tolstoy, 45, daughter of Count Nikolai Tolstoy and a distant relation of author Leo Tolstoy, fell in love with billionaire Sergei Pugachev, 57, while working as his English tutor in Russia and immediately fell for him.
The couple went onto have three children together and Alexandra enjoyed all of the trappings of a billionaire’s girlfriend – the pair never married – including no-limit credit card shopping sprees and jaunts on private jets between their homes in Moscow, Paris, London and St Barts.
Speaking in TV documentary The Countess and the Russian Billionaire, which airs on BBC2 on Wednesday, Alexandra tells how her world came crumbling down around her when Pugachev fled to France in fear of his life after the Kremlin issued an arrest warrant, claiming he owes the state £1billion.
Alexandra Tolstoy, 45, and Sergei Pugachev, 57, were followed by cameras for five years for the documentary The Countess and the Russian Billionaire, which airs on BBC2 on Wednesday at 9pm
She brands her old life ‘vulgar and not me’, saying: ‘As an adult you can lose yourself. I really never thought I could lose myself. But I’m 45, I’m not old, and really I have my whole life ahead of me and this is who I am.’
The former couple, who allowed cameras into their lives for five years for the documentary, are now completely estranged. Pugachev has cut off Alexandra and their children financially, she claims, and she now faces being left with ‘nothing’ after the Kremlin threatened to evict them from their £12million London townhouse.
‘My worst fear is that we have nowhere to live and no money,’ she says on camera. ‘It’s really stressful, it’s a nightmare.’
As filming began in 2015, Alexandra offered cameras a tour of her lavish home in Battersea, south London, where her neighbours included Brian Ferry. ‘We have a PA, two housekeepers, two drivers, an English nanny, a Russian nanny and a French tutor,’ she says.
Sergei once owned two major shipyards, the world’s biggest mine and large chunks of real estate in Moscow and St Petersburg, as well as the Mezhprombank, which he co-founded in the 1990s.
The couple met in 2008 after Sergei hired Alexandra to help improve his English while both living in Russia, where Sergei was once-close friends with Putin.
Sergei said he enjoyed a ‘very close’ friendship with Russian president Vladimir Putin before falling out with the state
Speaking of her relationship with her husband, she reveals on camera: ‘When I met Sergei it was electric. It was amazing. I fell so in love with him. I’ve never felt such a connection to someone ever.’
But when Sergei revealed to ‘very close friend’ Putin that he was dating an English woman, the Russian leader was ‘very surprised’.
WHO IS ALEXANDRA TOLSTOY?
Before she met Sergei, Alexandra was married to a penniless Cossack named Shamil Galimzyanov.
The pair met whilst travelling along the Silk Road on horse in 1999.
He was an Uzbek showjumper employed as a guide on the trip. They married in 2003 in London.
Tolstoy first met Sergei, 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 and was pregnant with Sergei’s child. They had three children together – Alexei, known as Aliosha, Ivan and Maria.
Alexandra is the eldest of Anglo-Russian historian and writer Nikolai Tolstoy’s four children.
She grew up in Oxfordshire before going to Edinburgh University to study philosophy. She spent her gap year in Russia.
She has also taken extensive riding trips through Mongolia and Siberia and organises riding holidays in central Asia as well as being a writer.
Alexandra said: ‘Many of these problems are because he is with me. Putin has said to him at some point, “You’re a traitor”.’
Putin’s frustration over the relationship didn’t stop it from progressing and, within a year of meeting, they had a baby and another on the way, and were living a life of luxury in London, Moscow and Paris.
Alexandra said: ‘It was incredible, he would give me his credit card and I would go shopping, I had a private jet. I just had to pack my suitcase and I could go.’
The family moved between an array of properties including a £12million family home in Battersea, a 200-acre country estate in Hertfordshire, and a £40million beachfront villa in St Barts.
Alexandra revealed: ‘All that money meant I didn’t have to work, clean, I could spend as much time as possible with my children.’
But in 2008, Sergei’s bank hit problems and the Russian bank bailed it out with $1 billion loan.
Sergei, 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 then accused him of profiting from vast sums of taxpayers’ money given to Mezhprombank by the Russian central bank at the height of the 2008 economic crisis.
The Russian authorities froze his assets, put him on Interpol’s wanted list and obtained a court order in Britain forcing him to hand over his passports.
By 2015, he was dividing his time between France and the family home in London and reputed to be number 3 on Kremlin’s hitlist.
The billionaire revealed: ‘It’s clear this is a war. I need bodyguards to feel safe. It’s not some kind of whim, it’s a necessity for life.’
Alexandra breaks down in the documentary as she admits she is terrified of being left homeless after her relationship with Sergei fell apart
In Nice, he was visited by the DIA who demanded repayment of the billion dollar loan and threatened his family, saying they could ‘cut off his son’s finger and send it back to him.’
Meanwhile in London, the family become aware that they were being followed. Later, police discovered GPS trackers on their cars.
Sergei was summoned back to the high court in London but remained in France, deciding to go head-to-head with the Russian state and suing them for his business assets of $12 billion.
Alexandra reveals: ‘I do feel very frightened for Sergei and for me and the children. especially in London….but I chose him and I chose this life and I love him. It’s my choice.’
Sergei was accused by the Russian state of stealing $1 billion, and became an enemy of the country (pictured, with Putin during their friendship)
Alexandra said her partner fell out with Putin after they started dating, with the politician calling Sergei ‘a traitor’
In December 2015, three police officers arrived late at night looking for Sergei, with a search and arrest warrant, leaving Alexandra terrified to stay in the country.
She said: ‘I feel so out of control. I don’t regret it [my relationship with Sergei] because I love my children so much, I do really love Sergei.
WHO IS SERGEI PUGACHEV?
The Russian state has been pursuing Sergei Pugachev through the High Court claiming he illegally siphoned hundreds of millions of pounds from a government bailout of the Mezhprombank he co-founded.
Mr Pugachev denies the allegations and claims Moscow is trying to steal £11billion of his assets, including two shipyards and the world’s largest mine.
Mr Pugachev has previously been declared to be in contempt of court, with a two-year prison sentence left hanging over his head should he return to this country.
He had been living in France for the past five years after being ordered to give up his passports in 2014 and having his assets frozen.
He also claims ‘credible attempts’ had been made on his life in the UK.
The tycoon is in another legal battle with Russia in The Hague where he is suing the Federation for £11billion.
He claims he is being targeted because of his knowledge of state secrets.
‘We have had a very turbulent relationship and I feel regret for my children that it hasn’t been more peaceful and calm.’
Bursting into tears, she added: ‘Some people look at me and think, “Your life is so easy. Your children are so privileged.”
‘But the most privileged upbringing is to be in a safe family unit where you’re all together.’
Later that month, Sergei was sentenced to two years in prison for leaving the country without permission. If he sets foot in the UK, he’ll go straight to prison.
But while Sergei remains living in Nice, Alexandra admits the chateau makes her feel ‘too isolated’ and she resists moving the family to France.
She said: ‘I guess I just feel concerned about how our future as a family work.
‘Sergei wants us to live in France and I don’t know if I can do that really. Everything in life you’re able to cope with, if you have any idea of what will happen.
‘But I just have no idea of what will happen and I just found that very stressful. That I can’t plan, or envisage what will happen.’
Alexandra leaves the chateau in the Spring of 2016 abruptly, claiming Sergei ‘physically attacked’ her, before locking the children in one room and hiding her passport.
She said: ‘Something in me snapped, and I said, “I cannot ever do this ever again”. At that point I was wavering, should I go and live there, but that was just the end.’
Meanwhile Sergei revealed: ‘She had security, I organised everything for her. Even a private plane but she said no i’ll take a BA flight, we’ll be back in two weeks. And she never came back. The mother of my children stole them.’
Alexandra toyed with moving to France to be with Sergei in exile in the country, but ended up deciding to stay in the UK (pictured)
The countess was left devastated after Sergei cut her family off financially completely and was left terrified she and her children would have nowhere to live
In London, Alexandra lives in fear of both the Russian state and of Sergei, having seen someone standing outside her home 24 hours a day for six months.
She said: ‘He talks really loudly in Russian. I do find it really really odd. It’s the style of person who Sergei would get to spy on us.’
Now permanently separated, Sergei is consumed by his multi-billion dollar lawsuit against the Russian lawyers.
Sergei once owned two major shipyards, the world’s biggest mine and large chunks of real estate in Moscow and St Petersburg, as well as the Mezhprombank, which he co-founded in the 1990s
The children haven’t seen their father since they left France in 2016, with Alexandra saying Sergei has cut her off financially completely.
She said: ‘Our relationship is non-existent really, except he occasionally writes me abusive emails.
‘He accuses me of working with the Russian government, He says I’m a KGB spy. He thinks that because I went to the family court and sued for maintenance. Obviously he never ever paid for a penny of that maintenance. He completely cut us off.’
On the order of the high court, the family home is put on the market, Alexandra makes a deal with the Russian government to drop her claim to his fortune.
Sergei amassed enormous wealth from his companies, and lived a lavish lifestyle before becoming an enemy of the Russian state
After Sergei cut her off, Alexandra returned to organising travel holidays and working as a writer, calling her old lifestyle ‘vulgar’
She revealed: ‘The Russian government said to me, “If you agree to waive your maintenance, we will let you stay in the house for one year”. What was i meant to do? I either signed the agreement or I left the house the next day.’
Alexandra tries to support herself and the children by writing and reviving her old travel business but, after a year, her deal with the Russian government comes to an end.
49.53 Alexandra said she felt she had ‘lost’ herself during her relationship with Sergei after regaining her independence
She says: ”Each month, I sign a document saying I promise to get out by the 31st. My worst fear is that we have nowhere to live and no money. I’ve tried to shield the children… they know that I don’t know where we’ll live.’
These days Alexandra and the children spend whatever time they can at her cottage in Oxfordshire, with lawyers telling her not to take the children to France.
Meanwhile Sergei remains living in isolation in France, with Alexandra refusing to let her children travel to see him
She revealed: ‘Of course the children have asked me, “Why does he never come here?” so I told them that he has a prison sentence here. And they say, “Why can’t we go there? and I say “It’s dangerous. his life is under threat”.’
She said she does plan to tell her children about their father in the future, revealing: ‘I’m going to say that he needs to sort out the situation that he’s in, and maybe when you’re older you can go find him yourself. And it’s not your fault.’