Byline: KEITH DOVKANTS
THE moment Elena Tregubova walked into the room I could see why she castsuch a spell over Vladimir Putin. She is a willowy blonde, a little over sixfeet tall in high heels, with cheekbones like axeblades and a smile thatsuggests a megawattage supplied by Russia's energy industry.
Elena has just been granted asylum in Britain because the Home Office, amongothers, believes that if she puts her head over the parapet in Russia againsomeone will put a bullet into it.
It was a fate that befell her colleague, the courageous and much-mournedjournalist Anna Politkovskaya, and for the past year or so Elena has beenquietly living in London, hoping the Government would extend a protective arm.Now it has and, for the first time, she has talked about being an unwillingobject of Putin's out-of-hours ambitions and then becoming a quarryand near victim of his secret service.
How she went from Kremlin favourite to a name on a hit-list is as much a storyof modern Russia as it is about her. It takes in the rise of Putin to presidentand the gradual emasculation of a nascent free press and, many would say,democracy. Roman Abramovich, the billionaire oligarch and owner of ChelseaFootball Club has a role, as does Andrei Lugavoy, the man Scotland Yardsuspects of killing Alexander Litvinenko, the former KGB spy who took refuge inLondon. But the key player is Elena herself.
Imagine the scene in Moscow, December 1998. The pavements around Pushkin Squareare crackling with ice and Elena, then 24, is hurrying towards a rendezvouswith a man she met while working as an accredited journalist at the Kremlin,Vladimir Putin.
At that time he was head of the FSB, successor to the KGB, and she was areporter on a leading daily. She already knew Putin quite well. .
HE HAD been around for a while," she said. "He seemed to be a favourite and heonce invited me to the Lubianka for a briefing about measures he said he wastaking to curb corruption.
It was a long meeting. He went on about how only the secret service couldimprove the situation in the country.
It occurred to me that if that were the case, why hadn't they done it already?"He was pleasant enough, although I got the feeling he was trying to impress.
He seemed to want to appear cool, tough, streetwise. Then he said: 'How can Ihelp you?' I said: 'Give me stories.' But he said: 'No, I mean personally.' Ifound it a bit odd. He said 'We must have lunch, or dinner.' "He suggested wehave dinner on the day the secret service have their national celebration. Ididn't think so. They had spent 75 years killing dissidents and I didn't wantto celebrate with them. I gave him my home and office numbers and thoughtlittle more about it." Then she received a call from Igor Sechin, Putin's presssecretary. Sechin wasand still isone of the closest people to Putin. They had been together when Putin worked inSt Petersburg, and during Putin's rise to power Sechin was always close by.When the Russian government seized the Yukos oil company and its owner, thebillionaire Mikhail Khodorkovsky, was jailed on charges his supporters say weretrumped up, Putin placed Sechin at the head of the company that took over hisassets.
Sechin told Elena that Putin wanted to invite her to lunch. He named arestaurant, Izumi, near Pushkin Square in the centre of Moscow. It was Decemberand bitterly cold.
"I was late," she said. "I broke a heel running over the icy pavements and whenI got there it was eerily quiet.
There was no one around, apart from Sechin. He was waiting for me and took meinside. The place was empty. Mr Putin was in a small private room. 'Did youorganise this?' I asked him. Did you get rid of everybody? He gave me one ofthose funny smiles. 'Please,' he said, 'we are not monsters!' " They orderedsushi, a rare departure for Elena who says she is a teetotal vegan. When we hadlunch she asked for boiled rice, spinach and tea. …