Lunch with Putin... then a bomb outside my door

A glamorous journalist who bewitched the Russian leader but then dared to criticise the Kremlin, Elena Tregubova fled to the UK after an attempt on her life. Here, after being granted asylum, she tells KEITH DOVKANTS her terrifying story

THE moment Elena Tregubova walked into the room I could see why she cast such a spell over Vladimir Putin. She is a willowy blonde, six feet tall in high heels, with cheekbones like axeblades and a smile that suggests a mega-wattage supplied by Russia's energy industry. Elena has just been granted asylum in Britain because the Home Office, among others, believes that if she puts her head over the parapet in Russia again someone will put a bullet in it.

It was a fate that befell her colleague, the courageous journalist Anna Politkovskaya, and for the past year Elena has been an asylum-seeker, quietly living in Britain, hoping the government would extend a protective arm. Now it has and, for the first time, she has talked about being an unwilling object of Putin's out-of-hours ambitions and then becoming a quarry – and near victim – of his secret service.

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How she went from Kremlin favourite to a name on a hit-list is as much a story of modern Russia as it is about her. Roman Abramovich, the billionaire oligarch and owner of Chelsea Football Club has a role, as does Andrei Lugavoy, the man Scotland Yard suspects of killing Alexander Litvinenko, the former KGB spy who took refuge in London. But the key player is Elena herself.

Imagine the scene in Moscow, December 1998. The pavements around Pushkin Square are crackling with ice and Elena, then 24, is hurrying towards a rendezvous with 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 a reporter on a leading daily. She already knew Putin quite well.

"He had been around for a while," she said, "and he once invited me to the Lubianka for a briefing about measures he said he was taking to curb corruption. He went on about how only the secret service could improve 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. Then he said, 'How can I help you?' I said, 'Give me stories.' But he said, 'No, I mean personally.' I found it a bit odd. He said, 'We must have lunch, or dinner.'

"He suggested we have dinner on the day the secret service have their national celebration. I didn't think so. They had spent 75 years killing dissidents – I didn't want to celebrate with them. I gave him my home and office numbers and thought little more about it."

Then she received a call from Igor Sechin, Putin's press secretary. Sechin was – and still is – one of the closest people to Putin.

Sechin told Elena that Putin wanted to invite her to lunch. He named a restaurant, Izumi, near Pushkin Square in the centre of Moscow. It was December and bitterly cold.

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"I was late," she said. "I broke a heel running over the icy pavements and when I got there it was eerily quiet. There was no one around, apart from Sechin. He took me inside: the place was empty. Mr Putin was in a small private room. 'Did you organise this?' I asked him. 'Did you get rid of everybody?' He gave me one of those funny smiles. 'Please,' he said, 'we are not monsters!'"

They ordered sushi, a rare departure for Elena who says she is a teetotal vegan. When we had lunch she asked for boiled rice, spinach and tea.

Putin – whom she always calls Mr Putin – was charming. And married. "I suppose I expected a typical KGB person – ugly, perhaps a bit stupid. But he had this way of tuning in to you, he seemed to sense how one felt about things. He had been a spy in Germany during the Cold War and speaks German, as I do, and we talked in German for a while. Then he asked me how I was going to celebrate New Year. I said I was going to spend it with a girlfriend and he said, 'I'm going to St Petersburg.'

"As he said that he gave me a meaningful look, and there was a pause. I knew what he was suggesting, of course, but I let it go.

"When the meal ended I tried to pay, but he said, 'It's taken care of. You can pay next time.' Then he insisted on taking me in his official car to a shoemaker, to get my heel mended."

Within two years Putin was president and Elena, working as the Kremlin correspondent of the influential daily Kommersant, saw him often through her work.

"He was always very nice to me," she said. "He called me Lenochka (a diminutive of Elena] and I called him by his pet name, Volodya. He was flirtatious, but it was OK."

Then, soon after Putin took power, things changed. "They started to crack down on journalists," Elena said. "Suddenly, we were told certain things were off-limits. There was a press conference with Mr Putin and before we went in we were told that under no circumstances were we to ask about Roman Abramovich who, at that time, was buying up Russia's aluminium industry.

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"It was outrageous and I asked Mr Putin straight out. I told him he had promised to rein in the oligarchs, but here was a billionaire taking a monopoly position in an important industry. What was he going to do about it? He seemed uncomfortable and just said something like, 'We will sort it out.'"

Elena acquired a reputation for asking awkward questions and soon found herself being excluded from certain Kremlin facilities. Then, in 2001, her accreditation was cancelled. Around this time a joke began circulating in Moscow. "Of course there is freedom of expression in Russia," it went. "We just don't have freedom after expression."

She continued to write on political matters then, in 2003, she published a book, Tales of a Kremlin Digger. It was a racy memoir based on her experiences reporting from Russia's corridors of power. It was iconoclastic and funny: no-one was spared. Not even Putin. When the book was reviewed and news of the pass at the sushi restaurant spread, people queued to buy a copy. The KGB (as many still call the secret service) are said to have snapped up most of the first run. Soon, sales topped half a million.

Elena was not allowed to enjoy her success for long. She began to notice men hanging around outside her apartment block. She became aware of being followed. Just as Russia was on the point of signing a deal with Germany on energy supplies, the book became a talking point in Berlin, to Putin's embarrassment.

On 2 February 2004, her enemies struck. "I was going to a birthday party. I had ordered a taxi and I got a call saying the car was downstairs. Then, shortly afterwards, I got another call asking me if I was leaving. I said yes, I'm on my way out of the door. As I left, I stopped by the mirror in the hall and saw my hair was a mess. I turned back to fix it and then there was this huge bang outside.

When she looked out of her door the corridor was filled with smoke and dust. A bomb had been placed on the door handle of an empty flat opposite her front door. "That second call was obviously part of the trap," she said. "For the first time, I knew what it was like to be afraid – really afraid."

When Anna Politkovskaya was shot dead in her apartment building in October 2006, after exposing Russian atrocities in Chechnya, Elena knew she couldn't stay in Moscow. "I had seen this sinister, ugly woman watching me," she said. "Anna had reported seeing such a person just before she was killed."

Elena turned to Boris Berezovsky, the former oligarch living in exile in London. Berezovsky had been the proprietor of her newspaper and he said he would arrange security for her.

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"Shortly afterwards I got a call from a man who said he would be sending bodyguards." The man was Andrei Lugavoy, the former KGB agent who now stands accused of murdering Alexander Litvinenko. But at that time, in late 2006, Berezovsky believed Lugavoy was trustworthy. Lugavoy sent two men to provide security for Elena, but her intuition told her something was wrong.

In a move she believes saved her life, she decided not to return to Russia after a visit to London. "They would have found a way to kill me," she said. "That is the reality in Russia today."

Now she intends to make Britain her home. "I'm really grateful to the British Government for letting me stay," she says.

She denies she is dependent upon Berezovsky's patronage, although she acknowledges he has been supportive. She says she lives off the earnings of her book and its successor, Farewell from a Kremlin Digger. She is working on another book, although she refuses to say what its subject will be.

Her mobile phone rings incessantly. Congratulations pour in from those who have heard that her asylum appeal has been successful. There are requests for interviews, articles. Our lunch is over and she tries to pay the bill.

"Next time," I say, realising too late that this is what Putin told her.