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Alexandra Tolstoy knew she was falling in love with her charming, wealthy suitor. And how could she not? He had it all, after all, and she could only imagine the life of wonder that lay before them. Little did Tolstoy know that the path ahead ended in a darker future than anything she could have envisioned.

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Tolstoy’s lover was a Russian politician by the name of Sergei Pugachev. And to say that he was rich is an understatement – he was actually among the top 1,000 richest people in the world. Pugachev amassed such a substantial wealth from various sources as a member of elite Russian business leaders called oligarchs.

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Pugachev grew to power during the aftermath of the former Soviet Union. During this time period, the privatization of Russia meant that successful businessmen accumulated both wealth and power quickly. Pugachev cemented a place for himself as a private bank owner, co-founding Mezhprombank, one of the biggest in the country.

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However, that wasn’t the limit to Pugachev’s business assets. He was also the owner of the world’s largest coal mine, a pair of shipyards, and real estate in both St. Petersburg and Moscow. In addition, the oligarch had his own fashion brand, further enhancing his fortune. That’s the kind of money that buys a lot of freedom.

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It’s no wonder, then, that the lifestyle appealed to carefree countess Alexandra Tolstoy. She had inherited her family name as a distant relative of famous author Leo Tolstoy, and writing runs in her family more broadly. Her father’s also an author, but Tolstoy herself is more of an adventurous type by nature. And what could be more exciting than marrying a billionaire? But what started as a dream eventually turned into a nightmare.

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It was actually Tolstoy’s carefree nature that put her on the path to meeting Pugachev. When she left boarding school, the curious young woman headed to Russia where she spent ten years exploring the country. There she met and fell in love with her first – and so far only – husband, a horse-riding Cossack with little money to his name.

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Tolstoy lived a life of comparative poverty with her husband in Uzbekistan, which a 2004 documentary called It’ll Never Last covered. The title turned out to be apt. Pugachev met Tolstoy while she was still married. And although the oligarch initially hired Tolstoy as a private English tutor, it turned into something far deeper.

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Tolstoy revealed how she felt about Pugachev in an April 2020 BBC documentary called The Countess and the Russian Billionaire. “When I met Sergei,” she said, “I wasn’t happy in my marriage. And I’d had a very, very stressful time. Sergei felt like this savior coming in. I’d talk to him for hours and hours on the phone.”

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“I just didn’t want to be with anyone else,” Tolstoy elaborated. “And I don’t think in my life I’d ever felt like that before.” That same month she told BBC News, “It was electric. I fell so in love with him. It was so romantic, I’ve never felt such a connection with someone.”

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And to begin with, Tolstoy lived the fairytale life she always imagined with her new romance. She had children with the oligarch and had a seemingly unlimited bank account. “He’d give me his credit card and I’d go shopping, I could do what I liked,” Tolstoy told the BBC. “I had a private jet, I just had to pack my suitcase and go.”

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Furthermore, to add to the envious lifestyle, Tolstoy and Pugachev didn’t just live in one country. In actual fact, they had three different houses – in Paris, London and Moscow – each with an itinerary of staff to match. “We have a PA, two drivers, two housekeepers,” Tolstoy revealed in The Countess and the Russian Billionaire.

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The countess continued, “We have our lovely English nanny, who’s a very old-fashioned kind of Downton Abbey-type English nanny. Then we have our Russian nanny. And then every afternoon we have to have a French teacher who comes for an hour to do my son’s homework because it’s in French. And I don’t really speak French.”

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Tolstoy had famous neighbors around her London home, an entire closet for handbags and a walk-in wardrobe for shoes. As for Pugachev, Tolstoy explained how she saw a different side of him than most people did. She could see a family man rather than the influential oligarch he was known as.

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In Tolstoy’s own words, “This very, very powerful person… with me, he wanted to be a completely different person. It was such a love affair.” Indeed, she settled down with Pugachev and had their first child just a year after meeting him. However, marriage wasn’t on the cards at the time because Pugachev was still married.

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The oligarch was technically separated from his first wife, and divorce proceedings weren’t finalized. It took eight years for the process to complete. By that time, Tolstoy had three children with Pugachev and had reported that she was eager to marry her man. Furthermore, the countess had big plans for the future event.

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Tolstoy said, “We are very keen that we should get married. I’d love to make it as big a deal as possible. And Sergei would like to make it as small a deal as possible, probably. He says that and then, when we actually have the party, he loves it. I’ve had a few, and he loves them.”

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But rather than her fantasy wedding, Tolstoy was actually approaching an unexpected period of turmoil. While she and Pugachev were buying $49 million beachfront villas in the Caribbean, trouble was brewing in Russia. And it was the president of Pugachev’s homeland and his close personal friend at the source of the coming storm. This was Vladimir Putin.

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According to The Countess and the Russian Billionaire, Pugachev was partially responsible for helping Putin to climb the political ladder. They became good friends and spent a lot of time in each others’ company. Pugachev worked alongside Putin as a senator, and they even took vacations together. But there was one thing that the president didn’t approve of.

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“There’s a law in Russia that says a senator cannot marry a foreigner,” Tolstoy explained. “Putin himself has said to Sergei at some point, ‘You’re a traitor. Why are you with this English person?’” Pugachev also confirmed Putin’s disapproval of his relationship with a foreign countess and described the president’s reaction.

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“Mr. Putin, he was really surprised,” Pugachev said. “[He asked], ‘Why? She’s English. So strange, why? There are 140 million people in Russia… No, it’s so strange, crazy idea.’” So it was clear that Putin was against Pugachev’s and Tolstoy’s relationship from the get-go. But that was just the beginning of the oligarch’s fall from grace.

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You see, since he was spending so much time with Tolstoy, Pugachev was by Putin’s side less often. As a consequence, his friendship with the president began to wane. This came to a head when Putin announced his desire to remove the oligarch class as part of a supposed “battle against corruption.”

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One theory is that Putin felt threatened by the oligarch’s massive fortunes. Pugachev certainly believes his own wealth and success made him a target, but there were other problems, too. For example, Pugachev’s bank went through a financial rough patch, necessitating a $1 billion loan bail-out provided by the Russian state.

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Exactly what happened after that is unclear, but despite the government’s intervention, Pugachev still lost his bank. What’s more, there doesn’t seem to be any record of the loan. To further complicate things, Pugachev maintains that he’d sold the bank off years before its failing. Thus, as he stated in court, he wasn’t responsible for any repayments.

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Unfortunately for Pugachev, the Russian government contested his claim, saying that he’d placed the loan in Swiss bank accounts. Ultimately, the courts ruled against Pugachev. As a result, they charged the oligarch for the bank’s financial losses. So, believing the court’s judgement to be unfair, Pugachev fled Russia. He then split his time between his London home and a luxurious French châteaux.

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Doing so spared Pugachev a prison sentence, but he didn’t escape the wrath of the Russian government. According to the oligarch, the Deposit Insurance Agency (DIA) tracked him down in an attempt to secure his repayment. The agency allegedly took him to a restaurant and demanded money – or there would be consequences.

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Pugachev revealed how the conversation went in the The Countess and the Russian Billionaire documentary. “They say, ‘Okay you have to pay 350 million or we will kill you or your family. Or, if you want, we can cut the finger off your son and we’ll send it,’” he reported.

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The DIA, on the other hand, say nothing of the sort ever occurred. Although Pugachev was shocked by the supposed threats, he continued to resist the Kremlin’s order for repayments. So, the DIA went to the British government and cut off both the oligarch’s passport and bank accounts. But even then, it continued its manhunt.

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Surveillance cameras captured footage of Russian agents accosting Pugachev once more on the street. There was another sinister turn of events though. “The next day I went to my boy’s sports day,” Tolstoy recounted. “And a mother came up to me and went, ‘Oh my god, I’m so sorry to hear about you.’ And I went, ‘What?’”

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Tolstoy continued, “She went, ‘Oh did you not read this article in the paper?’ The police discovered GPS trackers on every single one of my cars, including the one used by only me and my children. And they were saying maybe two of them were bombs.” Was Pugachev on the Kremlin’s hit list? He certainly thinks so.

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Fortunately it turned out the devices weren’t bombs. They were only GPS trackers which, undoubtedly, is still very sinister. In the meantime Pugachev, fearing for his life, had once more fled the country – this time without his passport. The oligarch used an unnamed source to help him escape to his French getaway unnoticed.

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The oligarch’s actions, however, put him on the wrong side of English law for leaving the country illegally. Pugachev’s game plan was to strike back and sue the Russian government for billions of dollars. Tolstoy stood by him in court, but with some trepidation, as she revealed to camera crews following the story.

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“I do feel very frightened,” Tolstoy said. “Especially for Sergei’s safety, but also for mine and the children’s because there have been such terrible cases of murder. Especially in London. I know a few days ago he had a bad incident in Paris where he was driving the car and two cars tried to, you know, squash his car.”

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The stress proved too much for Tolstoy, and as a result she took her children to stay in London. But matters became more complicated when English courts charged Pugachev with a two-year prison sentence for leaving the country. That meant he was unable to return to the U.K. Indeed, the only way he could see his children was for Tolstoy to visit his French hideaway.

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Over time, Tolstoy and Pugachev’s relationship faced more and more hardships. The oligarch wanted his wife and kids to live with him in France, but Tolstoy couldn’t face the isolation. “I suppose I just feel concerned about how our future as a family works,” she confessed. In 2016 something happened that made Tolstoy’s mind up for her.

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The countess explained the events of that year in her own words. “Sergei had one of his explosions where he physically attacked me,” she said. “He locked the children in a room separate from me. And he locked my passport and the children’s passports in his safe. And he has a gun in his room.”

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Pugachev saw Tolstoy’s actions as betrayal and stopped all his financial support of her. “Our relationship is non-existent, I would say,” the countess reported. “Except he occasionally writes very abusive emails. He’s accused me of working for the Russian government. He says I’m a KGB spy… because I went to the family court and sued for maintenance.”

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Instead, Pugachev sold the family home out from under Tolstoy. In addition, she said the court offered her a choice. “The Russian government said to me, ‘If you agree to wave your maintenance and not claim your debt, we will let you stay in the house for one year.’” With nowhere else to go, Tolstoy didn’t see another choice.

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“I literally either signed the agreement or I left the house the next day,” Tolstoy said. She’s currently approaching the end of her deal. As such, the countess is in a position where the future for her and her children is uncertain. As she explained, “The house is on the market and people come and visit the whole time.”

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When interviewers asked Tolstoy her worst fear, she said, “That we have nowhere to live. That we have no money. It’s really, really difficult… it’s a nightmare.” Even an attempt to make money telling her story on a Russian TV show backfired on Tolstoy. She found herself listening to Pugachev speaking remotely. He said he was tricked by his KGB spy ex who was only interested in his money.

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Tolstoy is currently trying to make ends meet as an author and getting back into the world of travel. But during her ordeal, the countess revealed she’s found herself again outside the lavish lifestyle of a billionaire. As she put it, “I have my whole life ahead of me. I can go back to the that things I love. And this is who I am.”

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