I don’t know what I was expecting from the house of the former girlfriend of a billionaire Russian oligarch. Perhaps something a little more … beige? A touch more panic-room chic, maybe? Some mortician-grade marble and a few lifeless Hirsts, at least?

As it happens, however, the home of Alexandra Tolstoy, on a pleasant tree-lined street in a red-brick suburb of London, is almost entirely normal. And normal, to Tolstoy, might be the greatest compliment of all.

The mother of three and a business owner who organizes riding tours in Kyrgyzstan, whose father is a very distant cousin of Leo Tolstoy’s, has lived in interesting times. After a middle-class upbringing in Oxfordshire, she went on a gap year in 1992 to Russia just as the Soviet Union was falling apart, and she loved it so much that she later changed her degree course at Edinburgh University from philosophy to Russian.

After growing up in Oxfordshire, Tolstoy first went to Russia on a gap year in 1992.

After graduating, she worked in finance in London for a short stint, before leaving for a riding expedition along the Silk Road. In 1999, aged 29, she met a Cossack rider on the road in Uzbekistan: a bare-chested, penniless horseman who barely spoke English. Following a roller-coaster courtship, they married in 2003.

This whirlwind, however, was positively mundane compared to the hurricane that followed. While Tolstoy was living in Moscow with her husband a few years later, she was hired to teach English to Sergei Pugachev—the bruising, bearded oligarch financier often known as “the Kremlin’s Banker.” The two soon became romantically entangled, and within a month she had left her first husband for Pugachev.

Putin, apparently, wasn’t thrilled at the idea of his pet financier shacking up with an Englishwoman. But the couple, who never married, had three children together anyway, and they enjoyed the full house in plutocrat poker: a heavily staffed château on the Côte d’Azur; a double town house in Chelsea, London; a hefty estate in Herefordshire; a permanent suite at Claridge’s; a yacht in Monaco; a private jet; and a retreat in St. Barth’s worth over $40 million.

Riding high at work in Kyrgyzstan.

But then, around 2016, it all began to unravel in quite spectacular style. There was a souring of relations with the Kremlin, a demand that Pugachev repay some $350 million to the Russian state, and the sudden appearance of his name at the top of the Kremlin’s kill list. Amid the drama and legal battles and dead-eyed Russian spooks, Pugachev’s furious, manipulative personality was thrown into a new light. Tolstoy, who says she was long cowed into subservience by her controlling partner, decided this was the family’s best chance to get away. When Pugachev broke a court order by leaving the U.K., effectively making himself a legal fugitive in France, Tolstoy stuck firmly in Chelsea with the children, despite his pleas.

In the ensuing ruckus, she lost her houses, her gilded lifestyle, and any chance of maintenance payments from her estranged partner, who by now was stuck permanently in exile at his château in the South of France. (In the years since, she has been on television and in print frequently to talk about it, becoming an unofficial representative for Oligarch Wives Everywhere.)

Putin, apparently, wasn’t thrilled at the idea of his pet financier shacking up with an Englishwoman.

But that was then. The double town house in Chelsea is a thing of the past. When I visited Tolstoy at her new home on a sunny afternoon in late July, it was a chaotic idyll of school-holiday, upper-middle-class ordinariness. Her children, wearing shorts and T-shirts, opened the front door in curious expectation. They were making waffles for lunch and sliding about the faded hardwood floors in rolled-down socks.

A 10-year-old sweetly offered to make me a cup of tea, boiling an old kettle on an Aga top and struggling nobly to pry open a tea-bag jar the size of her head. Someone was asking whether they could borrow some money for Five Guys later (they couldn’t), while a dog with the proportions of a sandwich loaf snuffled around the little terrace garden. The aimless, endless afternoon stretched out in front of them all. Perhaps they’d go to the park. Eventually they decided to head to a museum. There was an illicit plan to stop at the Five Guys hamburger place on the way.

Tolstoy’s appointment book, however, was not quite so open and carefree. When I turned up, she was appearing on the BBC’s World at One radio show, and someone or other was arriving with what looked like recording equipment when I left, an hour or so later. In the gap between, I learned that Tolstoy’s seemingly normal life has once again been sucked into the vortex of screeching national events.

Sergei Pugachev at home on the Côte d’Azur in 2016. He’s still exiled at the estate.

In June, just a couple of months earlier, Tolstoy received a letter from NatWest, one of the biggest retail banks in the U.K., saying that they were going to shut down her accounts almost immediately, with no reason given and no prior warning. It soon became clear that the bank had been enacting a similar purge on all sorts of people, from ordinary, baffled consumers to controversial political figures, most notably Brexit architect and gouty foghorn Nigel Farage.

Suddenly, what had felt like a personal attack had been revealed as part of a sinister pattern: banks (banks!) acting as moral arbiters and holier-than-thou social commentators. (Even though there were surely some NatWest competitors who would have happily taken her business.) And so, Tolstoy, who has a famous surname and a well-known backstory and an accidental proximity to global events (and, obviously, to Russia), was doing the media rounds to discuss it all.

In her particular case, the “de-banking” (already a contender for word of the year, surely) had come about thanks to a third-party screening service called World-Check, which compiles reports on “Politically Exposed Persons” and those who might be financially troublesome. Its evaluation of Tolstoy, she says, had drawn on two Daily Mail articles and a story published by a state-owned newspaper in Russia, all of which seemed to say that she lived in Monaco (incorrect) and that she was once married to Pugachev (incorrect), a Putin-connected oligarch and villain of the first order (correct). NatWest declined to comment on Tolstoy’s case to the Daily Mail, instead providing a boilerplate response defending its decisions.

Tolstoy’s seemingly normal life has once again been sucked into the vortex of screeching national events.

It is an understatement to say that Tolstoy’s association with Pugachev has been an irksome one. But it wasn’t always this way. Tolstoy recalls how, when they first met, Pugachev embarked on a devastating, mesmerizing charm offensive. “He was,” Tolstoy remembers now, with a rueful teenage smile, “magnetically physically attractive.”

“He was very charming. And he managed to completely worm into me mentally,” she says. But the charisma soon curdled. After a manic honeymoon period, Tolstoy says her life soon became one of near-constant psychological and physical abuse, emotional manipulation, and high-functioning anxiety.

Pugachev was narcissistic and wildly unpredictable. He would “change the locks and lock me out when I was eight months pregnant and had nowhere to go,” Tolstoy says, and fly into a violent rage when she asked to go out for pizza with her sister, say. “He called me and said: ‘where the fuck are you?’ and I came back terrified, and he hit me and called me a whore,” she remembers. “But you get so frightened…. You start trying to justify it. And you think: poor him, it’s my fault, and maybe he’s just stressed.” She has claimed Pugachev had a gun in his study and hired guards who patrolled the walled perimeter of their Riviera home at all times so that Tolstoy couldn’t leave. It was the very definition of a gilded cage.

Tolstoy’s double life—the glamour and the terror—was neatly captured in a BBC documentary called The Countess and the Russian Billionaire, released in 2020. It is a story of two halves. Firstly: a sort of soapy, kleptocrat peep show, where the gaudy lifestyle of the Tolstoys is portrayed against a vague subplot of Pugachev’s legal battles with Putin, during which he attempts to look like a doting, regular family man.

Tolstoy physically cringes now at some of the early scenes, where she casually discusses knocking together two gargantuan iceberg houses in Chelsea—one for the grown-ups, one for the kids—and shows off a cavernous walk-in closet full of Manolo Blahniks, before praying, as if it is the only worry one might ever have in the world, that her daughter grow up to have the same size feet as her.

Tolstoy’s double life was revealed to the television-watching masses in the BBC-produced documentary The Countess and the Russian Billionaire.

The second half of the documentary, however, shows the rapid disintegration of the relationship. Pugachev had been violent and manipulative, she says in the film, and she was barely sleeping at night out of fear of what he might do next. She knew she had to leave.

“But I was so anxious,” she says now. “I couldn’t just sit down and think and make a plan, or ask anyone for help. I was so on the edge, all the time. He was the most powerful and terrifying person. Money like that … it’s so terrifying and controlling.”

When Pugachev fled to France and Tolstoy stayed, it led to a sudden, hostile split between the pair. (Mysterious men would hover outside her house each day to keep tabs on her.) Tolstoy, however, had no independent income of her own at that time, had never technically been married to Pugachev, had never shared a bank account with him or been granted access to his convoluted, offshore financial arrangements—and would now be cut off entirely. The documentary ends as she tries tearfully to work out how to earn a living, and where they would live, and what could happen next.

Three years later, in a cozy living room below cherubic, monochrome portraits of her three children, I asked her what she thinks of the film now, especially the early scenes that flaunted her gilded lifestyle. “I was so naïve,” she says. “I knew that was a stupid thing to do [showing off her library of handbags]. And I sort of think: how would I ever agree to do that? But it was so symptomatic of the shape I was in. I had become so passive and frightened and I had such bad anxiety and I never slept—so I just became this sort of automaton.”

Have the children seen the documentary? “I said to them: if you want to watch it, you can. And then they watched a little bit, but they said they didn’t want to see it. It’s very painful.” The children are not currently in contact with their father. On the screensaver of her phone she showed me a picture of her and the children— flaxen-haired and clad in angelic white linens, like a Ralph Lauren mood board—on the beach in St. Barth’s. “One of the few times we were relaxed there, because Sergei wasn’t with us,” she says. “He was really terrifying. An extremely abusive person.”

Tolstoy says her main income now is through the riding tours she runs in Kyrgyzstan—the profile of which, she admits, was boosted by the BBC documentary. (She also collects and sells eclectic “folk-inspired” antiques under the name the Tolstoy Edit, which currently lends her home a sort of delightful, Hansel-and-Gretel chic. And last year, she worked on a range of cashmere clothing with the Scottish brand Brora.)

Tolstoy says that these cottage industries support what appears to many to be a relatively lavish lifestyle, although she explains that she rents her town house in Battersea and offers her Cotswolds home as a holiday rental. (She concedes that her parents take care of certain expenses related to the children.) “So I have to go away to Kyrgyzstan for work,” she explains. “He knew exactly when I was going. And he tried to kidnap my children last year.”

One night in September 2022, while Tolstoy was away, there was a knock at the door. A young nanny who was looking after the children opened it. “And this Russian woman said, ‘I know Alex has got no reception where she is, but we agreed that I’d come visit the children.’”

The woman pushed into the house and called up Pugachev on the phone, who explained that the children were to take money from her and buy tickets on the Eurostar and go see him at once. “But what they totally underestimated was the children’s reaction,” says Tolstoy. (Pugachev’s constant mistake, she says, is in thinking that people will do anything for money.) “But instead they were terrified. My daughter locked herself in the bathroom and was sick three times. Can you imagine the fear that makes you vomit?”

“That was last September, so I am really upset because it’s completely scarred her and she now can hardly sleep alone,” Tolstoy says. “The police have got involved and have been really great, and the school has been great, and they have all this protection. So they feel a lot more comfortable now.”

Pugachev, who did not respond to a request for comment, previously denied abandoning Tolstoy and their children, and told the Times of London in 2022, “I’m not allowed to see three of my children and I haven’t seen them for seven years. I can’t see them to this day because of her scheming ways.”

Does she miss anything about her former lifestyle? “Literally nothing. I don’t miss anything. I hated living with a lot of staff. It was awful. There’s always somebody in your home. I love the freedom now.”

“In a way, I feel lucky that I saw how awful it is,” she says. “People say that money is freedom. But that lifestyle is literally the least free that you can be. It doesn’t matter how rich you are, and how many managers [you] have—it’s a responsibility to have all these houses and all these things and all these people around you all the time.”

She explains how, when she was with Pugachev, she got a job working at Sotheby’s in the Russian department. “And he’d sabotage it—ring me in the middle of the day and tell me to get home now, or he’d lock the doors and not let me in. And he’d say in front of the children: ‘She’s not gone to work; she’s gone shopping.’”

Tolstoy with her children in London in 2020.

“That’s the funny thing,” she continues. “He can’t believe I can work now and support the children.” Tolstoy explains that she has never received any maintenance pay from Pugachev and that she quickly decided, after consulting a specialist lawyer, that she’d rather not waste her life trying to navigate the labyrinthine finances of “Putin’s Banker.”

“‘I hated living with a lot of staff.’”

“But he keeps telling everyone that I work for the Russian government,” she says. “That’s why I also got worried about NatWest. That he had written to them and told them I work for the Russian government.” (An interview Pugachev did with The Times of London stated that his “hatred of Putin is matched only by the vitriol he reserves for Tolstoy.” He remains in the South of France, exiled in his villa.)

Things are not exactly rosy for oligarchs (or the oligarch-adjacent) in London these days. A slow but palpable chilling of the atmosphere has been accelerated by the war in Ukraine. Houses are seized, accounts are frozen, eyebrows are raised among the chattering classes. Does a surname like Tolstoy, arguably the most familiar of Russian names, help or hinder things in this climate?

“I’d say it’s been very helpful,” she says. “I wanted to write about my traveling, and obviously that’s a help.” (Alexandra explains her connection with Leo Tolstoy thus: “We are one family. Leo and our great-grandfather, in the 17th century, were two brothers, and so they’re on a different branch. But it’s not such a big family.” She also explains that she and the children are the only remaining members who speak Russian.)

It is clear, however, that her de-banking was colored by her former ties to Pugachev, and thus, tangentially, to the Russian state nexus. On the day we met, the C.E.O. of NatWest, Dame Alison Rose, had just resigned over the wider snafu. Tolstoy eventually managed to get her affairs in order with a new bank. Even so, it was a brief return to the anxiety-racked days of old. In general, Tolstoy says, she sleeps better these days. “But it’s expensive having kids. And I would wake up at one in the morning and think: what am I going to do if I have no bank account?” she says. “Two months is a very short space of time to reorganize your whole life.”

What does she want for the children as they grow up? Does she think they’ll want to meet their father again? “Yes. He is their father,” she says. “I talk to a child psychologist a lot about it. I think they probably will [want to meet him]. And I think that’s completely normal. But all I want is for them to be strong enough and emotionally developed enough to understand about making boundaries.”

She also hopes they’ll have some sort of relationship with the country of her ancestors. It is important to her that the children speak Russian. “I love it. It’s funny: my grandfather left during the revolution, and then my father couldn’t visit all his life until the 1980s,” she says. “Then I went in the 1990s, and now I’ve left and I can’t go back. I wonder if my children will be able to go?” And what about her? “I speak Russian and read Russian every day. And I really, really love Moscow,” she says. “But I don’t think I’d ever have another Russian husband.”

Joseph Bullmore is a Writer at Large at Air Mail and the editor of Gentleman’s Journal in London