On the morning that Irina Izmestieva was found dead on the sofa at her palatial West London home, her oil tycoon husband Igor was waking in his dingy prison cell, 3,000 miles away in the Russian Urals.
Irina, a glamorous 52-year-old former Moscow TV presenter and film-maker, was discovered ten days ago in mysterious circumstances after concerned friends summoned police to her £15 million house.
Just a stone’s throw from Kensington Palace, Irina had been enjoying a life far removed from the dismal existence of Igor, the multi-millionaire father of her two daughters and, latterly, enemy of Vladimir Putin.
Russian socialite Irina Izmestieva was found dead in her London mansion earlier this month and friends are demanding MI5 investigate
The White Swan penal colony, where her 55-year-old husband is incarcerated in a cell with two others, is one of Russia’s toughest prisons.
It is home to serial killers and cannibals, as well as Izmestiev, a former Moscow senator and oil dealer who has been locked up there since 2010 for crimes including murder and tax evasion — although his supporters insist he was framed after falling foul of the Kremlin.
Built during Stalin’s purges, the high-security jail on the edge of the town of Solikamsk is circled with barbed wire and guarded by machine gun towers.
While Igor languishes behind bars, sewing overalls in prison workshops for eight hours a day, surviving on buckwheat porridge and allowed into the exercise yard for just an hour, Irina was raising their privately educated twins, working on her career as an award-winning film-maker and rubbing shoulders with royalty and celebrities.
But, as the Mail can reveal, Irina had simultaneously been masterminding a legal fight against the Russian government to get her husband out of prison.
Having failed to secure justice for Igor in Russia, she had turned in desperation to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, a move which, as one source explained to the Mail this week, could have been highly embarrassing for the Russian government.
No wonder, then, that when her body was found at her three-storey, 19th-century mansion in Kensington, her shocked friends immediately called for MI5 to investigate.
Tough regime: Irina’s husband Igor photographed in jail
What was behind her strange, unexplained passing in one of London’s wealthiest and most peaceful enclaves?
This week, a senior British barrister, who asked not to be named, told the Mail that her ‘untimely death’ was ‘highly suspicious’ and that she had been the ‘driving force behind Igor’s appeal to Strasbourg’.
Without Irina, he said, Igor Izmestiev’s appeal was ‘likely to fall by the wayside’, something which would no doubt be a relief to the Kremlin. For his part, Igor, who has been told by his lawyer that his wife is dead, is said to be ‘in utter shock’ at what has happened.
While Irina was apparently enjoying a life of luxury in London and at the vast Hampshire country estate she and her husband owned — her Instagram account shows her chatting with Prince Harry, and posing with actor Jeremy Irons — in reality she was never able to escape her husband’s murky past.
One of her friends describes her as constantly ‘looking over her shoulder’ for her husband’s enemies. Speaking to the Mail this week, the friend said Irina was ‘nervous’.
‘She did not seem like a particularly free lady,’ the friend said. ‘Her children and her life were financed by her husband.
‘He had a stranglehold on her financially.
‘It was a difficult marriage — she was always looking over her shoulder even after he was put in prison. She was nervous.’
Ms Izmestieva’s former husband Igor has been sentenced to life in a high security Russian jail
So nervous, in fact, that when her now 21-year-old twins, Sasha and Arina, were children she employed a driver to take them to and from the gates of their private girls’ school — a journey of less than a mile.
Another of Irina’s friends, Miranda Mirianashvili, said this week that the couple’s Kensington home, which was bought in 2006 for £8.85 million by a company registered in the British Virgin Islands, was the subject of a property dispute.
Whatever the truth about Irina’s tragic death, money lay at the heart of much of the Izmestiev family’s troubles.
The shadowy fortune was forged, as so many Russian fortunes were, in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Izmestiev, a former soldier and a native of the oil-rich Russian republic of Bashkiria, made his millions on the back of oil deals in the 1990s after becoming close to members of the family of the republic’s president.
As well as owning Korus, a large oil company, he had assets in shipping. He entered the world of politics in 1999 and was senator for the region for five years.
For much of that time he was considered a close Putin ally; at the beginning of 2005, the Russian president even presented him with a gold watch as a sign of his esteem.
But Izmestiev appears to have suffered a reversal in fortunes after Putin’s move to crack down on powerful regional leaders in Russia and to take back control of the oil fields.
Instead of turning whistleblower and assisting the Kremlin, it is thought that he refused to co-operate, possibly because he feared incriminating himself.
The £15million home of Russian senator’s dead wife Irina Izmestieva, just a stone’s throw from Kensington Palace
The Izmestievs fled Russia the following year, heading first to Germany and then to London. According to sources in Moscow, Izmestiev took significant amounts of his fortune out of the country and out of reach of the confiscatory powers of the Russian government.
Two years later, believing he was on a business trip, he was lured by the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB, successor to the KGB) to the town of Bishkek in Kyrgyzstan.
As soon as he landed, he was seized and flown to Russia where he was arrested for the murder of the wife of a business associate. Izmestiev was accused of leading a Mafia-like criminal syndicate used to seize control of oil refineries.
As well as being charged with multiple murders between 1992 and 2004, he was accused of tax evasion, attempting to bribe an FSB officer, and the attempted murder of the son of his former ally, the president of Bashkiria.
Last-minute additional charges of terrorism, ostensibly for setting fire to a petrol station and a publishing house, meant that, under a new Russian law passed after his arrest, he could be tried without a jury.
Izmestiev’s 2010 trial in Moscow provoked outrage among human rights activists, including the late Lyudmila Alexeyeva, a former Soviet dissident and founding member of the Moscow Helsinki Watch Group.
In 2017, a year before her death, she said that she had convinced Putin to pardon Izmestiev. But a year later the official Russian ‘Pardons Commission’ turned down the request.
Mother-of-two Ms Izmestieva was pictured at a sporting event with Prince Harry in 2012
Russian sources say that any future pardon would be unthinkable without the return of the billions of roubles Izmestiev took out of Russia.
The friend of Irina’s who spoke to the Mail this week, also pointed towards question marks around the family’s money.
‘Obviously because of all the stories surrounding her husband, you can’t help but feel a little bit eerie about her dying so suddenly,’ she said.
Despite her beauty and her husband’s wealth, Irina was no mere trophy wife.
Born in Ukraine in 1969, she studied systems engineering before moving to Moscow, where she gained a media diploma and worked for three-and-a-half years as a presenter for Russia’s TDK channel.
After her husband’s incarceration, she studied at London Film Academy, setting up her own film-making business, IZM Productions, and producing award-winning short films which have been screened at Cannes, Rome and Venice.
Irina described one of her first IZM films, Picture Perfect, as being about ‘age, regret, forgiveness and longing to change the past’.
She is one of several high-profile Russians who have died in mysterious circumstances on British soil in recent years.
In 2006, former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko was killed by radioactive polonium-210 administered by the FSB.
Irina Izmestieva, 52, smiles at an event where she went on to speak briefly with Prince Harry
In 2012, exiled Russian banker Alexander Perepilichnyy was found collapsed in the road in Surrey, while tests conducted by an expert botanist suggested the presence of a rare plant toxin that causes cardiac arrest.
The following year, Boris Berezovsky, a one-time friend of Putin who became a fierce critic of the Kremlin, was found hanged in his bathroom — although an asphyxiation expert found that the ligature marks on his neck suggested strangling.
In Salisbury three years ago, former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter were poisoned with novichok by Putin-backed agents.
In Russia, Irina’s death has been attributed by some newspapers to the coronavirus, although her friend Miranda Mirianashvili says she had tested negative and was taking antibiotics for a cough.
A concerned female friend is believed to have raised the alarm, flagging down passing police officers who got into the house via a basement window and found Irina on the sofa inside.
Other friends have told the Russian newspaper Moskovsky Komsomolets that she was prone to depression and speculated that she had been suffering from ’empty-nest syndrome’ and loneliness since her daughters had grown up.
Her mother had visited her but had left a few days earlier. One of her daughters is studying in the U.S. and the other was out of town.
One friend described the fact that Irina was alone as ‘a fatal coincidence of circumstances’, adding: ‘Maybe if someone was home to call an ambulance, Ira could have been saved.’
Police have said that they are not treating Irina’s death as suspicious. The barrister who spoke to the Mail this week said: ‘Scotland Yard’s insouciance over the cause of death is puzzling, unless it’s a ploy designed to induce the Russians to drop their guard’.
Well connected: Irina (main) and (above) with actor Jeremy Irons
The Westminster coroner said yesterday that Irina’s death had been reported to them, suggesting it will now be the subject of an inquest.
Russian exile and anti-corruption campaigner Evgeny Chichvarkin, who now runs Hedonism Wines in London, believes it is important that the case is ‘properly’ looked into: ‘I very much hope that the UK’s special services will investigate this case properly, thoroughly, and perhaps, one day, we’ll learn what happened,’ he wrote on Facebook this week.
Irina’s family are said to be considering asking for a private post-mortem examination to ensure that no stone is left unturned in the quest to find out what happened to her. Her daughters, in particular, are said to be ‘inconsolable’.
The friend who spoke to the Mail added: ‘I hope we find out the truth. Irina was absolutely lovely and it’s so horrible and rather odd she should come to a sudden death.
‘I remember Irina talking about things and you can’t help feeling nervous. The world which her husband inhabited is a scary one, where it seems people are happy to go and pick other people off with impunity.’