Alexander Lebedev: the oligarch who bought the Evening Standard

Britain's newest press baron is an ex-KGB lieutenant colonel, said to be worth over £3bn. But Alexander Lebedev isn't your typical Russian oligarch.

Towards the end of the Cold War, Alexander Lebedev was a KGB spy in London reporting back to Moscow on whether Britain was about to activate a nuclear strike. He's now pulled off a strike of his own. Having apparently fallen in love with the British way of life he has just taken control of the London Evening Standard, and its debts, for a "nominal sum". It's an "astonishing moment in British press history", says The Guardian. "Welcome Comrade Proprietor." There was some opposition to the move: one MP has called for a government investigation. But, as the political blogger Guido Fawkes points out, Lebedev is hardly the first foreign spy to own a UK title: Robert Maxwell was also reckoned by British intelligence to have worked for the Russians. Besides, Lebedev isn't your typical Moscow strong-man.

Dubbed "the thinking man's oligarch", Lebedev describes Russia's oligarch class as greedy and uncultured. "They don't read books. They don't go to exhibitions. They think the only way to impress anyone is to buy a yacht." By contrast, he stages Chekhov festivals and styles himself a "Capitalist-Idealist". According to Novaya Gazeta (the campaigning Moscow paper he co-owns with Mikhail Gorbachev), he is the genuine article: "a tycoon-intellectual with a social conscience". The paper is one of the few Russian media outlets critical of the Kremlin. In short, says The Observer, "he is an oligarch we could learn to love".

As befits a London press baron, Lebedev, 49, is something of an English dandy, says The Times. Lebedev is often seen out on the town with his son, Evgeny, clad in identical Converse trainers and designer suits. And he loves to put on a show for the London aristo-celebocracy: the glamorous benefits he organises for the Raisa Gorbachev Foundation are legendary. Yet Lebedev's position within the Russian establishment is ambiguous. "He speaks to Putin," says one friend. "You have to. In Russia you can't ever be too far apart. It's a very delicate road."

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Lebedev's early path to prominence was similar to Putin's. The son of Moscow intellectuals, he graduated in economics from the elite Moscow State Institute of International Relations, a KGB recruiting ground, eventually rising to lieutenant colonel, the same rank achieved by Putin. After leaving "The Department" in 1992, he used his Western contacts and language skills to make a fortune advising foreign companies on Russian deals, eventually buying the National Reserve Bank. The 1998 Russian collapse nearly wiped him out, notes the Evening Standard. But he restructured his debts quickly and snapped up lots of cheap shares in Gazprom and Aeroflot. He now owns 30% of the latter and has about 100 further companies in 18 countries worldwide. His wealth, pre-crunch, was put at around $3.1bn.

It is rumoured that the Evening Standard is not the only British newspaper on Lebedev's shopping list: he's also gunning to acquire The Independent from Sir Tony O'Reilly's beleaguered Independent News & Media. No wonder every hack in town is bigging him up. Could he really be the "colossus among newspaper proprietors" that The Observer predicts? We may soon find out.

The last of the great newspaper dynasties

"It's deeply cheery to find a new player with cash to spare keen on entering Fleet Street," says Peter Preston in The Observer. But the deal to acquire the Evening Standard (ES) from the Daily Mail & General Trust (DMGT) took a bit of negotiating. "There is still a backs of envelopes feel an oligarchical way of doing business that raises problems." The ES is also said to be haemorrhaging some £20m a year due to declining sales. But, on paper, Lebedev's outfit looks none too impressive, says the FT. Just one director, Lebedev's 28-year-old son Evgeny, is listed at Companies House. "He is said to want to turn round the loss-making paper in three years" and has recruited influential Tatler editor, Geordie Greig. But Lebedev Jnr is better known for his girlfriends (Geri Halliwell, Joely Richardson) and his Cha Cha No Hana restaurants, than for his management skills.

The surprise for many was that Lord Rothermere was prepared to sell at all, says The Guardian. The Rothermeres "are the last of the great 20th-century newspaper dynasties" and have never sold a major title. Still, DGMT's central goal is to protect its crown jewels, the Daily Mail and Mail on Sunday, and to boost revenues from its expanding business-to-business arm, says The Times. Having lost the chance to sell the newspaper group, Northcliffe, in 2006, Lord Rothermere was "determined not to make the same mistake again". Who knows, a Lebedev-Greig line-up might work, concludes Stephen Glover in The Independent. There's a niche for "a kind of daily Spectator with a dash of Tatler thrown in, plus must-read City pages". Besides, Alexander Lebedev offers the Evening Standard "the only future it has".