From Soviet Agent to London Newspaper Proprietor

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John MacDougall / AFP / Getty

Russian billionaire Alexander Lebedev

What can you get for a single unit of Britain's poor, battered currency? Not much — apart from power, influence and an entrée into the highest echelons of the British establishment. These are the potential byproducts of an agreement reached on Jan. 21 by Russian oligarch and politician Alexander Lebedev to buy London's largest newspaper, the Evening Standard, from its current owners Associated Newspapers for the nominal fee of one pound sterling.

The bargain-basement price is arguably the least startling aspect of a transaction that if confirmed next month following a staff consultation process — and barring any intervention by the British government — will open a new and bizarre chapter in Anglo-Russian relations. Lebedev, after all, is a former KGB operative, who spied on Britain under diplomatic cover during the Cold War, by his own account scouring news sources such as the Standard for tidbits to feed to his handlers back home. His exotic pedigree has caused a few splutters. Richard Ottway, a Conservative MP, said he felt that "the fact that [Lebedev] has been a member of a foreign security service" meant there should be an inquiry into the sale. "I think it's one more example that we are no more a serious nation that we allow a serious paper to be taken over in our capital by a Russian oligarch," harrumphed Sir Peregrine Worsthorne, an octogenarian former newspaper editor. (See pictures of the fashions of Russian Czars.)

Business Secretary Peter Mandelson has the power to intervene in the deal but has indicated that he does not intend to do so. Lord Mandelson's social interaction with another oligarch, metals magnate Oleg Deripaska, attracted negative press commentary in the fall; the minister may prefer to keep a distance from the dealings of rich Russians. But Lebedev, still only 49, is no ordinary oligarch. He even rejects the label with its connotations of bling-bling lifestyle and financial secrecy, and in September confided to the Daily Telegraph that the economic slump had shrunk his fortune by two thirds. (See pictures of London's financial crisis.)

At its peak, that fortune was believed to be around $3 billion, amassed after Lebedev abandoned espionage in 1992 in favor of a more lucrative occupation as a businessman. Lebedev became chairman of Russia's National Reserve Bank and acquired a substantial stake in Russian national carrier, Aeroflot. The smoothest path to prosperity in Russia is to court the political establishment, not to challenge it, but Lebedev has not shied away from political activism. In September 2008 he joined forces with former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to found an opposition movement called the Independent Democratic Party of Russia. In partnership with Gorbachev, he also bought a large shareholding in independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta, which is often critical of the Russian government. Association with the daily is not for the fainthearted. Anna Politkovskaya wrote for the Gazeta until her murder in 2006; earlier this month, a young freelance contributor called Anastasia Baburova was shot dead.

Against that background, the prospect of owning the Standard must seem like a walk in the park, even as Lebedev contemplates plowing "tens of millions of pounds" into the loss-making publication. He told the Financial Times the Standard could be used "to help [Russian Prime Minister Vladimir] Putin to fight corruption" in Russia, but has also promised to maintain the paper's editorial independence. (See pictures of Putin's youth camp.)

An editorial board will ratify any appointments, which are predicted to include Geordie Greig, currently at the helm of snobby glossy British magazine Tatler, as editor. Such a choice wouldn't signal an emphasis on hard news but an advisory board full of big hitters could certainly help to open doors. Names reported to be in the frame include Gorbachev and Tony Blair. His priority, Lebedev told a hastily convened press conference in Moscow, is to ensure the Standard's survival. "I don't want it to be said that some Russian idiot and former spy came along and bought it only for it to close down," he said.
with reporting by Yuri Zarakhovich / Moscow

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