Page last updated at 13:27 GMT, Wednesday, 21 January 2009

Profile: Alexander Lebedev

Alexander Lebedev
Alexander Lebedev is regarded as a highly intelligent and cultured man

Russian billionaire and ex-KGB agent Alexander Lebedev is buying the Evening Standard, a newspaper he used for information when he was a young spy based in London.

According to Forbes magazine, he is Russia's 39th richest man with a net worth of $3.1bn (2.1bn).

He already owns a newspaper in Russia, has a stake in the national airline Aeroflot, and his property portfolio includes a string of boutique hotels across Europe.

Unlike most Russian oligarchs, his fortune was made through banking, not natural resources.

Indeed, the 49-year-old, who describes himself as a "capitalist-idealist", is keen to distance himself from the Russian oligarch class.

Political animal

Mr Lebedev is certainly a contradiction.

He is clearly a member of Russia's establishment. He is a close friend of former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and lives in Rublyovka, Moscow's most prestigious neighbourhood.

But he has used his wealth to fashion a career as a philanthropist and an independent politician.

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Newsnight spoke to Mr Lebedev in 2003

His frustration with corruption in Russia and his willingness to expose it has brought him enemies.

He was a member of the Russian parliament, the Duma, until 2007, but his political life has not been as high-flying as his business career.

In October, he said he was teaming up with Mr Gorbachev to help him form the Independent Democratic Party, a new opposition movement for economic and legal reform and independent media. But the project appears to have fallen by the wayside.

Tycoon intellectual

He has been more successful in maintaining a dissenting voice through his newspapers.

In 2006, he again teamed up with Mr Gorbachev to buy a stake in the Russian paper, the Novaya Gazeta paper where murdered journalist and Kremlin critic Anna Politkovskaya worked.

It continues to report on themes the Kremlin-controlled media prefer to ignore - corruption, human rights abuses in Chechnya, and the activities of the FSB, Russia's post KGB spy agency.

Lebedev is trying to do something so the country will be better
Novaya Gazeta columnist Yulia Latynina

One of its journalists, columnist Yulia Latynina, told the Observer newspaper that Mr Lebedev was the genuine article - a tycoon intellectual with a social conscience.

"Most Russian oligarchs seem to settle into, 'We can do nothing'," she said.

"They spend their days in Courchevel (ski resort), drinking wine, eating caviar and watching girls dance on the table.

"Lebedev is trying to do something so the country will be better. But he knows that if he does anything to offend people in power there will be punishment."

Mr Lebedev also owned the Moscow Korrespondent, which he closed down after it published a story about the then Russian President Vladimir Putin's alleged affair with an Olympic gymnast.

Foreign intelligence

In an in-depth interview with the Times in May, he listed his hobbies as reading, writing, travelling, fishing and diving.

He has been separated from his wife since 1998 and has one son, Evgeny, who was educated in the UK and is a familiar figure on London's social scene.

Mr Lebedev was born in 16 December 1959 to Moscow intelligentsia parents.

Elton John
Mr Lebedev is a fan of Elton John, who played at one of his charity events

His mother, a teacher, was a Communist party member, but his father, an academic, was not.

His grandfather was a factory boss who was on the KGB death list during Stalin's purges.

After graduating, he started researching for a PhD in economics before joining the KGB's foreign intelligence arm.

He told the Times that his mother warned him against it.

"She said they'll find out what your real views are. But my father said, 'No, join. The only way you will change things is from inside'."

He was posted to London in the 1980s and rose to lieutenant colonel in the KGB.

There are so many organisations you can help with your money, rather than just buying things
Alexander Lebedev

He told the Times his job was not on the military side but analysing politics and economics, in particular how events in the Soviet Union were perceived in Britain.

He returned to Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union and went into business.

The Observer says his first company, the Russian Investment-Finance Company, bought the small, troubled National Reserve bank in 1995. It is now one of Russia's biggest banks.

Charity events

Over the past three summers, Mr Lebedev has hosted a high-society ball in the UK for the Raisa Gorbachev Foundation to raise money primarily for Russian cancer charities.

Elton John, his favourite musician, performed in 2007 and guests have included Madonna, Hugh Grant and JK Rowling.

Several newspapers report he has built a 12-storey cancer hospital in St Petersburg where sick children can be treated free of charge. He is apparently trying to build another.

He told the Times: "There are so many organisations you can help with your money, rather than just buying things."

His 28-year-old son Evgeny is chairman of the Raisa Gorbachev Foundation - named after Mr Gorbachev's wife who died of leukaemia in 1999.

Evgeny has been typecast as a playboy and is reportedly dating actress, Joely Richardson, who is 16 years his senior.

There is much speculation as to Mr Lebedev's motives for wanting to buy the Standard.

But perhaps there is some comfort in his comments after he bought shares in Novaya Gazeta.

"We don't plan to influence editorial policy but to boost objectivity," he said.

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