Alexander Yevgenyevich Lebedev’s first foray into the British social scene, with his cheeky smile and laceless Converse trainers, was like a breath of fresh air to a nation that tended to associate visiting Russian businessmen with assassination attempts and hyper-inflation in the football transfer market.A former KGB spy he may have been, but he was so charming that his first major social outing – a £1.3 million ($2.28 million) party he hosted for the Raisa Gorbachev Foundation at Althorp, the childhood home of Princess Diana – attracted Salman Rushdie, Elle Macpherson, Quincy Jones and a smattering of minor royals.Last year his white-tie charity gala dinner switched to Hampton Court Palace, and guests included Lady Thatcher, Naomi Campbell and Elton John. And how he loved all the fuss.”When you’re sitting at a dinner with Tom Wolfe on one side and Tom Stoppard on the other, then obviously it’s enjoyable.”In the past 12 months Lebedev has bought the London Evening Standard, been invited to No. 10 Downing Street to meet Gordon Brown, and is said to be considering buying the British newspapers the Independent and the Independent on Sunday.But who is this man? Why did he join the KGB and what did he do when he was an agent in London? Is it true, as the Russian saying goes, that there is no such thing as a former spy? How did he make so much money in the 1990s in Moscow, a time and place that so closely resembled the wild west? And what is the nature of his relationship with Vladimir Putin and the modern Russian state?Lebedev was born in December 1959, the son of two members of the Soviet nomenklatura: Evgeniy Nikolaevich, a professor at the Bauman Technical University, and Maria Sergeyevna, an English professor at the elite State Institute of International Relations in Moscow. Lebedev graduated from the Institute in 1982 after studying English, economics and finance. In 1984 he graduated from the KGB’s Krasnoznamenniy Institute. Asked why he chose to join the KGB, Lebedev suggests he had little choice. ”Choose is not the right word – agreed,” he says.Lebedev was posted to London in 1988, ostensibly as a third secretary at the Soviet embassy in Kensington. One of his contemporaries recalls: ”He came as a junior diplomat. After a few days it was easy to establish that he was from the service, and that he didn’t come from our usual department, because he didn’t have the usual training.”One of Lebedev’s KGB contemporaries – a man who was eventually expelled from Britain – recalls him as ”a very average” spy. ”He was not a remarkable or influential agent. He was just doing his stuff: some financial or economic analysis. He is very talented in business, and as an economist, but as a person he is somewhat maverick and eccentric.”On the other hand, Leonid Zamyatin, who was the Soviet Union’s last ambassador to London, from 1986 to 1991, says: ”I remember Alexander Lebedev very well. An extremely diligent, very clever man. It was a pleasure to work with him … As a diplomat, he was responsible for following the political situation in the UK.”Lebedev has always insisted that he did little more than prepare economic analyses. Pressed about this he eventually conceded that his work in London also involved monitoring British ”political forces” and ”high level meetings”, arms control negotiations, trade talks and NATO. What Lebedev does not mention is that some of his contemporaries say he left the KGB under something of a cloud. For reasons that remain unclear, he is said to have come under investigation by the agency’s counter-intelligence division, both in London and in Moscow. He was recalled to Moscow and resigned from the KGB a short while later.Lebedev insists that he left the foreign intelligence service because ”there seemed to be no interest in foreign intelligence product inside the country”, and the world of business offered greater challenges.Almost immediately after leaving the KGB he turned up in Lausanne, where he had been offered work with a Swiss bank.After making money buying and selling South American and African bonds – high-risk, high-rewards deals that, by his own estimates, earned him about $US500,000 ($544,000) in commissions – he bought his own small finance house, the National Reserve Bank in 1995.He teamed up with two of his old neighbours from Earls Terrace, Kensington: Andrei Kostin and Anatoliy Danilitskiy, who had both been diplomats at the Soviet embassy, just as the starting pistol was being fired on a race to transform Russia.Old Soviet enterprises were being snatched up by a small number of private individuals; people were experimenting with capitalism for the first time – and some were making extraordinary fortunes. One company that they formed in London was called The Milith plc.However, there was one particularly messy dispute with a business associate in the US. Igor Fyodorov was a former officer in the Soviet submarine fleet who had settled in Virginia. When Fyodorov ran off with more than $US7 million of the National Reserve Bank’s money, Lebedev pursued him through the courts. But at the same time a number of Russians, and American private detectives, also began looking for him in the US. Fyodorov and his wife went into hiding in Texas, with the help of a private detective called Donald Danielson.Fyodorov counter-claimed against Lebedev and the bank in the US courts, and contacted the FSB, one of the successors to the KGB, to complain that his life was being threatened.A Russian journalist, Yulia Pelekhova, began to make her own inquiries about the dispute, travelling to the US to question Fyodorov, and subsequently complained that employees of a security firm called Konus, which was working with the NRB, were making threatening telephone calls to her newspaper, Kommersant. Shortly afterwards, while she was away from home, a sniper bullet was fired through her living room window, lodging in the opposite wall. Lebedev is dismissive of any suggestion that he was involved in any attempt to intimidate Pelekhova, pointing out that she was later convicted of blackmail over an unconnected matter.”This respected journalist Yulia Pelekhova was in fact arrested and spent a year in jail. I never fired at her apartment. She accused me of various crimes, amongst them poisoning her horse and stealing her car.”The Prosecutor-General of Russia, Yury Skuratov, and his staff pressed on with their inquiry into the dispute with Fyodorov, who died this year, despite Lebedev’s protestations. In the event the investigation went nowhere but the former KGB agent went from strength to strength once this episode was safely behind him.His business empire now embraces housing, boutique hotels, airlines – he owns about a third of Aeroflot, the part-privatised national airline – textiles, tourism, telecommunications and newspapers.One former colleague says the assets under his control are now probably worth $US2 billion. Although he spends most of his time in Moscow, he owns a stately home in the grounds of Hampton Court Palace, homes in Italy and France, and travels by private jet.Lebedev is reported to be close to Mikhail Gorbachev, who is the co-owner of Novaya Gazeta, and whom he hails as ”one of the greatest politicians in the history of mankind”. But when Gorbachev was sought for his views, his chief press secretary said the former president’s ”schedule is too full”, and that he would be more likely to talk ”if you had a more serious subject”.Nor is Lebedev any longer close to Putin. Nevertheless, he remains one of the few prominent Russians who seems able to make personal attacks on Putin in public without fear of recrimination. Because of this, some speculate he is at the centre of a double bluff: he is actually the Kremlin’s man, a licensed opposition figure who knows that he can say what he likes, within limits.”Putin is always telling the oligarchs that they should go and invest in the West, and in Ukraine, instead of waiting for the West to come to Russia,” one close associate says. ”Lebedev wants to prove to Putin that he can control parts of the Western media, in order to project a better image of Russia. He has said to me many times that this is his motive.”Lebedev is a liberal, but in reality he’s not a supporter of the West. He’s a typical Soviet person: he’s a product of Soviet society.”So will this work, using his money to participate in Russia’s strategic investment in key Western industries? Will it win him the approval of Putin and the Kremlin that he is said to crave? Or could his high profile in the West have the opposite effect?Lebedev says the FSB has twice offered him protection, but he says he is untroubled by thoughts of any serious threat to his safety. He is also under investigation by the FSB, something he is aware of. ”These things are standard here. It may mean nothing, it could be business games of some FSB mavericks, could be something more serious, for example ‘the big man’, irritated by my outspokenness. Qui vivra verra. [We’ll have to wait and see].”Guardian News & Media