He had been one of the KGB's men in London, a spy who rose swiftly through the ranks. Yet, when Soviet communism collapsed, he switched seamlessly to its ideological rival as a banker worth billions in the free-wheeling capitalism of the new Russia. Some British newspapers took to calling him the spy who came in for the gold.

Now, Alexander Lebedev, the owner of a major Russian bank, a chunk of Aeroflot airline and newspaper properties in Moscow, is heading back to London in a different guise: press baron.

On Wednesday, Lebedev, 49, announced that he had agreed to buy a majority stake in the Evening Standard, an afternoon newspaper that has long been a part of the city's fabric and read by Britain's political elite.

The sale followed a furious press war pitting the Standard against free newspapers given away to commuters.

In a statement, the newspaper's owners described the price as "a nominal sum" -- analysts put it at 1 pound, or about $1.40. The Evening Standard has a circulation of more than 280,000 copies a day but losses estimated by analysts at up to $22 million a year.

Roy Greenslade, a media critic, speculated about the sale in an interview. "There are five reasons for owning newspapers," he said, "and all begin with a P: profit, propaganda, political influence, prestige and public service. There's no profit in the Standard, so you've got to look at the other things."