MOSCOW – A former senior Kremlin aide died in a Washington hotel from blunt force trauma wounds – and now Moscow is filled with conspiracy theories about who might have wanted him dead.
The November death of Mikhail Lesin, initially reported by his family as a heart attack, immediately generated skepticism from Kremlin critics. In a world in which ex-KGB agents are poisoned in London by radioactive tea and the lawyers of Kremlin critics die in Moscow prisons, the death of Lesin, 57, at a mid-tier Dupont Circle hotel was bound to raise eyebrows.
Now the revelation from the D.C. Medical Examiner's Office that Lesin had suffered a blow to the head, and also had extensive trauma wounds elsewhere on his body, has snapped attention back to the case.
Some opposition journalists – many of whom knew Lesin since the waning years of the Soviet Union – said he had been killed because he knew too much about the inner workings of the Kremlin. Others head in even more cloak-and-dagger directions: suggesting he may not be dead at all, and could be helping U.S. investigators understand Russia. (That possibility would suggest that the Metropolitan Police Department and the FBI operate like their Russian counterparts. There’s no evidence that’s the case.)
Many reporters questioned why Lesin -- who had property holdings totaling many millions of dollars -- would have been in Washington at all, let alone at a mid-rate hotel where rooms run $190 a night.
“Wow. This man had a very interesting life, and it sounds like a very interesting death, too,” wrote Ilya Krasilshik, a reporter for Meduza, a media outlet that is frequently critical of the Kremlin.
Lesin played a central role in the evolution of Russia’s modern media scene into an instrument of Kremlin influence and control. Trained as an engineer, he helped found one of Russia’s first ad agencies, then moved into state television under President Boris Yeltsin. After Vladimir Putin came to power in 2000, Lesin took over the unruly anti-Kremlin NTV channel and reversed its orientation. He was a longtime confidante and PR adviser to Putin, and helped shape Putin’s domestic image as a virile, uncorrupt leader.
To bolster Russia’s image abroad, and to propagate the Kremlin’s anti-Western worldview to a broader audience, he helped foster the creation of Russia Today, an English-language television network that has spread around the world since its start in 2005.
More recently, he had stepped down from his post as the head of Gazprom-Media, a holding company that owns several prominent pro-Kremlin TV networks and the and the popular Ekho Moskvy radio station. The break came after clashing with the station's editor, Alexey Venediktov, about whether to fire a journalist who had criticized the Kremlin.
That brush with the FBI fueled Russian speculation that his death was an elaborate fake.
"This story with Lesin is very strange,” wrote Oleg Kozyrev, an opposition blogger, on Twitter. “It looks more and more like a program of witness protection. Maybe he is alive and is giving FBI some important evidence.”
Others were simply puzzled that the news that he died from blunt force trauma would take so long to become public.
“I don't understand about Lesin,” wrote Alexander Plyushev, the reporter at the Ekho Moskvy radio station who Lesin had wanted to fire. “If the death was caused by ‘blunt force trauma,’ why did it take so long to determine it?"
As has happened before with the sudden deaths of people enmeshed with the Kremlin, for now, the circumstances remain deeply murky.
“Nothing is clear except for the fact that the cause of his death was not natural,” said an editor at the Russian business daily Kommersant, Dmitry Spiridonov “Well, this is at least something, but still nothing is clear."