How could it happen that Vladimir Putin’s press censor Mikhail Lesin, a former presidential aide, a member of the ruling United Russia party, the ideological inspiration behind the Kremlin-funded television network Russia Today, ended up dying in the heart of the U.S. capital?
It was the talk of the town in Moscow this week. Lesin’s death at a Dupont Circle hotel did not make sense in the system built on Vladimir Putin’s political principles. Lesin’s family said that he had died of a heart attack, but those who knew the dark waters of the media boss’s life were not ready to believe the first draft of that story.
Lesin and his family were tied to multimillion-dollar properties in Los Angeles and have long faced allegations of money-laundering for the Russian state and its oligarchs. Now, with the man gone, his friends and enemies threw themselves into a lively discussion of Lesin’s life, accusing the former senior Kremlin figure of destroying the news agency RIA Novosti, of attacking independent radio station Echo of Moscow, of supporting the idea of a new type of Russian journalism, wherein reporters were to believe that their job was not telling the truth but defending their country. And, of course, they accused him of stealing money.
There were ups and downs in Lesin’s career. In 2009, then-president Dmitry Medvedev fired Lesin as his aide for some professional violations. Lesin moved to Los Angeles, where his son, Anton, was involved in Hollywood and his daughter, Yekraterina, worked first as a producer and then as the head of Russia Today’s bureau. State corruption at the top is so common, almost a banal phenomenon in Russia, something easily forgotten and forgiven. But this week Russia suddenly remembered that, in the last few years of his life, Lesin and his son Anton had purchased four luxurious mansions for a reported $28 million in Los Angeles, a significant amount of money for a former state bureaucrat working for the Kremlin.
In the autumn of 2013, a few months before Sochi’s Winter Olympics, Lesin’s friend, the first deputy head of the presidential administration Aleksei Gromov, helped Lesin to return to media business, as RBK news agency reported at the time. The wealthy Californian real-estate owner was appointed head of the powerful Gazprom–Media Holding Group. The “father-creator of the Russian media industry”—as another one of Lesin’s friends, the head of Channel One, Konstantin Ernst, once called him—was up in the saddle once again, reshuffling Russia’s media world.
Essentially, Lesin and his friends were the authors of deep and insidious changes in the Russian media, wherein reporters were to become soldiers in the state’s information war, servants of national security interests. This concept was well known both in the U.S. and all over post-Soviet countries.
Who knows who’s really to blame—maybe Hollywood?—but the problem was that Lesin, remembered as a “monster,” “dinosaur,” and even “bulldozer” of the Kremlin’s propaganda this week, turned out to have too many human weaknesses. He was seriously ill and needed good treatment in the West. “His body grew skinny, after a few serious surgeries on his spine, he looked sick; some said he had cancer, though he denied that,” Aleksei Venediktov, Echo of Moscow editor-in-chief, recalled in an interview for The Daily Beast on Monday.
In 2014 bad news began to rain in from all sides on Lesin, right about the time when anti-American rhetoric reached its peak on Russian state television channels, in the midst of “the New Cold War” tensions with the United States. One of the worst pieces of news for Lesin was a letter that Sen. Roger Wicker (R-MS) sent to the U.S. Justice Department, asking to investigate how Lesin, a civil servant, could afford a $28 million property in California. The Mississippi senator suggested that Lesin’s property could only have been purchased with the help of U.S.-sanctioned persons or groups.
Meanwhile back in Moscow, the opposition leader and corruption fighter Aleksei Navalny, shamed Lesin’s pseudo-patriotism.
“Here is Mikhail Lesin, current head of Gazprom–Media, one of the key men responsible for conducting censorship … a big patriot and fan of news reports about evil America and about the greatness of Putin,” Navaly wrote in his blog in July, 2014. “As any ‘patriot on the state budget’ Lesin has a full kit of evidence to prove his patriotism.”
And yet, the accusations of corruption and of pricey real estate in the U.S. did not play any immediate role in Lesin’s professional life—he managed to keep his post as the head of Gazprom–Media Holding for six more months, until January 2015. Venediktov, who was friends with Lesin in the early 1990s, became ideological enemies with Lesin on the battlefield for freedom of speech. Lesin undermined Venediktov’s authority at Echo—but thanks to Venediktov’s devoted team of reporters, the radio station fought back against Lesin and survived.
But even being on different sides of the ideological barricades, Venediktov and Lesin stayed in touch. It was Venediktov whom Lesin had called after Boris Nemtsov’s murder, complaining that he had nobody else with whom to remember the time they were all friends back in the 1990s.
Lesin is not a rare exception. All of the Kremlin’s top figures have a human being underneath their gray and blue custom-tailored suits, with their personal weaknesses. Sometimes greed or pride or fear spread all the way across Russia’s borders. “If you see a Russian civil servant buying a wildly luxurious mansion or a palace, you can be confident, that the invested millions were stolen from the Russian state budget—and the further away they take the money, the more carefully they tuck it in, registering the estates in some offshore company name or in some relative’s name, the more obvious the lie looks,” Duma Deputy Dmitry Gudkov told The Daily Beast.
This year Putin had to fire his closest ally, Vladimir Yakunin, from the post of president of the Russian Railways, after Yakunin’s son applied for British citizenship. The details of Yakunin’s shameful end became public. Not many of the Kremlin’s secrets stay hidden for too long. Children and grandchildren of Putin’s biggest patriots, including his friend Yakunin or his press secretary Dmitry Peskov, live in Switzerland, France, Great Britain, or the United States.
To top it all off, another shocking news report appeared on Tuesday—and not from some dubious website but by Reuters: Putin’s own daughter, Katerina Tikhonova, has a huge mansion in Biarritz, France, worth $3.7 million.
“Any sane bureaucrat today understands that everything, including medical education for their children, their own lifestyle, is better in the USA or in Europe; most of them are awful hypocrites for keeping Russia in the dark, telling lies about their patriotism,” Gudkov told The Daily Beast on Monday.
Gudkov added that “the most cynical officials” build multimillion-dollar palaces and mansions inside Russia’s borders. Navalny’s anti-corruption foundation recently published a report with photographs of a newly built mansion with a tilted roof worth over $12 million. According to Navalny, that palatial estate on the outskirts of Moscow belonged to Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu. The minister has not yet commented on Navalny’s allegations.
Talking of his deceased former friend Lesin, Venediktov was reluctant to blame the former Russian Minister of Press for any sins. “Misha has gone, that’s all I can say,” he said.
Venediktov confirmed that in the last few months of his life, “Lesin was trapped in problems, investigated in the U.S., facing debts of about $90 million here in Russia.” As such, he expressed doubts about the current version of Lesin’s death. “He did not have any ID on him in the hotel room, that is very strange; his family were not with him when he died. They sounded too quick to jump on the heart attack version, as if they were trying to secure some different story,” Venediktov added, expressing a hope to hear the truth about Lesin’s last secret one day soon.