The death of one of Russia’s most influential media figures in Washington, combined with all its mysterious circumstances, led to a great deal of speculation in both Russian and foreign media. Amidst this speculation, it’s important to understand the background of Lesin and why he is such an important figure. 

Mikhail Lesin, former aide to the Russian President. Phhoto: RIA Novosti

The death of Mikhail Lesin, one of Russia's most famous media figures and former aide to Russian President Vladimir Putin, still concerns American police detectives and the Russian authorities. Last week, new circumstances of the case put Lesin's story back in the spotlight. The department of forensic sciences of the Washington Metropolitan Police Department determined that Lesin's death was caused by foul play.

The announcement resonated with both Russian and foreign media. In the 1990s and early 2000s, Lesin played a leading role in creating and consolidating media companies in Russia, including the creation of precursors to today’s state-run propaganda. Going back to the Yeltsin era, Lesin was privy to the backdoor actions of media bosses and the political establishment and had a hand in controversial media market deals.

Mass media cardinal

Lesin played a prominent part in the development of the modern Russian media market. For example, he served as the first deputy to the chairman of the All-Russia State Television and Radio Broadcasting Company (VGTRK, Russia's largest state television company) and was one of the creators of Russia Today (now known as RT), which is generally perceived in the West as the Kremlin's propaganda mouthpiece. 

During the second presidential election in Russia in 1996, Lesin was a member of President Boris Yeltsin's campaign team and is believed to have come up with the "Vote With Your Heart" slogan. Later on, towards the end of the first President's era, he was appointed the Minister of Press, Broadcasting and Mass Communications. He held the position from 1999 until 2004. 

During his ministerial years, Lesin took part in the notorious transfer of Vladimir Gusinsky's Media Most assets. Gusinsky positioned himself as an independent media manager. With Lesin actively involved, Gusinsky's assets were transferred over to Gazprom, the company that is close to the federal authorities and often does the Kremlin's bidding. Experts see this process as a milestone that marks the beginning of the onslaught on independent media outlets that are critical of the government.

Lesin was also the President's aide, but was let go in November 2004, the grounds for the dismissal being the "failure to comply with civil service regulations and uphold ethical standards." Analysts believe that Lesin was too actively involved in business transactions and fell prey to a conflict of interest.

Some think that he did not hit it off with then President Dmitry Medvedev. "The way I see it, he had a keen personality, so they clashed. His political role was already weak, and he failed to find a common language with Dmitry Medvedev. After Lesin left the public service, he did not have a close relationship with Putin either," says Alexey Makarkin, the first vice president of the Center for Political Technologies.

Four years later, Lesin was invited to head up Russia's largest media holding company, Gazprom-Media. With him in charge, the company acquired three TV channels, four radio stations, a motion picture company and a production company. On Jan. 12, 2015, Lesin resigned his position as the general director of the holding company.

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Makarkin explained that Lesin de facto performed the nationalization of electronic media in the late 1990s-early 2000s.  

"He actively implemented the state policy. However, he was not a civil servant. For a while, he was involved in private business, but before he died, he was not in charge of anything anymore. He was just a rich private person, a millionaire," Makarkin remarks.

Lesin was not looking for a new job. His ship had sailed, according to Pavel Salin, the director of the Center for Political Studies at the Financial University under the Russian Government. 

"He had a conflict with his former masters, could not find a way to apply himself here and left the market. He understood that in the near future his services would not be required," Salin says.

Mysterious death

Lesin passed away on Nov. 5, 2015 at a Dupont Circle hotel in Washington, D.C. His friends told the press that the media tycoon started drinking heavily the day before. When intoxicated, he felt disoriented, often fell and was not himself. It has been rumored that he arrived in D.C. to meet with Pyotr Aven, the head of Alfa Bank, Russia's largest private bank. They knew each other well. However, the meeting never happened.

An intoxicated Lesin checked into the hotel where he acted strangely, according to the hotel staff. When security came to check on the guest, he was sleeping on the floor and refused to move to the bed. Later, the room attendant found him on the floor dead. Initially, it was reported that he might have died of a heart attack. On Mar. 10 though, D.C. authorities shared autopsy results and stated that the former public servant's body exhibited traces of injuries that could be fatal. The information on how Lesin sustained these injuries has not been made public.

Maria Zakharova, the official representative of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) of the Russian Federation, addressed speculation about possible causes of Lesin's death. On her Facebook page, she wrote that Russia awaited official information and explanations from the U.S. pertaining to the investigation of Lesin's death.

"The joint statement of the forensic expert and Metropolitan police said that the cause of Mr. Lesin's death had not been determined yet and the police 'continue to investigate it actively'," Zakharova wrote.

"The Russian Embassy in the U.S. used its diplomatic channels to submit a number of queries on the status of the investigation into the death of a Russian citizen. The American side has not provided us with any substantial information. We expect Washington to present relevant explanations and the official data on the status of the investigation. If media speculations turn out to be true, competent Russian authorities will submit a legal assistance request to the U.S.," she added.

Makarkin is positive that the MFA's response is appropriate, and the same procedure would be observed for any other Russian citizen if the circumstances of his/her death were suspicious.

"Most likely, the U.S. will provide the information, and it will be what we already know. If an American died at a Russian hotel, American authorities' response would have been the same," the political scientist pointed out.

Lesin's body was cremated and he was buried in California.

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Why Lesin was still a key figure at the time of his death

The death of a famous media personality under suspicious circumstances brought on various hypotheses and versions of what had actually happened. Some believe that Lesin decided to cooperate with the F.B.I. and was killed for it.  Others speculate that his death was staged, and that the Russian millionaire is living under an alias as part of the federal witness protection program.

More turmoil ensued after U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) released information on Lesin crossing the U.S. border 40 days after his official death. However, USCIS then came up with an odd explanation and stated that this was a regular procedure for persons without an immigrant visa who died on U.S. territory.

Salin thinks that Lesin could be a valuable source of information for foreigners interested in understanding the mechanisms of Russian media manipulation and propaganda, "This man participated in building the propaganda system over the past 10 years, first as a minister, then as a close advisor to informal media tycoons. He knew all the back alley schemes for consolidating media assets. He knew all the details of the modern information manipulation machine. That made him valuable. He was no longer in charge, so his main asset was the information he possessed."

Formally, many Russian media position themselves as independent, but they are still implementing a unified information policy, Salin explains, just like Lesin could have explained it. "In Russia, there are still people who have that kind of data, and for foreigners he was a valuable source," the expert points out.

However, in spite of his obvious prominence, Lesin's death is not likely to be the reason for another conflict between the U.S. and Russia

"Presently, there are a few other major contested issues, such as Syria and Ukraine," Makarkin says. "There are too many unconfirmed rumors about his death. It is just a sad ending for one man. The two countries had nothing to do with it initially. They tuned in after the beginning of the investigation."