- By David FrancisDavid Francis is a staff writer for Foreign Policy, where he oversees FP's breaking news blog, The Cable. An award-winning journalist, David has reported from all over Europe, Nigeria, Kenya, Mexico, and Afghanistan on terrorism, national security, the geopolitics of energy, global economics, and the European financial crisis. His work has been published in outlets including the Christian Science Monitor, the Financial Times Deutschland, Slate, and SportsIllustrated.com.
It was a story straight out of the Cold War, or a John le Carré novel. Mikhail Lesin, 57, former press minister to Russian President Vladimir Putin, was found dead last November in a Dupont Circle hotel room. His body was beat up. There had to be some foul play involved, right?
No. That’s according to Washington’s chief medical examiner and federal authorities, who released a statement Friday on the death nearly a year after it occurred. Their inquiry found Lesin died because he was on a days-long bender that left him dead on the floor of his room at The Dupont Circle Hotel.
“Based on the evidence, including video footage and witness interviews, Mr. Lesin entered his hotel room on the morning of Nov. 4 … after days of excessive consumption of alcohol and sustained the injuries that resulted in his death while alone in his hotel room,” said a statement issued by the chief federal prosecutor in Washington. Lesin “died as a result of blunt force injuries to his head, with contributing causes being blunt force injuries of the neck, torso, upper extremities, and lower extremities, which were induced by falls amid acute ethanol intoxication.”
The statement should throw water on conspiracy theories that Lesin was killed by the Kremlin. Some Russian bloggers thought he could be in a witness protection program for agreeing to pass information about Putin’s inner circle to American authorities. Others thoughts he could have been involved in a drunken fight.
Lesin was in Washington to attend a dinner for the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars at the time of his death. He helped found RT, an international media outlet widely criticized for being a propaganda arm of the Kremlin. He also served as head of Gazprom-Media, a Russian state controlled media giant. In other words, he was a guy who would have known where some of Putin’s proverbial bodies are buried.
“Lesin made enemies of all the heads of the federal TV channels, all the heads of advertising agencies and all media owners with his policies,” Aleksei A. Venediktov, the editor of the radio station Ekho Moskvy, told the New York Times in April.
His investments in the United States drew scrutiny both from Russia’s elite and American authorities. In July 2014, Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny publicized Lesin’s purchase of expensive homes in the Los Angeles area that seemed too expensive for someone on a government salary. The FBI was investigating Lesin for corruption and money-laundering charges at the time of his death, surrounding nearly $30 million in real estate investments in California with his son.
In the twilight of the Soviet Union, while oligarchs seized Russia’s natural resources, Lesin turned to television to make his fortune. He came to the national stage working for former President Boris Yeltsin and ousted competitors such as oligarch Vladimir Gusinsky, founder of Russian television channel NTV, during Putin’s rise to power.
In a 2014 letter to then-Attorney General Eric Holder, Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) requested the Department of Justice investigate Lesin for violating the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. In it, Wicker alleged that Lesin “led the Kremlin’s effort to censor Russia’s independent television outlets” and “acquired multiple residences for $28 million” in the Los Angeles area.
Other prominent Russians in Putin’s orbit have died in mysterious circumstances. Alexander Litvinenko, a former FSB officer who began informing to British intelligence, was murdered in London in the first-ever case of nuclear assassination when radioactive polonium-210 was found in his tea. A British public inquiry later determined that Putin likely approved Litvinenko’s assassination.
Boris Berezovsky, a Russian business oligarch who helped orchestrate Putin’s rise to power, later became critical of Putin’s power grabs. He was found hanged in his apartment in London.
Earlier this month, British bank NatWest, a subsidiary of the Royal Bank of Scotland, closed RT’s bank accounts after telling its London office, “We have recently undertaken a review of your banking arrangements with us and reached the conclusion that we will no longer provide these facilities.” The move was widely seen as a stand up to RT’s propaganda.
FP Staff Writer Robbie Gramer contributed to this post.
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