In early November, Russian millionaire Mikhail Lesin was found dead in a Washington, D.C., hotel room. Lesin was very useful to Russian President Vladimir Putin in life, and his mysterious demise was extraordinarily well-timed. Two months later, there are still no official answers to questions about how he died or what he was doing in Washington, D.C.
He was known as “The Bulldozer,” and what he bulldozed was opposition media in Russia, which had been almost entirely replaced by State-funded, state-friendly, and outright state-controlled outlets by the time he was done.
In early 2015, he stepped down from an influential position as head of Gazprom-Media, in what some observers believed was the final act of a losing power struggle against rivals in Putin’s inner circle. Others have suggested Western sanctions played a role in forcing Lesin out.
Gazprom is Russia’s state-run energy company. Why does it have a media arm? Because there were uppity independent media outlets that needed to be assimilated and reprogrammed into regime-friendly mouthpieces.
Lesin lived a flashy millionaire lifestyle, complete with a hot young fashion model girlfriend picked up soon after his marriage fell apart. He had a huge amount of money tied up in American real estate … but he was also said to be deep in debt to one of Vladimir Putin’s best friends, billionaire Yury Kovalchuk.
As the Daily Mail noted at the time, one of the most surprising things about Lesin’s checking out for good from a Washington, D.C., hotel room is that he was in Washington, D.C. His presence in the American capital was viewed as nearly inexplicable, since Russian elites were well aware of mounting American hostility over Putin’s adventures in Ukraine and Syria.
Lesin had even more reason to steer clear of D.C. than most because his business dealings had already attracted the attention of Congress and the Justice Department, and maybe even an active FBI investigation.
As The Daily Beast observes, Lesin was “suspected of hiding ill-gotten gains in nearly $30 million worth of luxury real estate in southern California, an astounding set of assets for a man supposedly collecting a civil servant’s salary.” Why, if he had gotten any richer from “public service,” he might have started eyeing real estate in Chappaqua.
The Daily Beast’s article on Lesin on Sunday pointed out that he has been dead for months, but the official cause of death still has not been released, and the reason for his presence in Washington has not been nailed down. Russian media rushed to declare the hearty 57-year-old dead from a “heart attack,” but if that was the case, it seems likely the results of his autopsy would have long ago been made public.
The most creative conspiracy theories hold that Lesin is not really dead, and his apparent hotel-room demise was an elaborate fakeout to cover his move into U.S. government protection while he dishes inside intelligence on Putin. The more common theory is that he was going to cooperate with the FBI and may have been silenced by Russian operatives. It is hard to imagine any other reason he would venture to D.C., and it may be significant that his relatively modest hotel was conveniently located near FBI and Justice Department headquarters.
Lesin had good reason to worry about the fate of his U.S. holdings, if criminal charges had been pursued against him. His son Anton Lessine is described as an up-and-coming Hollywood producer, whose latest project, Dirty Grandpa starring Robert De Niro, is due in theaters within two weeks.
And Lesin would most likely have had a great deal of information to haggle over with U.S. investigators. He had close ties to other Russian elites under sanction, including the man to whom he supposedly owed a great deal of money, Yury Kovalchuk. The Daily Beast cites Russian media speculation that Lesin was on the run from Kovalchuk over those debts.
The Daily Mail reported on Christmas Eve that Lesin’s sudden death had left his $35 million superyacht abandoned at a marina in Brisbane, Australia. It is quite a boat: a 55-meter Heesen yacht called Serenity, with six cabins spread over four decks and a “celestial atmosphere” that includes paintings of blue sky and fluffy clouds on the ceiling of the master stateroom. It sounds very much like the sort of yacht a high roller in an espionage thriller would own. It is always suspicious when someone with a lot to live for – and a lot of enemies who would find it convenient for him to stop living – dies young, in a place where he was not supposed to be.