On November 5, 2015, Mikhail Yuriyevich Lesin, close confidante of Russian President Vladimir Putin and founder of the website Russia Today, which the Columbia Journalism Review called, “The Kremlin’s propaganda outlet,” was found dead in his Washington D.C. Dupont Circle hotel room.
Despite multiple bruises on Mr. Lesin’s head, neck and upper-body, including signs of blunt force trauma that would indicate he died a violent death, initial reports indicated the 57-year-old Russian died of a simple heart attack.
“Mikhail Lesin, a prominent Russian political figure and mass media expert credited with inspiring the creation of Russia Today (now RT), has died in Washington, DC after a heart attack,” claimed RT.com 36 hours after his death. “U.S. Police found no signs of foul play, but a formal investigation has been launched. It has been reported that Lesin had been suffering from a prolonged unidentified illness.”
Kremlin critics immediately were skeptical of the claims. Why, they wondered, was Mr. Lesin, a billionaire, alone in a mid-level hotel where rooms cost only $190 a night? Why wasn’t he at a more luxurious hotel where people of his stature more frequently stayed? Why, if he died from heart failure, was his body covered in bruises?
Despite the concerns of those close to Mr. Lesin who believed his death was related to foul play, his family, the Russian government and investigators in the United States refused to suggest he had been murdered.
Nearly a year later, however, the United States attorney for D.C., responding to a report from D.C. Medical Examiner’s office, concluded Mr. Lesin died from injuries he sustained following a fall after a bout of “extreme ethanol intoxication.”
“Based on the evidence, including video footage and witness interviews, Mr. Lesin entered his hotel room on the morning of Wednesday, Nov. 4, 2015, 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 from the office of U.S. attorney, Channing D. Phillips.
The report claimed Mr. Lesin, who was in town to attend an awards banquet at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, an event scheduled two days before his death at which he failed to appear, suffered fatal injuries while alone in his room, but three FBI agents and an intelligence officer told Buzzfeed News this month that he was actually murdered and the US government was covering up the real cause of his death.
“Lesin was beaten to death,” Buzz Feed reported one of the agents said. “I would implore you to say as much. There seems to be an effort here to cover up that fact for reasons I can’t get into.” The agent went on to say that no one in the FBI “…believes this guy got drunk, fell down, and died. Everyone thinks he was whacked and that Putin or the Kremlin were behind it.”
The agents also reported the Russian was due to meet with the Justice Department the day after his death to discuss the “inner workings of RT” and to cut a deal to remain in the United States following his resignation from Gazprom-Media, the giant Russia media conglomerate that he ran until 12 January 2015. It was the Justice Department, according to the agents, who paid for Mr. Lesin’s hotel room.
Conspiracy Theories Abound
The change in the cause of Mr. Lesin’s death caused a proliferation of conspiracy theories to pop up both in the United States and in Russia.
Many skeptics, including Yasily Gatov, a senior Russian media figure, believed Mr. Lesin was murdered by the Russian government. He believed Mr. Lesin was killed because he planned to cooperate with the Americans and would share information about Russia Today, which had hired former Trump Administration National Security Adviser Michael Flynn to deliver a speech at an RT.com gala for nearly $40,000, a speech delivered little more than a month after Mr. Lesin’s death.
In the audience was Russian President Putin. Mr. Gatov claimed that Mr. Lesin had given up drinking in 2013 after the birth of his daughter. “With the birth of his baby, it was important to him to be alive,” Gatov told reporters.
Other theories include Mr. Lesin actually faked his own death and is living in witness protection somewhere in the United States and that he was murdered by Yury Kovalchuk, reputedly President Putin’s personal banker, to whom Mr. Lesin allegedly owed substantial amounts of money.
A History of Murdering Critics
To date, none of the theories surrounding Mr. Lesin’s death have been proven. But what is know is the Russian government has a long history of murdering its critics, a history that has been well-documented by independent media outlets throughout the world.
Buzzfeed wrote a story released in June 2017 detailing 14 murders in the UK tied to Russia that London was “largely ignoring,” according to the report.
The Washington Post wrote a similar story detailing the deaths of 10 critics of Putin’s, all of which met violent or suspicious ends. Among the stories recounted was that of Boris Nemtsov, who was assassinated just hours after calling for protesters to join in demonstrations against Russia’s crimes in Ukraine.
The report also recounted the death of journalist Anna Politkovskaya, who wrote a scathing book called “Putin’s Russia,” where she accused the Russian president of turning the country into a police state.
The New York Times wrote a story about the death of former Russian law maker and critic of Vladimir Putin’s, Denis N. Voronenkov, in March 2017. Mr. Voronenkov, who fled Russia with his wife, Maria Maksakova, a fellow lawmaker and opera singer with the Bolshoi, was about to testify against former Ukrainian president and Putin ally Viktor F. Yanukovych, and to share insider information about Moscow’s plans prior to the 2014 Russian annexation of Crimea when he was shot to death by an assassin using a Russian-made TT handgun.
And in June, The New Yorker released a report called “Are Russian Operatives Attacking Putin’s Critics in the U.S.?” The story by Dexter Filkins recounted the assassination attempt on Paul Joyal, a former Russian government official who had appeared on Dateline in 2007 with a number of other Russians discussing the mysterious death of Alexander Litvinenko, a dissident who perished under mysterious circumstances.
Just four days after his appearance, two men attacked Mr. Joyal outside his home in Adelphi, Maryland and wrestled him to the ground. One attacker ordered the second to shoot Mr. Joyal, but the assailant’s gun jammed and the would-be killers ran off.
American intelligence and law enforcement agencies have long known that President Putin and his government employ assassination as a means to silence his critics, but, until recently, they believed the acts of violence were confined to Europe. Now, they worry Putin’s hit men are on American shores, preparing to silence more of their leader’s critics taking refuge in the States.
Anna Chapman and “Col. Shcherbakov”
American intelligence agents shouldn’t be surprised if it turns out Mr. Lesin was murdered by Russian assassins sent here by Moscow. The Guardian reported in 2010 that an assassin had been dispatched from Russia to murder a double agent, reportedly named “Colonel Shcherbakov”, who exposed spy Anna Chapman and others in the “Illegals Program,” a network of agents living in the United States.. Col. Shcherbakov reportedly headed the directorate in the SVR (foreign intelligence office) that managed these sleeper agents in the United States, according to the paper.
The FBI, acting on information from the colonel, arrested 10 agents, including Miss Chapman, and broke up the ring. The ten spies were later exchanged for four men accused on spying on Russia for the CIA and MI6.
Col. Shcherbakov, according to the National Review, defected to the United States, along with his son, a former agent of Russia’s Federal Drug Enforcement Service, and his daughter, who was already living in the United States. The colonel’s son left Russia for the U.S. shortly before the sleeper cell ring was exposed.
After the sleeper agents were returned to Moscow, Vladimir Putin was quoted saying his government had identified the “traitor” and knew his identity. “It always ends badly for traitors: as a rule, their end comes from drink or drugs, lying in the gutter. And for what?” asked the Russian leader, foreshadowing the death of Mr. Lesin.
Buzzfeed announced this week that it has filed suit against the U.S. government, seeking “…to compel the swift release of investigative records and other documents about Lesin.”
While it is difficult to draw a conclusion from the circumstantial evidence available, especially considering the FBI has released no information of their own on Mr. Lesin’s death, but questions will linger as long as the official pronouncement that the Russian billionaire’s death was an accident differs dramatically from the conclusion apparently drawn by agents of the FBI, itself.