NYT: Mikhail Lesin’s Strange Death In U.S. Follows A Fall from Russia’s Elite

WASHINGTON — As happens sometimes with wealthy Russians, Mikhail Y. Lesin found his business and political fortunes in Vladimir Putin’s Russia crumbling. Once an influential player in Mr. Putin’s rise to power, he was abruptly dismissed from his position in the Kremlin’s powerful media apparatus.

Perhaps sensing that things could get worse, he seemed to be preparing for a new life in America.

The trappings of a comfortable exile were already in place. He had created a corporation in Los Angeles to buy expensive homes. His son and daughter had lived there. Mr. Lesin, 57, traveled regularly to the United States with a new girlfriend, who gave birth in September.

“He finished his business in Russia, if you will, and was looking for another life,” said Sergei V. Aleksashenko, a former deputy of Russia’s central bank who moved to the United States after taking part in protests against Mr. Putin.

Instead, the new life abruptly came to an end.

On the morning of Nov. 5, Mr. Lesin was found dead inside a hotel room in Washington, where he had been invited to attend a fund-raising dinner for the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars at the Ritz-Carlton hotel in the city’s West End two nights before.

He never appeared at the event. Nor did he respond to phone calls or a text message from the fellow Russian who had invited him, Pyotr Aven, a banker and philanthropist who was honored at the dinner, at which sponsorships were $10,000.

It took more than four months for the city’s medical examiner to announce the cause of death. It was not a heart attack, as the Russian news media initially reported, but rather “blunt force injuries.” But the autopsy left the manner of death undetermined.

That has fueled speculation that Mr. Lesin might have been murdered, presumably by a financial or political rival. Not only that, but it has also given rise to more outlandish theories about what he was doing in the capital of a country that the news media — the one he did more than most to build — regularly vilifies as a decadent, hostile enemy of Russia.

In Mr. Putin’s Russia, such speculation is not without cause, even in the absence of evidence thus far. Other once prominent members of the Russian elite who have fallen out of favor have died in unexplained circumstances — from Alexander Litvinenko, who was poisoned with radioactive polonium in 2006 to Alexander Perepilichny, a whistle-blower who died while jogging in England in 2012, apparently from an exotic toxin.

What is not in question is that Mr. Lesin’s fall in Russia came swiftly, unexpectedly and with little official explanation.

He stepped down as the head of the media subsidiary of Russia’s natural gas giant, Gazprom, after little more than a year in a job that had thrust him back into the center of the Kremlin’s efforts to shape its image ahead of the Winter Olympics in Sochi in 2014.

He seemed poised to join a new wave of economic or political exiles that has flowed from Russia as Mr. Putin’s attitude and policies toward the West have sharpened significantly.

“Obviously, he was running away,” said Yevgenia Albats, a prominent journalist and commentator whose reporting provoked Mr. Lesin’s ire.

Climb in News Media

What made Mr. Lesin’s death so notable was the influential role he played during Mr. Putin’s ascent to power.

An engineer by training, he had founded an advertising company in the 1990s that became one of the country’s most important. His expertise landed him jobs with the official Russian news agency, RIA Novosti, then the All-Russian State Television and Radio Broadcasting Company, where he was accused of using his position to funnel contracts to his former advertising company, Video International.

In 1999, he became the minister of the press during the twilight of Boris N. Yeltsin’s presidency, having been instrumental in Mr. Yeltsin’s re-election three years earlier. Although not initially part of Mr. Putin’s closest circle of advisers, he remained minister during Mr. Putin’s first term as president and was instrumental in his efforts to wrest control over national television networks from the tycoons who ran them.

When the owner of the independent network NTV, Vladimir Gusinsky, was arrested in 2000, it was Mr. Lesin who visited him in prison and pressed him to sign a legally dubious agreement that dropped the criminal charges. He did so in exchange for the sale of the station to Gazprom “at a price to be determined by Gazprom,” according to a 2004 ruling by the European Court of Human Rights.

In Mr. Putin’s second term, Mr. Lesin served as a senior presidential adviser in the Kremlin, and, most significant, started Russia Today, the nation’s first 24-hour all-news television network broadcasting in English (and later other languages). Known today simply as RT, the network has become a potent weapon in the information war the Kremlin believes it is fighting against the West.

Mr. Lesin’s position in the Kremlin ended in 2009 when he had a falling out with Mr. Putin’s successor for one term, Dmitri A. Medvedev. He was dismissed, one of Mr. Medvedev’s aides told Interfax, because of his “failure to observe the rules and ethical behavior of state service.” That was apparently a reference to his continued business interests in an industry he formally oversaw.

He returned, though, after Mr. Putin assumed the presidency for a third term. In October 2013, he took over Gazprom Media, the subsidiary of the energy giant that through a complicated ownership structure is controlled by one of Mr. Putin’s confidants, Yuri V. Kovalchuk, the main shareholder of Bank Rossiya. Mr. Kovalchuk and Bank Rossiya each face sanctions by the United States for their ties to Mr. Putin.

Within two months, Mr. Lesin oversaw the acquisition of Prof-Media, a subsidiary of one of Russia’s richest industrialist, Vladimir O. Potanin. Prof-Media owned television networks like MTV Russia, as well as radio stations and magazines. The deal, reported to be worth $600 million at the time, was seen as the Kremlin’s effort to bring even more independent media outlets under state political and financial control.

“There is a danger that Lesin will use his administrative resources not only to serve the interests of his bosses, but also to settle old scores,” a columnist, Yulia Latynina, wrote in The Moscow Times in December 2013.

Mr. Lesin did clash with the remaining vestiges of independent news media. Aleksei A. Venediktov, the editor of the radio station Ekho Moskvy, which is partly owned by Gazprom Media but ostensibly independent, said Mr. Lesin had invited him to dinner at one of Moscow’s fanciest restaurants and pressed him to dismiss several journalists who appeared on the air or on the station’s website, including Ms. Latynina.

Mr. Venediktov successfully resisted. Many attributed his departure from Gazprom Media to the fight with Ekho Moskvy, but Mr. Venediktov said he believed that Mr. Lesin’s abrasive character and his handling of the acquisition of Prof-Media had brought him into conflict with Mr. Kovalchuk.

“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,” Mr. Venediktov wrote in an email.

Acquisitions in Los Angeles

Mr. Lesin’s return to an influential position atop Gazprom Media renewed attention on his own wealth.

In July 2014, Aleksei A. Navalny, the opposition leader whose Foundation for the Fight Against Corruption has become one of the most potent opposition organizations, published records that showed Mr. Lesin’s acquisition of several expensive homes in and near Los Angeles to be seemingly beyond the means of a government minister for much of the previous 15 years.

Three years earlier, Mr. Lesin had incorporated a company in California, called Dastel, primarily to buy real estate. According to a deposition in a lawsuit involving his son, given by the corporation’s only officer, Ilya Tsipis, “various members of the extended Lesin family” lived in the properties the company bought.

A second company, HFC Management, was incorporated the same year in the name of his daughter, Ekaterina, and another, called Dastel Holdings, was formed in 2013.

The three companies bought two homes in Beverly Hills, at a cost of $13.8 million and $5.6 million, and another in Brentwood for $9 million.

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