Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Fall of the Emigre: A Second Look at the Mysterious Death of Mikhail Lesin

by Nomad


For those who appreciate a conspiracy theory, the baffling death of Mikhail Lesin is straight out of a John le Carré spy novel. Officially, it was ruled as an accident and yet, given current events, Lesin's demise becomes even more suspicious.

Blunt Force Trauma

When the doors of the luxurious suite at the Doyle Dupont Circle Hotel were opened on the Thursday morning of November 5, 2015, Russian emigre, Mikhail Yuriyevich Lesin was found dead and alone. He was found without any identification in a hotel room that was under his name. Police detected no obvious signs of forced entry.
After some delay, a member from the Russian Embassy in Washington, D.C., confirmed the identity as that of 57-year old Lesin.

Traveling from Los Angeles, Lesin 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.

However, he had not appeared at the event and had failed to respond to phone calls or text messages from the fellow Russian who had invited him, a banker and philanthropist who was honored at that dinner.
Lesin's failure to attend must have seemed peculiar. He had recently confirmed he would be there and was flying into Washington specifically for the ceremony.

In fact, Lesin had been listed among other numerous guests. It meant, as one investigator points out, that "his potential presence could have been known to a large number of people, not all of whom were necessarily his well-wishers."

Initially, the cause of death was thought to be a heart attack and this was widely reported in the Russian media. Later, an autopsy ruled that the cause of death was “blunt force injuries” and left the police investigation to determine the full story.

In late October 2016, almost a year after Lesin's death, police officially closed the investigation. His death was classified as an accident.
The final autopsy report states that 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, with acute ethanol intoxication."

There were also a lot of questions unanswered. The most obvious one would probably be how anybody could mistake a heart attack for a blunt-force injury. 

The official statement read:
"Based on evidence gathered during the investigation, Mr. Lesin, 57, entered his room at the Dupont Circle Hotel for the final time at about 10:48 a.m., on Wednesday, November 4, 2015, after days of excessive consumption of alcohol. Based on the evidence, including video footage and witness interviews, Mr. Lesin entered his hotel room on the morning of Wednesday, November 4, 2015, after days of excessive consumption of alcohol and sustained the injuries that resulted in his death while alone in his hotel room.
The medical examiner determined Lesin's death was caused by injuries “induced by falls.” The scenario may not be altogether implausible. Accidental falls of intoxicated victims often result in death, especially in bathrooms.

One Russian independent television channel, Dozhd, states that Lesin met up with a friend on the night of his death, became deeply intoxicated and very likely got into an altercation. After this beating, he returned to his hotel room and died.
So, in this explanation, the injuries were incurred outside of the hotel. If so, then this would still be murder or manslaughter and require an investigation.

D.C. police spokesperson Rachel Reid told the Russian news agency RIA Novosti:
“After discussing the case with our murder investigations team, we have no reason to suspect that this was a suspicious death."

However, this July, Buzzfeed broke a story which cast considerable doubt on the official story.  
Based on the comments of two FBI agents and a U.S. intelligence officer, the authors claimed that Lesin was assassinated in Washington on the eve of his meeting with the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) officials. Allegedly, he was beaten to death with a baseball bat. BuzzFeed quoted the medical examiner’s office statement that the death was caused by a “blunt force injuries of the head”. Besides the injuries just mentioned, it was discovered that “he had fractured ribs.”
One of Buzzfeed's sources, an FBI agent, has no doubt that Lesin was beaten to death and there was some kind of coverup going on for reasons he could not reveal. He put it this way:
“What I can tell you is that there isn’t a single person inside the Bureau who believes this guy got drunk, fell down, and died. Everyone thinks he was whacked and that Putin or the Kremlin were behind it.”
Despite this, an independent Russian news outlet, Meduza, criticized Buzzfeed's article, claiming that the article was "based on anonymous sources without firsthand knowledge of the investigation into Lesin’s death."
But if it were indeed a "whack job" then why was Lesin killed?
That's where things get interesting.

Death of a Right-Hand Man

Lesin's death did not mark the first time a high-level Russian emigre died in a suspicious manner.
In March 2013, for example, a Russian billionaire, Boris Berezovsky, who had fled to Britain after falling out with Mr. Putin was found dead inside a locked bathroom at his Berkshire home, with a ligature around his neck, in an apparent suicide. Russia had repeatedly failed to obtain the extradition from Britain after being convicted in absentia of fraud and embezzlement. So, Berezovsky's suicide was exceedingly fortuitous for the Kremlin.

Added to that list, opposition politicians, and too-curious investigative journalists such as Stanislav Markelov and Anastasia Baburova and Natalia Estemirova.  

Since the beginning of 2014, 38 prominent Russians became victims of unsolved murders or suspicious deaths.
The list contains 10 high-profile critics of Russian President Vladimir Putin, seven diplomats, six associates of Kremlin power brokers who had a falling out — often over corruption — and 13 military or political leaders involved in the conflict in eastern Ukraine, including commanders of Russian-backed separatist forces. Two are possibly connected to a dossier alleging connections between President Trump's campaign staff and Kremlin officials that was produced by a former British spy and shared with the FBI.
That last line is, of course, a reference to the Steele dossier.

What about the Lesin case? What might have provoked Putin to take action?
According to some unsubstantiated reports, Lesin was going to be interviewed by the DOJ officials who were interested in the inner workings of RT, Russian TV network. That media outlet has been described by US officials as a "propaganda bullhorn" for Moscow. As we shall see, Lesin was the go-to man for information on this subject.
That, however, seems likely to be only half - or less than half- of the story.

Russian Mad Men

At one time, Lesin was considered Putin's "right-hand man," particularly in matters relating to the media. As such, Lesin very likely possessed valuable information on what was going on in the Kremlin. This would have made Lesin a veritable treasure trove of information. And not solely about the way Russian propaganda operated.

From starting his own advertising company in the post-Soviet days under Yeltsin, in June 1999, Lesin would rise to become the head of the Ministry of Press, Broadcasting and Mass Communications of the Russian Federation.
This ministry oversees the functioning of mass media and mass communications, television and radio, including the Internet. Its Wikipedia entry points out the government agency also monitors:
"information interchange, broadcasting of additional information, computer networks of common usage in the area of electronic mass media, printing, activities in publishing.."

It is easy to see how vitally important the position was in Putin's plan to control public opinion through the media. 

This was a critical time in the post-Soviet era with the 1999 Russian parliamentary elections and the 2000 Russian presidential election providing the death blow to the idea of Western-style liberal democracy ever taking root in Russia. Prime Minister Putin succeeded Yeltsin as the Russian president, largely with the help of Lesin.
(This time period was also covered in another blog post, regarding the 1999 Moscow apartment bombings.)

Mikhail Lesin

Lesin was also instrumental in assisting Putin's demolition of the independent press in Russia. His crowning glory was the creation of Russia Today.
Known simply as RT, the nation’s first 24-hour all-news television network broadcasting in English (and later other languages) was to become Putin's most effective tool to competing with Western media and a means of disseminating pro-Putin propaganda.

According to Time,
Putin founded RT in 2005 with a budget of about $30 million and gradually ramped it up to more than $300 million per year by 2010.
Then-Secretary of State John Kerry denounced RT as a “propaganda bullhorn” for Putin. It has also been effective in creating an alternative narrative to Western media, particularly among the disenfranchised political extremes.
The aim of RT is to “inundate the viewer with theories about Western plots, to keep them dazed and confused,” says Peter Pomerantsev, a British expert on Russian propaganda.
Lesin's path to power was not without its rocks and pits. As the NYT piece points out:
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.
Given widespread corruption in Russia, this justification for Lesin's dismissal seems like a bad joke. This year, protests in 80 cities broke out when Medvedev was accused of setting up "a network of charities run by close associates to hide his control of assets including mansions, yachts, and even a vineyard."
From the looks of things, there are no clean hands in Putin's administration. Still, it might explain a few things about Lesin's source of wealth.

In any case, Lesin's dressing down was not to last too long. In October 2013, he took over Gazprom Media, the largest Russian media holding.
A short time after that, Lesin oversaw the takeover of Prof-Media which owned TV and radio stations as well as magazines. Independent media was increasingly falling under state control.

In the process of rising to the top of the heap, Lesin, with his abrasive character, made quite a few powerful enemies, which included "the heads of the federal TV channels, all the heads of advertising agencies and all media owners with his policies."

In 2011, he and his family were on the move and not to some dacha on the Black Sea. The Lesins, like the Clampetts, moved to Beverly Hills, California. How exactly this was arranged through the State Department is unexplained.
Russian journalist, and long-time critic of Lesin. Yevgenia Albats said:
“Obviously, he was running away.”
Perhaps, but the more you look at the situation, the stranger it seems. Even while living in Los Angeles, until December 2014, Lesin remained head of Gazprom-Media. Earlier that same year, he became chairman of the Russian Association of Film and Television Producers.
If that's running away, it's at a snail's pace.

His retirement in 2015 from all of his Russian connections that year allowed him and his family to live (and work) in sunny and glamorous California.
And that's when Lesin ran into problems.

Hollywood High Life and Public Scrutiny

A year before his death, Lesin and his activities in the US came under the spotlight. That spotlight put him in an extremely precarious position. 

On 21 August 2014, Business Insider published an article on Mr. Lesin and his high-flying family in Hollywood. The lavish lifestyle of the Lesins was raising questions about the source of the income. 

A Republican senator from Mississippi, Roger Wicker claimed that things did not add up when it came to Lesin. Lesin, Wicker noted, had "acquired multimillion-dollar assets in Europe, including an estate reportedly purchased through a company registered in the British Virgin Islands, during his tenure as a Russian civil servant."
Furthermore, Wicker charged, Lesin had "moved his immediate family to Los Angeles, California, where he acquired multiple residences at a cost of over $28 million."
In a letter sent to then-Attorney General Eric Holder, Wicker requested a Department of Justice investigation into whether Lesin's real estate purchases were part of violations of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act or Anti-Money Laundering statutes.
Where was all this money actually coming from? While there is no public or conclusive evidence that Lesin's money was derived from corruption, at least a Republican senator thought it was worth a closer look.

Wicker also noted that the activities of other members of Lesin's family were also suspicious. In addition to real estate purchases, Lesin's son, Anton Lessine, has reportedly managed to invest- or find investors- in some very high-profile projects, such as film ventures involve A-list stars like Brad Pitt, Woody Allen, and Arnold Schwarzenegger.

America has been very good to Little Anton.
With business partner Sasha Shapiro, Anton operates QED International, a film production studio, financier, and international distributor. The pair acquired a controlling interest in QED in May 2012, reportedly paying around $25 million.
Recent film hits include Dirty Grandpa, (starring Robert De Niro and Zac Efron) Fading Gigolo, Rock the Kasbah and Time Out of Mind.
The partners denied rumors going around Hollywood in 2014 that QED had encountered money problems after funding from Russia dried up. This, the rumor states, occurred in the wake of the plunge in the price of oil and economic sanctions imposed on Russia after war broke out in the Ukraine.
Nevertheless, in 2015, he bought a home in Pacific Palisades for the asking price of $3.995 million.

One theory that was floated at the time of his death was that Lesin might have come to D.C. for more than a banquet, but to cut a deal with the federal authorities. That deal would have involved disclosing what he knew about Russian money laundering in the US. Had he been willing to talk to the authorities, he certainly would have had blown the lid on schemes of Russian oligarchs to hide their money.

And yet, as big a deal as that would have been, it would have been only a tiny bit of what Lesin had to offer federal investigators. 

Disrupted Plans?

Apart from general corrupt practices in Russia, Lesin could have information about events in the works. To understand that, it is also important to look back at the timeline.

As an advisor to Putin, Lesin oversaw the regime’s propaganda push. In that capacity, he might well have known details about the Russian leader's plan to disrupt elections through social media.
All of these allegations preceded by well over a year Trump's declaration of his intention to run for president. Had Lesin revealed all that he knew- presumably in exchange for immunity for him and his family-Putin's bold plan to upset the US elections could have unraveled.

Today Mueller's investigation of Trump's connections to Russia and its oligarchs would most certainly involve the same kind of money laundering that Lesin was accused of by Senator Wicker. Russians using high-end U.S. real estate in places like Hollywood, Florida, New York and other areas of the country would all be linked together.

Yuri Felshtinsky, Russian American historian, the author of ‘Blowing up Russia: The Secret Plot to Bring Back KGB Power in an exhaustively researched article for Gordon.com, also makes the same connection.
Lesin’s death in 2015 coincided with the events that still affect the whole world these days: Kremlin’s operation aiding Donald Trump in his U.S. Presidential Campaign. It was an operation unprecedented in global history, and Russia Today, as a Government’s propaganda channel, played a major role in it. Lesin was familiar with all Russia Today’s inner workings since he was in its upper management for a long time. At the same time, he was a corrupt individual with an alcoholic propensity who frequently visited U.S., owned expensive real estate in the U.S. and whose family lived in the U.S. Willingly or merely under the pressure of circumstances, he could become a source of information that potentially could fatally harm Putin’s multilayered plan.
Putin, Felshtinsky states, could not have tolerated any risk of leaking that type of information. If this theory is true, then Lesin's mysterious death in 2015 effectively kept Putin's secret safe until the elections.

It might sound like wild speculation but Putin has always taken Felshtinsky's claims as a serious annoyance and, according to at least one investigator with contacts in the FBS, is rumored to have sent operatives to the US in order to plan Felshtinsky's elimination. 


There was also one further coincidence worth mentioning. It concerns the Russian who invited Lesin to Washington, Petr Olegovich Aven. Aven was given the Woodrow Wilson Award for Corporate Citizenship for his role in expanding understanding between Russians and Americans. He also heads Russia's largest commercial bank, Alfa Bank.

As you might recall, Alfa Bank would later be tied to the Trump-Russian collusion allegations.
In October of 2016 Slate magazine and the New York Times discovered that servers in Alfa Bank and in the Trump Organization were mysteriously communicating.A DailyKos article made this enticing suggestion:
The line of communication was designed to be discreet and specific to the two parties, not available to others, “configured something like a digital hotline connecting the two entities, shutting out the rest of the world, and designed to obscure its own existence”. Per Slate.."The conversation between the Trump and Alfa servers appeared to follow the contours of political happenings in the United States. At election-related moments the traffic peaked.”
When an investigative reporter from the New York Times attempted to obtain clarification by Alfa executives, the bank denied any involvement, "but shortly after that meeting, the Trump Domain name went cold." 
What was really going on is anybody's guess. 

More Than a Touch of Irony

With a worth of around $5.1 billion, Aven is understandably sensitive to any suggestion that he or his bank are in any way connected to the Trump scandal.
And he is willing to use American courts to protect his name.

In May 2017, Aven, along with fellow Alfa-Bank owners Mikhail Fridman and German Khan, filed a defamation lawsuit against BuzzFeed for publishing the unverified Donald Trump–Russia dossier, which alleges financial ties and collusion between Putin, Trump, and the three bank owners.
According to the dossier, the leading figures in Alpha were (and continue to be) on very good terms with the Russian leader.
To quote the dossier,
Significant favours continued to be done in both directions, primarily political ones for Putın and business/legal ones for Alpha. Also, Ridman and Aven continued to give informal advice to Putın on foreign policy, and especially about the US where he distrusted advice being given to him by officials.
Earlier this year, lawyers for Alfa Bank opened a lawsuit against Buzzfeed despite the fact the news site had expressly acknowledged the unverified and potentially unverifiable nature of the Steele dossier’s allegations.
Therefore, the case against Buzzfeed is very much a case against the free press. That's an irony that Lesin, as one of the destroyers of the independent media in Russia, would have appreciated.

If all that wasn't enough to digest, there's one final touch to add. And it's a doozey. When Alfa Bank launched the lawsuit, whom did the bank executives choose to represent them in court?

None other than Brian Benczkowski, who worked on Trump's campaign and his transition team between September and January. He is also the Republican Staff Director of the Senate Judiciary Committee and -drum rolls please- Trump's nominee to lead the Justice Department's criminal division.