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 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. 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 Putin.
Instead, the new life abruptly came to an end.
On the morning of Nov. 5, Lesin was found dead inside a hotel room in Washington, where he had been invited to attend a fundraising 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 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 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 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 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 Lesin’s ire.
Power in the Kremlin
What made Lesin’s death so notable was the influential role he played during 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 Co., 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 Yeltsin’s presidency, having been instrumental in Yeltsin’s re-election three years earlier. Although not initially part of Putin’s closest circle of advisers, he remained minister during 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 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 Putin’s second term, 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.
Lesin’s position in the Kremlin ended in 2009 when he had a falling out with Putin’s successor for one term, Dmitri A. Medvedev. He was dismissed, one of 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 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 Putin’s confidants, Yuri V. Kovalchuk, the main shareholder of Bank Rossiya. Kovalchuk and Bank Rossiya each face sanctions by the United States for their ties to Putin.
Within two months, Lesin oversaw the acquisition of Prof-Media, a subsidiary of one of Russia’s richest industrialists, 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.
Lesin did clash with the remaining vestiges of independent news media. Aleksei A. Venediktov, editor of the radio station Ekho Moskvy, which is partly owned by Gazprom Media but ostensibly independent, said 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 Latynina.
Venediktov successfully resisted. Many attributed his departure from Gazprom Media to the fight with Ekho Moskvy, but Venediktov said he believed that Lesin’s abrasive character and his handling of the acquisition of Prof-Media had brought him into conflict with 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,” Venediktov wrote in an email.
Acquisitions in Los Angeles
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 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, 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.
Lesin’s son, Anton, began to make his mark in Hollywood not long after. The son, who Anglicized his name to Lessine, and a partner, Sasha Shapiro, formed a film-financing company called Media Content Capital. And in 2012, they acquired a controlling stake in QED International, a film production and distribution company founded in 2002 by Bill Block, for $25 million. The company has since produced a series of major movies such as “Fading Gigolo,” with John Turturro and Woody Allen; “Fury,” with Brad Pitt; and, most recently, “Dirty Grandpa” with Robert De Niro and Zac Efron.
The revelations about Mikhail Y. Lesin’s investments in Los Angeles came at a time of heightened animosity toward the West as a result of the war in Ukraine. With senior Russian officials and businessmen facing sanctions by the United States and Europe, Putin intensified his warnings that businessmen should keep or return their fortunes to Russia.
Navalny’s disclosures also had an impact in Washington. Vladimir V. Kara-Murza, a prominent journalist and opposition activist in Russia, said he passed on documents about Lesin’s properties to members of Congress as part of a campaign to persuade the United States to impose sanctions against more officials.
Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., publicly called on the Justice Department to investigate what he said was suspicion of wrongdoing under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act and questioned Lesin’s ties to Kovalchuk, whom the Treasury Department identified as “the personal banker for senior officials,” including Putin.
More than four months later, an assistant attorney general, Peter J. Kadzik, replied that the matter had been referred to the Justice Department’s Criminal Division and the FBI. Then nothing happened.
A law enforcement official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations, said the referral was a formality, suggesting that no investigation followed.
Julie Davidson, director of the Kleptocracy Initiative at the Hudson Institute in Washington, a research organization that works to expose the investment of ill-gotten gains by foreign officials, expressed puzzlement that the allegations against Lesin did not appear to have prompted an investigation.
“There is no question that the U.S. has become a relatively comfortable haven for questionable fortunes,” she said.
Although no evidence has surfaced that implicated Lesin in any wrongdoing, the scrutiny appeared to have an effect in Russia. Navalny publicized the Justice Department’s reply to Wicker on his website on Dec. 14, 2014, mocking Lesin as a “patriot of California real estate.”
Within days, Lesin departed Gazprom Media, citing personal reasons.
Love and Litigation
In 2015, he retreated from public view. He regularly traveled to the United States on a tourist visa, visiting four times in the first 10 months of the year, usually to Los Angeles, according to a record of his travel disclosed by Navalny and confirmed by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection service. Lesin arrived one last time in Los Angeles on Oct. 21, only two weeks before his death.
Lesin, previously twice married, began a new relationship with a woman, Viktoria Rakhimbayeva, a model from Siberia, Aven said. “He really was in love,” he said. On Sept. 25, she gave birth to a daughter, Venediktov told his radio audience on Ekho Moskvy after Lesin’s death.
“When I learned of his death, my first thought was about the baby, actually,” Venediktov said. “This is a question of sympathy because, well, he’s dead and gone, but the girl with the baby — how is she?”
Even though he dropped from public view, his troubles at Gazprom Media followed him to the United States and were raised in 2015 in a lawsuit involving his son’s production company.
In late 2014, Block reached an agreement to depart QED International, leaving the entire company to Lessine and Shapiro. In April 2015, they sued Block for trademark infringement and unfair competition, accusing him of undercutting the company.
Block’s lawyer, Marty Singer, said in a statement at the time that Lesin was one of the company’s principals and said the lawsuit stemmed from a shortage of cash caused by Lesin’s departure from Gazprom Media and the reports of an investigation by the Justice Department.
The lawsuit was settled — with no terms disclosed — on the day Lesin’s body was found.
Little is known about the last days of Lesin’s life. One of his friends and former business partners, Sergei A. Vasilyev, told the newspaper Kommersant that Lesin had met friends from Russia who lived in Washington and was drinking heavily on the night of Nov. 2, a Monday.
Vasilyev, as well as Aven and others who knew him, said Lesin was known as a heavy drinker who would sometimes behave recklessly when intoxicated.
“The only thing I can tell you is that when Misha has failures,” Vasilyev said, referring to Lesin familiarly by the diminutive form of Mikhail, “there were instances where he fell and caused involuntary injury to himself, including quite heavily.”
The autopsy did not name the cause of the blunt trauma, leaving an open question whether it was a beating, a fall or a vehicle accident.
According to Vasilyev’s account, which he said was based on information from the Foreign Ministry, Lesin went to a liquor store on the morning of Nov. 3 — the day of the dinner he was to attend — and returned with alcohol to the hotel where he was staying, the Dupont Circle Hotel. It was that day when, Aven said, he called and sent a text message, but received no response.
Lesin was visited in his room on the night of Nov. 4 by a security guard who, finding him drunk, tried to help him into bed, Vasilyev said, but Lesin resisted. The next morning he was found dead in his room by a cleaner.
“How it is possible he did not call a doctor, the police, anyone?” Vasilyev said of the security guard. “I do not understand.”
A sales representative at the hotel said no one there would comment on his death. The medical examiner tested for alcohol in his blood, as a matter of routine. A spokeswoman would not discuss the details of those tests, citing privacy, but alcohol was not listed as a contributing factor in his death, only the trauma.
The police here continue to treat Lesin’s death as a natural death, though the criminal division is in charge of the investigation. Neither the FBI nor the Justice Department has taken a role in the investigation, according to officials from both agencies, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss an unresolved case, suggesting that it was being investigated as an untimely death but not a federal crime.
One of the officials said a security video showed Lesin returning to his hotel in a disheveled state, suggesting he had been in an accident or altercation the night of Nov. 4. In addition to the blunt trauma to the head, Lesin’s body had bruises on the neck, torso, arms and legs, but the cause of those was not clear.
The handling of the inquiry has raised questions in Russia. The medical examiner’s office completes most autopsies within 90 days, but Lesin’s took longer, as officials carried out a rigorous series of toxicological tests for poisons to be certain to rule out that sort of foul play. (The joint statement by the office and the Metropolitan Police also misstated Lesin’s age, which was 57, not 59.)
In March, Russia’s prosecutor general asked the Justice Department for more information about the case, according to an embassy spokesman, Yuri Y. Melnik, but according to him and a spokeswoman for the Foreign Ministry, neither the police nor federal officials have provided answers.
In the febrile, largely virtual world where opposition to Putin thrives, Lesin’s mere presence in the United States has provoked conspiracy theories. One version held by Putin’s critics claimed he was silenced before he could cooperate with federal authorities investigating corruption.
Another theory suggested, fantastically, that he might not be dead at all but in witness protection. Officials here dismiss these as ludicrous. (A final notation of his departure in December was a clerical record closing out his travel record, a spokesman for the customs service said, not evidence he had departed the country, as was reported widely in Russia.)
The uncertainties are partly why theories about Lesin’s death have not fully subsided.
Many still suspect a crime, carried out by enemies in Moscow, but Aven scoffed at that, saying they had met in Moscow only weeks before they were to meet in Washington. “If anything was done to him,” he said, “why would anybody do it here?”