The Russian phrase vsyo mogu! – “I can do anything!” – was a kind of motto for Mikhail Lesin. He first announced it to an interviewer in 2003, when he was serving as the propaganda chief to President Vladimir Putin, and it expressed the kind of indestructible ambition that took him out of the steppes of Mongolia, where he started out working in construction, and brought him to the heights of power in Moscow as a media mogul and mouthpiece of the state. He stayed at the top for nearly two decades, a stretch that earns him a place among the Kremlin’s most irrepressible survivors. But his death four months ago in a hotel room in Washington, D.C., showed that he wasn’t as invincible as he liked to let on.
Russian authorities claimed after Lesin’s death that he had died of a heart attack. But on March 10, the chief medical examiner of Washington announced that the cause of death was actually blunt force trauma to the head. The medical examiner also revealed that Lesin’s body had apparently been pummeled, with injuries to his arms, legs, neck and torso. Police have not yet determined Lesin’s exact manner of death, or how he received the injuries that killed him. They have not yet ruled it a homicide. But the marks of violence on his body–and his refusal to comply with some of Moscow’s orders in the months and years before his death–have renewed speculation that the case could lead back to the Kremlin.
Adding to that mystery, and the Russian conspiracy theories, was a mixed message from the U.S. government on federal law enforcement’s interest in Lesin. In 2014, U.S. Senator Roger Wicker called on the Justice Department to open a money-laundering and corruption probe into Lesin. FBI officials say there is no ongoing investigation in that matter. On March 11 White House spokesperson Josh Earnest said that the FBI was “involved” with the investigation into Lesin’s death. But on March 15, the White House said that Earnest misspoke and that the FBI was not involved in the case, which is being handled by the local police department in Washington, D.C.
Lesin’s relatives have not commented on the medical examiner’s report. Echoing the Russian authorities, his family reportedly said in November that Lesin had died of a heart attack.
But on Friday, one of his close friends and former business partners, the Russian advertising mogul Sergei Vasiliev, suggested a new explanation: Lesin had simply fallen off the wagon while in Washington, drank himself into a stupor, fell down and hit his head – and, apparently, his neck, torso and extremities.
“There have been such incidents,” Vasiliev said in an interview with one of Putin’s biographers, Andrei Kolsenikov of the newspaper Kommersant. “He would fall down and accidentally hurt himself, including in fairly serious ways.” Citing the Russian Foreign Ministry and “other agencies” as his sources, Vasiliev said Lesin went on a 24-hour bender at the Dupont Circle Hotel before being found belligerently drunk on the evening of Nov. 4 by a security guard. Having failed to put the 57-year-old to bed, the guard left Lesin alone to sleep it off. Maids found his body on the floor the next morning.
Reached over the weekend, hotel management said it had “no comments whatsoever” on the matter, and declined TIME’s request to speak with the security staff. But the version of events Vasiliev offered, while consistent with Lesin’s history of alcoholism, did little to calm the theories of foul play that emerged right after he died.
On Nov. 8, another one of his old associates, Alfred Koch, posed a curious question on his Facebook page: How could the Russian embassy have known the cause of death before the medical examiner? “Why did the embassy want everybody to think it was a heart attack?” wrote Koch, who served as Russia’s Deputy Prime Minister in the 1990s.
Lesin had intimate knowledge of the Kremlin’s financial dealings from his long association with Putin, says Kirill Petrov, a Moscow political consultant who studies Russia’s ruling elites. “He had moved to the periphery in recent years, but he was still close to some very important people.” When the Justice Department referred the financial investigation to the FBI in 2014, Lesin said he was worried, and not only for himself. “I’m not calm about what’s happened for one simple reason,” he confided to the Russian edition of Forbes in August 2014. “I worry for my family.”
Among Russian oligarchs, Lesin was not alone in his fears. The Russian invasion of Ukraine that spring had led the U.S. to impose a series of targeted sanctions, and the oligarchs closest to the Kremlin found their foreign bank accounts frozen and their companies shut out of global markets. In enforcing the financial blacklist, the U.S. Treasury Department began to study the links between Putin’s associates and their global business empires.
Lesin was among the insiders with access to such information, and he never seemed like the type to sacrifice himself to protect the state. He was a maverick, one who had earned a reputation in Moscow for puckish irreverence to the rules the Kremlin tried to impose on the political elites. In a country where the individual is always beholden to the state, and the state is accountable to no one, Lesin long showed a knack for trying to game the system for his own benefit. The question now is whether that habit might have gotten him killed. Whether or not conclusive proof of foul play ever emerges, the life and mysterious death of the man who helped cement Putin’s hold over Russia underscores the way the Kremlin has become increasingly isolated, and at the same time, intent on maintaining control–even over the oligarchs who have long profited from their connections to the state.
The master of illusion
Mikhail Yurievich Lesin was born into a military family in the summer of 1958 and grew up in the very center of the Soviet capital. His father, a high-ranking naval officer and engineer, often took the family in the summers to Crimea, the home of the Black Sea fleet, and the scenery there inspired Lesin’s dreams of following his father to the navy.
But his character proved too defiant for such a career. An argument with one of his schoolteachers got him banned from the youth league of the Communist Party, which then refused to grant him membership. Another spat with an authority figure later got him expelled from the economic faculty of Moscow’s most prestigious university.
In the late 1970s, when he went to serve in the Soviet marines, his commanders tried to send him to fight in the jungles of Angola. The civil war in that country, starting in 1975, was one of the murkier proxy conflicts of the Cold War, and the Kremlin preferred to send its soldiers there clandestinely. This would enable the authorities back in Moscow to deny any direct involvement in the conflict if the bodies of its troops were found in the warzone. (Incidentally, this is much the same ruse that Putin has employed in eastern Ukraine, where Russian fighters have gone into battle over the past two years with no identifying markers on their uniforms.)
But Lesin had no intention of following such orders. As an act of defiance, he tattooed his full name and other identifying information on his forearm, according to a biographical ode to Lesin that Russia’s state news agency published in 2009. The trick succeeded in exempting the young marine from involvement in that covert war; his dead body would have been too easy to trace back to Russia.
Having finished his military service, Lesin got a degree in engineering and went to work as a foreman at a construction site in Mongolia. The post was remote but lucrative, and it gave him his first taste of the good life. “We went there to make money,” he is quoted as saying in a fawning 2003 profile in the Russian journal Career. “Everybody was drinking moonshine. We liked wine and vodka. Everybody took the train to Moscow for a holiday. We flew on the airplane.”
After returning to the capital in the late 1980s, he got involved in the Soviet Union’s favorite form of television entertainment, a sort of competitive sketch comedy show called KVN, or The Happy and Quickwitted Club. He took tickets at the shows and designed costumes for the performers, gradually finding himself in the role of an impresario and talent agent.
In the grey world of Soviet television, these skills were exceedingly rare, and they opened a lot of doors for Lesin after the superpower collapsed. In 1991, he founded one of post-communist Russia’s first TV advertising companies, Video International, and took senior posts in some of the countries leading news organizations. These would become his tickets to power.
Unable to use the old tricks of persuasion on a populace flush with Hollywood movies, the Kremlin needed something new. The Russian economy was in the gutter. The war in Chechnya had ended in disaster. So President Boris Yeltsin called on the young entertainer to liven up his re-election campaign in 1996. The modern Russian style of propaganda – a pungent cocktail of jingoism, vaudeville and slander – was born out of those elections, and Lesin was one of its founding illusionists. His name is still associated with the winning slogan from that campaign: “I believe. I love. I hope.”
In the years that followed, the man with his name tattooed on his arm became the Kremlin’s leading image-maker, first for Yeltsin and later for Putin, who won the presidency in 2000. As one of his first orders of business, Putin set out to consolidate control over the mass media in Russia, and Lesin’s role in this endeavor earned him the nickname The Bulldozer. With the police and justice system at their command, they engineered the hostile takeover of Russia’s main television channels during Putin’s first term in office, forging a virtual monopoly on information which, to this day, helps ensure the sky-high popularity of Russia’s president.
In 2005, they branched out into international news with the creation of Russia Today, which broadcasts in several languages around the world. Lesin was the driving force behind that project as well. But for all the enthusiasm he put into these efforts, he was never content to be a mere civil servant.
His original passion was earning money, and he pursued it even while serving on the Kremlin’s staff as an adviser on media affairs. His American property portfolio allegedly grew to a value of $28 million, and he dabbled in Hollywood movie production, using his wealth and growing connections to access American high society. By the early aughts, Lesin was spending much of his time in Beverly Hills, California. But back home, things were changing fast.
‘Bring your treasure home’
In 2012, when Vladimir Putin returned to the presidency for a third term, he gathered a few hundred of the country’s wealthiest and most influential men at the Kremlin to deliver a simple message in his state of the nation address. “The offshore nature of the Russian economy has become a running joke,” he said. No longer would they be able to earn fortunes and wield power in Russia while storing their money in the West. They would have to bring it home.
This directive, which unnerved a lot of officials in Moscow, wasn’t merely issued for the sake of the economy. Oil prices at the time were still well over $100 per barrel, and there was plenty of wealth to go around. The policy of “de-offshorization,” as Putin called it, was rather a kind of insurance policy. Relations with the West had entered a crisis over the previous year, as the U.S. criticized Russia for human rights abuses and corruption. The Kremlin elites were preparing for a drawn-out confrontation with Washington.
But they couldn’t be expected to win such a fight while also storing and investing their money in the West. Not only would it look hypocritical to the Russian public, it would also make the entire hierarchy vulnerable. By freezing assets or imposing travel bans, the U.S. could pressure Kremlin cardinals to turn against Putin or undermine his rule. Gleb Pavlovsky, who served as an adviser to Putin between 2000 and 2011, sums up the concern with an old Russian saying: “The place you keep your treasure is the place you keep your heart.”
With their lucrative access to power at home and their profits stashed in the West, members of the ruling class in Russia “live in two worlds,” Pavlovsky continues. “Over here they are dictators. Over there they are consumers, banking clients, players on the stock market and all around respectable guys. Putin, in his third term, decided to stop this duality.”
At first, much of the ruling class ignored these instructions or managed to find workarounds. The most popular trick was to hide assets in shell companies whose real owners were hard to trace, or to register them under the names of close relatives or friends. On paper, at least, that meant they had complied with Putin’s order. But these loopholes were no longer tolerated after the war in Ukraine began in 2014. With Russia’s occupation and annexation of the region of Crimea that spring, Putin’s fears began coming true. The West began imposing financial sanctions on dozens of his closest associates, and a global hunt for Kremlin-linked property began.
Some of the most difficult assets to protect were the ones belonging to the children of Putin’s associates. In many cases, these princelings had studied and lived in the West for most of their adult lives – Lesin’s children, for instance, studied in Switzerland from their early teens – and they could not simply be ordered by their fathers to return to Russia as adults. But their lives and businesses in the West had nonetheless become a liability, as they gave the U.S. a means of coercing Putin’s elites.
That became clear in July of 2015, when the U.S. imposed sanctions on Roman Rotenberg, a 34-year-old businessman who had lived in Finland for most of his life. His father, the billionaire Boris Rotenberg, is Putin’s childhood friend from judo school and one of the most influential oligarchs in Russia. The fact that his son was fair game for the U.S. authorities had serious implications for national security. “Every general of the Army or the FSB [Russia’s state security service] has a son in the business world with money offshore,” says one Kremlin insider and former adviser to Putin, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “That changes their system of coordinates.” It also calls their loyalty into question.
With that in mind, Putin quietly expanded his orders to repatriate foreign assets; they would now apply to children as well. This time no one seemed exempt, not even the President’s oldest friends and allies. Vladimir Yakunin, the head of the state railway monopoly, was fired last August soon after the Kremlin learned that his son, Andrei, had applied for British citizenship. This was deemed an “act of betrayal” amid the sanctions war, according to an investigative report in Russia’s only independent news network, TV Dozhd, which cited sources close to Yakunin.
After that, most of the Kremlin hierarchy got the message that Putin was serious about repatriating wealth. But Lesin, apparently, did not.
Mikhail and the money
By 2014, the former minister of propaganda had already fallen a few rungs from the heights he occupied during Putin’s first term. A Kremlin drive against corruption in 2009 had ordered all senior officials to sell up their business interests and leave the boards of private companies. Lesin refused to comply, an act of insubordination that contributed to his dismissal from the Kremlin that year for “systematic disciplinary violations.”
But that did not amount to ostracism. Lesin’s contacts remained intact, notably his ties to Yuri Kovalchuk, another one of Putin’s favored associates. After becoming President in 2000, Putin brought the Kovalchuk family along to Moscow from their hometown of St. Petersburg, and they have since become one of the wealthiest and most influential clans in Russia, with vast holdings in the banking and media sectors — including a major interest in the information conglomerate Gazprom-Media, where Lesin acted as chairman starting in 2013. Asked about their relationship the following August, Lesin said of Kovalchuk, “We talk, synchronize our positions, exchange information.”
By then, Kovalchuk’s name had been added to the U.S. sanctions list. In its assessment, the U.S. Treasury Department referred to him as Putin’s “private banker” and a member of his inner circle. The scrutiny soon spread to his old friend Lesin. In the summer of 2014, a few months after the annexation of Crimea, Senator Roger Wicker, a Republican from Mississippi, wrote a letter to the Justice Department calling for a money-laundering and corruption probe into Lesin’s offshore company, which is registered in the British Virgin Islands, as well as the property portfolio that Lesin’s immediate family owns in Los Angeles.
The prospect of having these properties seized had a sobering effect on Lesin, and he insisted that those mansions belonged not to him but to his children. “My children don’t have any connection whatsoever to my work. My daughter is 35 years old. My son is 31. They are adults, living independent lives.” But they were still fair game in the sanctions war. In December, the U.S. Attorney’s Office confirmed that it had referred Senator Wicker’s complaint to the FBI and the Justice Department for investigation. A few days later, Lesin resigned from his post at Gazprom-Media.
But despite his close ties to many of the people on the U.S. blacklist, Lesin continued traveling to the U.S. after the annexation of Crimea, and his family’s assets in California were never seized.
Certainly, it did not go unnoticed in Moscow, and the media magnate seemed to be aware that he was making powerful enemies. In the last major interview he gave before his death, Lesin suggested that the menace of sanctions against him and his family had been orchestrated by people who wished him ill. The interviewer from Forbes asked whether he meant people in Russia.
“There are plenty of them,” he answered, “both here and there.”
[This post has been updated because of new information discovered since the original posting.]