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Published in Stream:
Russia Update: January 11, 2016
Press by
The Interpreter
Russian-to-English translation journal, with original analysis and commentary on Russia's foreign & domestic policy.
Daily Beast: Was Gazprom Media's Lesin Ready To Cooperate with FBI Before His Unexpected Death?
6 years
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Shane Harris of the The Daily Beast reports on the mysterious death of Mikhail Lesin, the former Gazprom Media chief who died in a Washington, DC hotel room; there is some speculation Lesin may have been in the US to cut a deal with the FBI and inform on the Putin regime in exchange for dropping an investigation into his own suspect luxury real estate deals of some $30 million.

Sen. Roger Wicker, a Republican from Mississippi who has spent years looking into corruption and human-rights abuses in Russia, had asked the Justice Department to investigate Lesin. In December 2014, the department confirmed it had referred Lesin’s case to the Criminal Division and to the FBI. While officials declined to say whether they formally opened an investigation, several close watchers of Lesin’s case told The Daily Beast they thought it was all but certain that he was being pursued by U.S. law enforcement. And if he wasn’t under active criminal investigation, the FBI had enough evidence to consider opening a case, they said. A bureau spokesperson declined to comment on the matter.

So why did Lesin, who was 57, tempt fate by entering the United States this past November? 

The purpose of his visit was never made clear. But he was staying in a mid-range hotel on Washington’s DuPont Circle. While not shabby, it’s doesn’t seem the kind of place that attracts people who buy multi million-dollar estates. It does, though, offer a comparatively low per-night rate, perhaps more in line with U.S. government budgets, and is known to host foreign government officials and visitors on exchange programs. It’s also located a short drive from FBI and Justice Department headquarters.  
Lesin was found dead in November, and although an autopsy was performed, police are not announcing the cause of death which is still under investigation. Even before the announcement of his death, RT reported that Lesin had died of a heart attack, citing a family member. 

As Harris writes:

About two weeks after the Justice Department informed Wicker that the allegations against Lesin were referred to the FBI, Lesin resigned as the head of Gazprom-Media, citing unspecified “family reasons.” Kara-Murza, the journalist and Putin critic, who himself fell mysteriously ill last summer, has directly linked the department’s announcement to Lesin’s stepping down and said it showed that the threat of sanctions and prosecution could be used to bring down corrupt Russian officials.

Kara-Murza's article was published in December 2014; in May 2015 shortly after visiting the Russian city Kazan to launch a lecture program for Open Russia, the organization founded by businessman and former political prisoner Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Kara-Murza was mysteriously poisoned and nearly died. After intensive medical intervention he recovered and underwent further rehabilitation abroad, after which he returned to work in Russia.

In November 2014, Ekho Moskvy, the independent radio station that has increasingly come under pressure from the Kremlin in the last year, was involved in a protracted battle for its existence after reporter Aleksei Plyushchev insulted top Kremlin aide Sergei Ivanov on Twitter. He was dismissed without the approval of Aleksei Venediktorv, editor-in-chief, who feared he himself might be next.

Eventually a compromise was reached whereby Pluyushchev was sent on leave and Venediktov remained. Ironically, later Lesin stepped down. Then in the ensuing months, there were a number of incidents of alleged censorship and some editors resigned, citing conflicts with Venediktov's assistant Lesya Ryabtseva. She resigned late last year and revealed that she had cooperated with Kremlin propagandists to spy on and expose Ekho Moskvy.

-- Catherine A. Fitzpatrick