The announcement that a former aide to Vladimir Putin found dead in his Washington hotel room appeared to have been bludgeoned to death has led to a squall of hypotheses and conspiracy theories about how he might have met his end.
When Mikhail Lesin died in November, Russian media said he died of a heart attack. But authorities in Washington said on Thursday that an autopsy of Putin’s former press minister revealed blunt force injuries to the head, neck, torso, arms and legs. The manner of death remained “undetermined”, the office’s statement said, and the incident is still under police investigation.
On Friday, Russian officials said they had been asking the Americans for information about the investigation with no results.
“We haven’t received any detailed information via formal channels of communication that [we use] for such cases, and in the light of these media reports we hope that we will receive the detailed information,” Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, told journalists. Russia’s prosecutor general has also asked his American counterpart for information on the case, Interfax reported.
Yury Melnik, a spokesman for the Russian embassy in Washington, said in a statement: “In the past several months the Russian embassy … repeatedly requested through diplomatic channels information regarding the progress of investigation of the death of the Russian citizen. No substantial information has been provided.”
Lesin’s body was found in November in a room at the Dupont Circle Hotel, in an upmarket neighbourhood that contains foreign embassies and policy thinktanks. Russia’s RT television quoted family members at the time as saying he had died of a heart attack after long-term illnesses.
Lesin was a powerful figure on the Russian political scene but lived most of his life in the shadows. While anyone in the political or media world knew him or at least knew his reputation, he was not a household name and rarely spoke publicly.
“Everything gets stranger and stranger,” Alexei Venediktov, the editor-in-chief of Ekho Moskvy radio wrote on Twitter about the news that Lesin had died of a blow to the head. The liberal radio station had been part of the Gazprom Media empire which Lesin controlled, and the pair had a public bust-up over editorial policy in 2014.
The mysterious circumstances of his death have led to a range of conspiracy theories, some more plausible than others. Some Russian bloggers have suggested Lesin could be in a witness protection programme having agreed to pass information to the Americans about the Russian elite, with his death being faked to throw Russia off the scent. Others noted that he was known to be a heavy smoker and drinker and suggested the death could have come about as a result of a fight or some other personal incident.
Known as a tough and ambitious political operator, Lesin broke the stranglehold of the oligarchs on Russian media and ushered in the era in which the Kremlin controlled all major television stations. In 2013, he became the head of Gazprom Media, one of Russia’s largest media holdings.
He was press minister between 1999 and 2004, and is credited with the idea of setting up Russia Today, the English-language Kremlin-funded channel which has grown over the past decade to become a major international station.
He quit Gazprom Media unexpectedly in 2015, and for some time rumours of illness swirled. After his death, Margarita Simonyan, editor-in-chief of RussiaToday, wrote that Lesin lost 30kg (66lb) after breaking his spine in 2012, and was known as a heavy smoker and drinker.
“It’s been a long time since I was scared by the word propaganda,” Lesin said in 2007, according to Russia Today’s website. “We need to promote Russia internationally. Otherwise, we’d just look like roaring bears on the prowl.”
Last year the Mississippi senator Roger Wicker called for Lesin to be investigated on suspicion of money laundering and corruption. He allegedly amassed millions of dollars in assets in Europe and the US while working for the Russian government, including $28m in Los Angeles real estate.
Wicker wrote: “That a Russian public servant could have amassed the considerable funds required to acquire and maintain these assets in Europe and the United States raises serious questions.”
Lesin left a wife and two children, including a daughter who is a bureau chief with Russia Today.