Accessibility links

Breaking News

U.S. Authorities Rule Ex-Kremlin Official Mikhail Lesin's Death An Accident

Former Russian media boss, Mikhail Lesin was found dead in a Washington hotel room late last year. (file photo)
Former Russian media boss, Mikhail Lesin was found dead in a Washington hotel room late last year. (file photo)

WASHINGTON -- U.S. authorities have ruled the death of former Kremlin media boss Mikhail Lesin an accident, saying that a nearly year-long investigation determined that "acute" alcohol intoxication was a contributing factor and that the case is now closed.

Federal prosecutors said in an October 28 statement that Lesin, 57, died in a Washington hotel on November 4, 2015, due to "falls" that left him with "blunt force injuries" after drinking heavily for several days.

Lesin, a former press minister under Russian President Vladimir Putin, was found dead in his room at Washington's Dupont Circle Hotel the following day, November 5.

His death has been shrouded in mystery and the subject of widespread speculation about what the former powerful Kremlin official was doing in Washington at the time.

Lesin's family had lived in California for several years prior to his death. After serving as head of state-owned Gazprom Media, he fell out of favor with the Kremlin in 2013, and largely dropped out of public view.

In 2014, a U.S. lawmaker called on federal authorities to investigate whether he had laundered ill-gotten gains through pricey California real estate and other assets.

U.S. Assistant Attorney General Peter Kadzik said later that year that the request from Senator Roger Wicker (Republican-Mississippi) was referred to the Justice Department's criminal division and the FBI. Neither agency confirmed whether a formal investigation was ever opened in the matter.

As press minister, Lesin played a central role in tightening the Kremlin's control over the media during Putin's first term. He also was instrumental in creating Russia Today, the Kremlin-backed global news network now known as RT.

After his body was discovered in his hotel room, local police in Washington indicated that they were not treating his death as a homicide. An employee at the Washington city police's homicide branch indicated to RFE/RL shortly after his death that the matter was being handled by the branch’s natural-death unit.

'Some Sort Of Altercation'

However, on March 10, more than four months after the body was found, the city medical examiner's office released its finding, saying that Lesin died of blunt force trauma to the head, and to other parts of his upper and lower body.

This prompted speculation that Lesin had sustained injuries in an attack. The New York Times a day later cited an unnamed law-enforcement official as saying his injuries were the result of what the paper described as "some sort of altercation" that occurred before Lesin returned to his hotel room.

The Reuters news agency also quoted an unnamed police official as saying that investigators were looking into whether Lesin had been attacked outside the hotel.

But the October 28 statement issued by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia painted a different portrait of the events leading up to Lesin’s death.

Citing "new evidence," it said the attorney's office and the Metropolitan Police Department -- with help from the FBI -- determined that Lesin fatally injured himself in his hotel room on the morning of November 4, 2015.

It said that Lesin, who was known to be a heavy drinker, sustained the injuries from "falls" after entering his hotel room on the morning of November 4, 2015, "after days of excessive consumption of alcohol."

His death was 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," the statement said.

It added that Lesin died "while alone in his hotel room."

Bill Miller, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's office in the District of Columbia, told The Washington Post that authorities made the results of the investigation public "because of the widespread interest in this case."

"We typically do not comment on specifics of our investigation, and have no further comment on this particular matter," Miller told the newspaper.

Just two days before his body was found on November 5, Lesin was on the guest list to attend a lavish dinner at Washington's Ritz Carlton hotel, honoring Russian billionaire and philanthropist Pyotr Aven and Susan Lehrman, a Washington socialite, investor, and patron of the arts.

But Lesin never attended the event, which was organized by the Woodrow Wilson Center's Kennan Institute, a think-tank specializing in research on Russia, Ukraine, and other former Soviet republics.

Also, the night before his body was found, Lesin had sought to attend another, smaller, private dinner meeting at the Atlantic Council, another Washington think-tank, that also featured a discussion with Aven.

According to a person with knowledge of the event, officials at the council declined to include Lesin on the guest list, due to his checkered past.

The Russian Embassy in Washington did not immediately respond to an e-mailed request for comment from RFE/RL on October 28.

  • 16x9 Image

    Carl Schreck

    Carl Schreck is an award-winning investigative journalist who serves as RFE/RL's enterprise editor. He has covered Russia and the former Soviet Union for more than 20 years, including a decade in Moscow. He has led investigations into corruption, cronyism, and disinformation campaigns in Russia and Central Asia, as well as on poisoning attacks against Kremlin opponents and assassinations of Iranian exiles in the West. Schreck joined RFE/RL in 2014.

  • 16x9 Image

    Mike Eckel

    Mike Eckel is a senior correspondent reporting on political and economic developments in Russia, Ukraine, and around the former Soviet Union, as well as news involving cybercrime and espionage. He's reported on the ground on Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the wars in Chechnya and Georgia, and the 2004 Beslan hostage crisis, as well as the annexation of Crimea in 2014.

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

If you are in Russia or the Russia-controlled parts of Ukraine and hold a Russian passport or are a stateless person residing permanently in Russia or the Russia-controlled parts of Ukraine, please note that you could face fines or imprisonment for sharing, liking, commenting on, or saving our content, or for contacting us.

To find out more, click here.