Another Defector Dead in Washington

A former member of Putin’s inner circle has died violently and mysteriously in our nation’s capital

Thousands of Russians marched through the center of Moscow on Sunday to honor opposition leader Boris Nemtsov two years after he was gunned down near the Kremlin walls, and to call for further investigations into his killing. The 55-year-old Nemtsov, a former deputy prime minister and prominent critic of President Vladimir Putin, was shot dead on a bridge near the Kremlin late in the evening of Feb. 27, 2015, as he walked home with his girlfriend from a restaurant. Police put the number of marchers at 5,000, but a group of voluntary observers said there were more than 15,000 demonstrators. The march gathered together political parties and opposition movements. One banner read, "Boris Nemtsov is a hero of Russia."

The story has all the makings of a sleek Hollywood spy thriller. A defector from the Kremlin, a man close to the top echelons of power in Russia. A man who knew too much. And who lived the global jet-set lifestyle. Fear, international intrigue and rumors of stolen fortunes end in a fashionable hotel—with a brutal death.

For years, Mikhail Lesin had it all. He went into the mass entertainment business as the Soviet Union went into terminal decline and, unlike most Russians, he profited from the Communist collapse. In the years after the fall of the USSR in 1991, Lesin built a media and advertising empire that made him a wealthy and powerful man. By the end of that decade he entered politics, as the wealthy often do, not just in Russia.

Lesin’s star took off with the arrival of Vladimir Putin in the Kremlin in 1999. He entered the halls of power alongside the former KGB man, serving as his media minister from 1999 until 2004. Lesin oversaw the consolidation of most of Russia’s media under Kremlin control. To his detractors, this amounted to the slow strangulation of the independent media that appeared in the Soviet wake.

Nicknamed “the Bulldozer” for his forceful ways, Lesin brought Russia’s media to heel and kept it on-message with what Putin wanted. As Russia became an increasingly authoritarian country after 1999, media control was a vital part of the formula to keep Russians happy and politically quiet. Most members of the media were willing to be bought off by Lesin, while hold-outs who valued press freedom were dealt with harshly. The lucky ones, intimidated, fled into exile while less the fortunate became martyrs—most infamously the muckraking reporter Anna Politovskaya, a harsh regime critic who was gunned down in her Moscow apartment building on Putin’s birthday.

Lesin enjoyed the perquisites of that select set: a model girlfriend half his age, fast cars, even a $50 million superyacht.

The Kremlin prized its media boss’s loyalty and he was rewarded in 2004 by his appointment as special adviser to Russia’s president on media matters, a more powerful position that gave Lesin unfettered access to Vladimir Putin. During his five-year tenure, he gave the Kremlin a complete media relaunch to the world, providing Moscow with outlets to distribute its message without the Western media filters it considers Russophobic. The jewel in Lesin’s media empire was Russia Today (since rebranded as RT), launched in 2005 to disseminate Kremlin propaganda globally.

From the outset, Lesin did not shy away from that controversial word. “It’s been a long time since I was scared by the word propaganda,” he explained: “We need to promote Russia internationally. Otherwise, we’d just look like roaring bears on the prowl.” While RT is regarded as a dubious source by most Western journalists, there’s no doubt that the Kremlin considers Lesin’s work in establishing the network a rousing success. As Putin has become increasingly isolated since his seizure of Crimea in March 2013 and the resulting war in Eastern Ukraine, RT has given him the ability to tell the world the Kremlin’s version of events.

However, his media maestro was not by Putin’s side when what I’ve termed Cold War 2.0 got into gear over the Crimean crisis. Lesin left the Kremlin in 2009, holding several high-powered media jobs, including as media boss of Gazprom, Russia’s huge state energy company. However, by late 2014 it was evident that the media mogul and the big boss in the Kremlin had a major falling out; whispers of acrimony were widely heard in Moscow.

By then, Lesin was spending most of his time in the United States, where both of his adult children live. He particularly liked Beverly Hills, and was a fixture in its swankier establishments. Lesin enjoyed the perquisites of that select set: a model girlfriend half his age, fast cars, even a $50 million superyacht.

How Lesin, ostensibly a retired Russian senior civil servant, afforded all this led to questions in Congress and eventually the FBI. How he paid for his finery—Lesin owned five houses just in the Los Angeles area, valued at $35 million—was anything but clear. Accusations of money-laundering and worse began to be heard.

The political and legal pressure on Lesin was mounting. While money-laundering and official corruption were par for the course in the Kremlin, where Vladimir Putin is believed to have amassed a truly vast personal fortune, American authorities were less circumspect about peeking into such matters.

Russian intelligence eschewed its customary methods of wetwork and outsourced the killing to others who could not be easily traced to Moscow.

Facing inquiries from the Department of Justice about serious financial crimes, Lesin is believed to have been cooperating with the FBI by late last year. That autumn he spent a lot of time in Washington, D.C., where his drinking got out of control. Friends considered him depressed and increasingly in a spiral that appeared ominous.

Then he turned up dead. His lifeless body was found in his room at the Dupont Circle Hotel on the morning of November 5, 2015. The cause of Lesin’s death at age 58 was not announced by any American officials, though Russian state media said he died of a heart attack, citing unnamed family members. Putin made an official statement thanking the deceased for his media work, and Lesin was buried in Los Angeles.

In the months since, rumors have swirled about what really happened to the onetime Kremlin insider. A lack of hard information stymied detailed speculation, while the fact that Lesin was prone to heavy drinking and had some health problems made the heart attack claim plausible. Most of the publicly available questions—for instance, why was Lesin staying at the decent but hardly five-star hotel where he died, which seemed below his usual sumptuous style?—appeared less than ominous.

Then the case was blown wide open last week by the official coroner’s report, four months in the making, which concluded that the cause of death was blunt force trauma to Lesin’s head, neck, torso and extremities. In other words, he had been brutally beaten to death. Although the medical examiner demurred from concluding whether the fatal injuries were caused by accident or with intent, it’s difficult to imagine how so many wounds could be inflicted by any sort of routine fall.

Furthermore, Lesin’s injuries occurred before his arrival back at his hotel late on the night of November 4, where he appeared looking disheveled but quite alive. He had to have been attacked that evening, while out drinking, as was his custom in the days leading up to his death. However, the Washington, D.C., neighborhoods Lesin frequented such as Georgetown and Dupont Circle are hardly crime-ridden, and violent assaults there—while not unknown—can be assessed as rare compared to most parts of the nation’s capital. Lesin, drunk, may have fallen victim to violent thieves, or perhaps the notorious “knockout game,” which is infrequently encountered in Washington. If so, he was a profoundly unlucky man.

A bullet to the brain was the clear cause of death, but everything else about the case was deeply murky.

Did he have enemies whose desire to silence Lesin was anything but random? This question can be answered strongly in the affirmative. In the Kremlin’s view, Mikhail Lesin was a defector, pure and simple. Putin has publicly taken a dim view of defectors, and he surely would have considered rumors of Lesin, a former member of his inner circle, cooperating with the FBI to be a most serious matter.

We know Vladimir Putin has defectors killed. As I explained recently in this column, in Stalin’s time such “wetwork,” to use the Kremlin term, against defectors and enemies abroad was considered routine, and Putin has resurrected this odious practice after a half-century of dormancy.

All the same, a street beating is hardly the normal method used by Russian intelligence when it engages in assassination abroad. Here esoteric poisons, car bombs and close-range gunshots constitute the customary Moscow modus operandi. Yet there is evidence that Putin’s spies will employ less exotic methods of killing when required.

Nine years ago, in a Maryland suburb of Washington, D.C.—only a few miles from where Mikhail Lesin would meet his end—Paul Joyal was shot by unidentified gunmen at night outside his suburban house as he got out of his car. A specialist on Kremlin security matters, Joyal was a vocal Putin critic. In fact, four days before being shot, he appeared on network TV, blaming the Kremlin for the murder of Aleksandr Litvinenko in London the previous year. Joyal had a drink with Oleg Kalugin, a high-ranking retired KGB officer living in America (he is considered a particularly loathed defector by Putin), just before his near-death experience.

Joyal survived his wounds only because his wife, a nurse, was home when he was shot. Although local police believed the shooting was a botched robbery, no arrests have ever been made and many in counterintelligence circles believe that the incident was the work of the Kremlin. In this telling, since any hit in America would get a high degree of FBI attention, Russian intelligence eschewed its customary methods of wetwork and outsourced the killing to others who could not be easily traced to Moscow.

If Kremlin agents are conducting assassinations on American soil, the public has a right to know.

Did something similar happen to Mikhail Lesin last autumn? Although it’s difficult to imagine any Russian intelligence agency would use its own officers to beat anyone to death in Washington—since the diplomatic implications of getting caught would be vast—our nation’s capital is hardly short on thugs who will undertake beatings for a fee.

We may never know what really happened to Mikhail Lesin. Local police and the FBI have said little publicly about the case, and the investigation, having taken four months to present the coroner’s findings, does not inspire confidence in any speedy resolution. On cue, the Kremlin propaganda outlets that Lesin did so much to create have hinted at a sinister American hand behind his death, while Moscow has demanded a quick resolution to the investigation. Unsubstantiated tabloid claims that the “real” Mikhail Lesin lives can be dismissed as disinformation.

The case bears striking similarities to the violent death of another Kremlin defector in our nation’s capital three-quarters of a century ago. His name was Walter Krivitsky, and he was found dead in his room at the Bellevue Hotel (now The George) on the morning of February 10, 1941.

A bullet to the brain was the clear cause of death, but everything else about the case was deeply murky. Krivitsky had been one of Stalin’s top spymasters and his defection in late 1938 caused massive heartburn in Moscow—not least because at the time he fled the Soviet system he was the head of Kremlin espionage for all of Western Europe.

Krivitsky spilled countless intelligence secrets to anybody who would listen—including the FBI—and he testified before Congress about the frightening extent of Soviet espionage and subversion against the West. He switched sides out of horror at Stalin’s purges that were killing so many of Krivitsky’s friends and colleagues.

From exile, he collaborated with other defectors from Moscow in efforts to raise awareness about the true nature of Stalinism. However, Kremlin hitmen were hunting them down, one by one. At that time, Soviet intelligence had more than 200 spies serving abroad with murder as their mission, and the final straw was the assassination of Leon Trotsky in Mexico City in August 1940 by a Soviet agent wielding an ice-axe, which he plunged into Trotsky’s skull.

Krivitsky fell into despondency after the assassination, since he considered Trotsky the leader of worldwide anti-Stalinism, the movement’s great hope. Drinking and depression followed. He predicted that Soviet agents would find him and kill him, masking his murder as suicide.

Hard evidence, even after 75 years of investigation, remains lacking, and how exactly Walter Krivitsky died seems destined to remain unresolved in perpetuity. While he certainly may have taken his own life in despair, Krivitsky’s murder by Soviet agents appears at least equally plausible. It would be a terrible fate if the eerily similar death of Mikhail Lesin goes unsolved too. If Kremlin agents are conducting assassinations on American soil, brazenly in our capital, the public has a right to know.