They Made Putinism: Mikhail Lesin (1958-2015) from Russia Today to Hollywood

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Vladimir Putin did not conceive and build Putinism alone. This is the fifth part of the series “They made Putinism”, written for Desk Russia by historian Cécile Vaissié. Dubbed by some as “enemy number 1 of Russia’s independent media”, Mikhail Lesin played a decisive role in reshaping the media landscape after Vladimir Putin’s accession to Russian presidency. And he is buried in Hollywood.

Mikhail Lesin’s life began like those of millions of Soviet people, then it became quite extraordinary, including elements seemingly taken, some from the biographies of Alexander Fadeyev, the leader of the Soviet Writers’ Union under Stalin, and of various Komintern agents, such as Otto Katz, others from Scott Fitzgerald’s and Paul-Loup Sulitzer’s novels, but in the context of Russia during the years 1991-2015.

Ordinary Soviet beginnings

Mikhail Lesin, whose name has already appeared in previous episodes of this series, was born on June 11, 1958 in Moscow into a family of Soviet Jews, and his father was a builder in the army. After his military service, the future minister went back to school at the not-so-prestigious Kuibyshev Institute, and became an engineer in 1984. It seems that he then joined the CPSU: he wanted to make a career in the existing system.

The turning point came during perestroika: from 1988 to 1990, Lesin was deputy director in charge of television programs in what seems to have been a gaming structure, where he met Konstantin Ernst, who was to become the all-powerful head of Russian Channel One. Then, from 1990 to 1993, Lesin managed RTV, a group of cooperatives organizing TV contests, and from this group emerged in 1991 an advertising agency: Video International. Advertising had barely begun in Russia; everything was yet to be done in what would become a huge market. Some occasional assassination — that of Vladislav Listiev (1956-1995), for example — will be attributed, rightly or wrongly, to the struggle to secure a share of this market, and Lesin’s name will remain associated with this enormous agency, although he is said to have left it quite early on — formally, it seems. In 2010, the agency was sold to Yuri Kovalchuk, the founder and head of Rossia Bank, and a friend and “wallet” of Vladimir Putin.

From communicator to minister

Does this explain his announced departure from Video International? From 1993 to 1996, Lesin was Sales Director, then Managing Director of TV Novosti, a government communication and press agency attached to RIA Novosti. In 1995, he and Gleb Pavlovsky (see here and here) set up the Fund for Effective Politics (FEP), at the suggestion of Andrey Vinogradov, ex-president of RIA Novosti. The desire to get involved in political communication was clear.

It seems however that, in 1993, Mikhail Lesin had sent his ten-year-old son Anton to live in Switzerland. This move shows a specific relationship with one’s homeland, roots and family, and attests to already well-stocked financial funds, but also, perhaps, to certain threats addressed to those who succeed too well, too fast, in a society in mutation.

Journalist Mikhail Zygar tells in one of his books how, in the early autumn of 1995, Timur Bekmambetov, who was just starting out as a film director, but who had already shot numerous commercials, was invited to the Kremlin to discuss a possible collaboration. He was accompanied by Mikhail Lesin, “a young producer and co-founder of Video International, an advertising agency”. Video International was already one of the most important companies on the national advertising market, at a time when, for lack of money, millions of Russians spent hours in front of the television, and it employed many fashionable directors. Today, Bekmambetov jokes: “Lesin entered [the Kremlin] with me, and never left.” Almost.

Bekmambetov and Lesin were initially commissioned to shoot a series of advertising films about Ivan Rybkin, one of the Kremlin’s favorites for the parliamentary elections of December 1995. However, the “party of power” — Our House, Russia — came only third with 10% of the vote, behind the Communists (22%) and the LDPR (11%). The presidential elections were looming, with what we’ve seen in previous episodes: the agreement with wealthy businessmen, notably media owners, and a campaign for Yeltsin, in which Pavlovsky intervened with the FEP, without respecting the slightest professional ethics.

In this campaign, as in that of 2000, two structures coexisted. On the one hand, Yeltsin’s staff, headed by Oleg Soskovets, Deputy Prime Minister, counted over forty people, including Boris Berezovsky and the President’s daughter, Tatyana Dyachenko. On the other hand, at the latter’s suggestion, an “analytical group” headed by Anatoly Chubais, but under the responsibility of Viktor Ilyushin, and including Dyachenko and her future husband Valentin Yumashev, was meant as providing business support for the campaign. At Gusinsky’s suggestion, Igor Malashenko, one of the top executives of Ostankino’s First Channel, was put in charge of the TV campaign. He decided that, for six months, Yeltsin should be shown on every channel in the country, and only in a positive light. Malashenko met almost weekly with Konstantin Ernst, then general producer of Berezovsky’s ORT channel, and supplemented the RTR (channel Rossia) teams with experienced publicists. RTR thus became Video International’s stronghold, and a team headed by Mikhail Lesin monitored the channel’s news and the way in which Yeltsin was shown. This team worked unofficially: it was paid by Lesin, and not by the channel, and everyone at RTR understood that they must obey him.

Yeltsin’s team also decided to launch a real advertising campaign, and Video International was asked to design, organize and monitor it. Lesin worked on it with Gleb Pavlovsky and validated the slogan “I believe, I love, I hope”. Because no rational argument could have justified voting for Yeltsin… As mentioned in Desk Russie (episode on Pavlovsky), the campaign had one major aim: to frighten Russians and make them fear a return to the USSR, if the Communists came to power. Everyone still remembered the queues, the deficits, the impossibility of traveling, the censorship, the camp sentences for those who tried to do business… The time for nostalgia had not come yet.

To reinforce concerns, Lesin prepared advertising films that included images of post-1917 destructions and warned: “Nobody in 1917 Russia thought there could be a famine. The Communists haven’t even changed their name. They won’t change their methods. It’s not too late to prevent civil war and famine.” In addition to Pavlovsky’s fake stickers (see the episode on Pavlovsky), the Lesin team decided to stick other stickers at stores entrances all over the country: “Buy food for the last time!” A group in Krasnodar even printed ration coupons and convinced store owners to remove everyday products from their shelves a few days before the elections, leaving only those present in the 1980s, i.e. almost nothing.

When rumors of Yeltsin’s poor health began to circulate, the President gave an interview to Mikhail Lesin (who was not a journalist, but the head of an advertising agency) and admitted that he needed heart surgery. The decision had already been made: Lesin and his Video International team would go to work in the Presidential Administration and set up there a public relations department. This team filmed Yeltsin after his re-election, and distributed the recordings: his image was thus under control.

Another recruitment pool for the Presidential Administration was Anatoly Sobchak’s team, who had just lost the elections in St. Petersburg: this was how Vladimir Putin arrived in Moscow.

From September 14, 1996, Lesin was officially in charge of President Yeltsin’s “relations with public opinion”, and in 1997 he was appointed First Deputy to the President of the VGTRK, a structure that oversees all Russian television and radio stations. Several sources claim that, in his position at VGTRK, Lesin had ample opportunities to embezzle money and send it abroad without the risk of being blocked by the Ministry of the Interior or the tax authorities. Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Fund also believes that Lesin mastered then the ways of moving money to the West, but the Fund considers that a large part of this money came from Video International’s enormous profits, which were virtually unchecked by the State. On paper, Lesin was not even a co-owner of the company, but, when he worked on Yeltsin’s presidential campaign in 1996, he was already a multimillionaire, according to Gleb Pavlovsky.

Because Mikhail Lesin was being useful, he was appointed “Minister of Press, Television and Radio Broadcasting and Mass Media” on July 6, 1999, a post he held until March 9, 2004. During the 1999 parliamentary and 2000 presidential elections, he was a key member in the staffs, first of the party Unity, then of Vladimir Putin, and worked directly with Vladislav Surkov and Gleb Pavlovsky. Surkov and Lesin have real decision-making power, unlike Pavlovsky, who was merely an advisor and service provider.

Lessin and Putin in 2002 // kremlin.ru

Lessin and Putin in 2002 // kremlin.ru

An “ideological purge” began just after Putin came to power and, according to journalist Elena Tregubova, also targeted journalists accredited to the Kremlin: they were screened, even dismissed, by “Putin’s new PR team”. Lesin then oversaw the takeover of NTV and Media-Most, although Koch was pushed to the forefront. Lesin was already referred to by his closest circle, but behind his back, as “the man with the good face of a child killer”. He soon earned another nickname, for muzzling anti-Putin critics: “the bulldozer”. And most journalists who came into contact with him regarded him as a very rude man.

For several years, Lesin was to be number one in the policy that was launched the day after the March 2000 elections and aimed at controlling, buying off and restricting the Russian media. He also oversaw the new President’s image; it was Lesin who, as early as 1999-2000, reportedly encouraged the dissemination of photos of a topless Putin in the Russian press, while avoiding making these pictures available to the Western press: “We’ll leave Putin’s sports and biceps [images] to the people and the Third World.”

The ministry headed by Lesin was also actively involved in developing programs “to create a positive image of Russia in the West” and “to give the population a patriotic education”. Interviewed on this subject by Tregubova (before, that is, the beginning of 2003), Lesin said that, in his youth, he was very receptive to Soviet patriotism, including “military-patriotic games”. He wanted “respect for one’s country, for the national flag, for the army”, and “defense of the Fatherland”, and added: “We have been confronted with the fact that, at present, a whole lot of work is being done systematically in the West to form a negative image of Russia. That’s why we must no longer hesitate to propagandize our country.”

His son was still in Switzerland…

Tregubova asked the minister if, in his opinion, patriotism consisted in “praising the Russian army, despite the corruption of its ruling circles, despite the massive hazing, despite the crimes”, despite Chechnya. Lesin therefore accused her of hating the army: “And how would we have won the Great Patriotic War, if, from the very beginning, we had hated our army?” She replied: “And how much bloodshed could we have spared in this war if, under Stalin, we hadn’t blindly praised the Soviet army and the generals from the start?”

Two groups were already clashing, including about their relationship to Soviet history, and Lesin had kept the Soviet practice of saying one thing, doing another and thinking a third. Therefore, when Tregubova asked him whether he wanted his only son to serve in the Russian army, the minister replied with false lightness: “I don’t know, we’ll see. If he wants to study, he’ll study. If he wants to serve, he’ll serve…“. He won’t have the “desire” to serve in the Russian army.

The day after this interview, Lesin’s people did everything in their power to prevent it from being published. It was published anyway, but rewritten by them.

Shortly afterwards, Elena Tregubova published her first book, written in January 2003, where she showed, without mincing her words, that Vladimir Putin had already practically destroyed independent political journalism in Russia. By now, almost all journalists accredited to the Kremlin had gotten into the habit of talking about President Putin as if he were dead — to use a Russian expression: say nothing about him, or say positive things. The book tremendously upset Putin and his entourage: the young journalist lost her job at Kommersant, and Lesin informed her that it was “the end of her career”. Shortly afterwards, an explosion happened in Tregubova’s apartment building, and in 2008 she was granted political asylum in Great Britain.

Lesin’s career was only getting stronger: on April 6, 2004, following Putin’s re-election, he was appointed not minister, but advisor to the Russian President, a position he held until November 18, 2009. It was within this function that, in 2005, he conceived and founded Russia Today, which later became RT and was intended to counter Western narratives. Lesin was now at the very top of Putin’s propaganda machine, a machine he had designed himself.

Between parties, wounds and power games

However, on November 18, 2009, the former minister was removed from his post by a decree issued by Dmitry Medvedev, who had become President of Russia. Officially, Lesin had asked to leave. In fact, he was accused of “disregarding the rules of State service and the ethics of civil servants”. Some mentioned conflicts of interest: Lesin was said to have supported Video International too openly, giving thus to the company a virtual monopoly on the Russian advertising market. He may also have been too closely associated with Vladimir Putin’s image, at a time when Medvedev and Vladislav Sourkov were trying to attract artists and to give Russia a more creative image. In any case, Lesin’s career in the Kremlin seemed to be over.

The former minister embarked on what seemed to be a party without limits. He traveled the world, spent lavishly, bought himself — reportedly for $40 million — a yacht called the Serenity, and one of his associates would say that Lesin had “stuffed his yacht with girls” and was drinking more and more, alcohol binges seeming to have been his weakness for a long time. Margarita Simonyan, RT’s main propagandist, was invited on this yacht, but neither she nor her media mentioned the former minister’s tycoon lifestyle. He or, more accurately, companies linked to him were also buying real estate, for at least $28 million. Not just anywhere: in Los Angeles, in the prestigious Beverly Hills and Brentwood districts. In fact, Lesin’s son, Anton, raised in Switzerland, and his daughter, Ekaterina Lesina, lived in the United States, where their father was also spending an increasing amount of time.

But around 2010, the ex-minister was seriously injured while skiing. After undergoing surgery in Switzerland, he was confined to bed for several months.

And then, on October 1, 2013, just over a year after Vladimir Putin’s re-election to the Russian presidency, Mikhail Lesin was appointed Chairman and CEO of the Gazprom-Media holding company. It was a “triumphant return”, according to Forbes. But it would not last.

In the following months, Gazprom-Media bought media outlets from oligarch Vladimir Potanin, including three TV channels (TV-3, 2х2 and Friday!), four radio stations, some websites and the Central Partnership film company. Gazprom-Media also acquired a production company, Good Story Media, which produced popular series, as well as the Red Media group, which created thematic channels. Forbes pointed out back in 2014 that, in both cases, the owners of the absorbed companies were presented with a fait accompli: they were getting into Gazprom-Media. But Lesin shrugged it off, mentioning “myths”: “It may or may not please, but that’s how it was done”, and that’s almost the formula Vladimir Putin used before attacking Ukraine in 2022.

Interviewed by Forbes in August 2014, Lesin said that he had held every possible position in State structures and now wanted to “do business and make money”. But he also talked as a man in charge of controlling the media he ran. He thus declared himself “dissatisfied with the editorial policy” of the radio Echo of Moscow, in which Gazprom-Media held a majority stake. However, Lesin added, this radio station was not a huge problem. If it were, it would become a “music channel”: “They’d sing, and that’s it. What’s the problem?”

For him, there was none.

The question of his assets in the USA

Other issues worried him much more. Indeed, U.S. Senator Roger Wicker had learned that Lesin was buying property in the U.S., and, in July 2014, he requested an investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice. In particular, the senator wanted to understand how a Russian official could have enough money to acquire two properties in Los Angeles, valued at $28 million. Especially since, he claimed, Lesin had registered offshore accounts in the British Virgin Islands and, through these accounts, had also bought “multi-million assets” in Europe, while still being a Russian State official. On August 1, 2014, Radio Liberty listed, in a detailed article, the Lesin family’s real estate investments in the United States and recalled the anti-American remarks expressed by the former minister. He told one thing and did another. Like so many others in Russia.

This time, Lesin admitted he was “worried”: some people, he claimed, were attacking his family. So he tried to justify himself in Forbes: his daughter was 35 and ran a Russia Today office (he didn’t say where, but it was in the U.S.). His son was 31 and an intern at the film academy (he wouldn’t say which, but it was in the U.S. too…). Expressing his indignation against Radio Liberty for having published their addresses, he asserted, without answering clearly, that the mentioned properties were not his: “My children are making a life for themselves, they have taken out loans from the bank. It’s clear that [this Radio Liberty publication] is a [political] commission and, in some time, I’ll find out who initiated it.”

He recalled that in the United States some people had wanted to include him in the Magnitsky list, a list of people who were implicated, to one degree or another, in the death in prison of lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, and who had to be punished for it. “But they didn’t [include you in it], since you’re constantly going there to see your family,” pointed out Forbes. Lesin retorted that he didn’t go that often to the U.S. and had nothing to do with Magnitsky. He also claimed to have no business of his own.

But the former minister knew that the information from Radio Liberty and the U.S. senator was accurate, and he understood that the beginning of his downfall was nearing. He mentioned that he had known for years half of the people working in the Presidential Administration, and that he could contact anyone in the media.

 Marat Saytchenko, Izvestia

Photo : Marat Saytchenko, Izvestia

He also claimed not to be bothered by the fact that most Russian channels were under State control — and, in fact, this was the result of his own actions — and, when Forbes asked him if he was shocked by “propaganda tendencies in TV news”, he replied with two questions: “And where in the world don’t they exist? Don’t they also exist in the U.S. or the U.K.?” The usual whataboutism. What’s more, he continued, “it all depends on the society, what it wants to consume”; which is why, in his opinion, the opposition channel Dozhd’ was little watched. This last point is not entirely untrue, but it’s a classic argument among Putin’s Russian supporters: Russian society demands what Putin and his teams provide.

Could the scandal be hushed up? No, and on December 12, 2014, Lesin abruptly resigned from his post at Gazprom-Media. Unless, according to other sources, he was forced to leave. Indeed, following Senator Roger Wicker’s request for an investigation, the Deputy of the U.S. General Attorney had ordered on December 3 an investigation by the FBI, and he had informed the Senator accordingly. Not to mention that other agencies were interested in wealthy Russians’ fortunes, and that in Spain an investigation had been launched into Lesin’s funds and their possible links with money laundering.

The former minister then disappeared from Russia. According to an American intelligence source, he spent the summer of 2015 in the Swiss Alps, fearing he would be killed. According to unproven rumors, he may have contacted the FSB and the U.S. Department of Justice, because he feared for his life and his children’s lives.

There are other versions of this disappearance. Since leaving Gazprom-Media, Lesin had begun an affair with a very beautiful Siberian woman, Victoria R., a model and flight attendant. The two reportedly traveled the world — to Switzerland, but also to Greece, Bali, Italy and California, where Victoria dreamed to live — and the young woman posted on social networks photos of these trips and their yacht. In September 2015, a daughter, Tamara, was born to them, and Lesin was reportedly very happy about this birth. He wanted to divorce his wife Valentina — which would involve a division of real estate properties.

Death in the USA

Mikhail Lesin, aged 57, was found dead on the morning of November 5, 2015, in his room at Dupont Circle, a very average hotel in Washington DC (USA), not at all in keeping with the former minister’s lavish lifestyle. Actually, Lesin had had another room, since November 2, at the much more luxurious Four Seasons in Georgetown. At first, there were talks of a stroke or heart attack, especially as the former minister had spent the previous three days drinking. But, and this would not be made public until March 2016, he had, according to the American authorities, numerous injuries, notably to his head and neck, and broken ribs: as if he had been hit with a baseball bat.

Mikhail Lesin, Russia Today’s creator, was buried even before these revelations. In Moscow? No, in Los Angeles, at Hollywood Forever Cemetery on Santa Monica Boulevard: where many actors and personalities involved in the creation and running of American cinema are buried.

On March 11, 2016, the day after the U.S. authorities’ announcements, Kommersant published an interview with Sergei Vasiliev, general manager of Video International and Lesin’s friend of twenty years. According to Vasiliev (and his testimony should be taken with caution), Lesin had spent two weeks in Moscow, before leaving for the United States — “His family lives in Los Angeles”. He had been invited to Washington by the oligarch Pyotr Aven — one of Alfred Koch’s co-authors — who, on November 3, was receiving the Wilson Center Prize for the Development of Russian-American Relations. The two men had hoped to see each other, but Lesin did not attend to this even. Aven also took part, on November 4, in a private meeting organized by another Washington think tank, the Atlantic Council. Here again, Lesin apparently wanted to attend, but the organizers refused to include him among the guests. In Washington, the former minister nevertheless met up with old friends — whom Vasiliev claimed to know –, drank too much, left his friends and landed in the first hotel he could find.

In the opinion of investigative journalists Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan, Lesin was brutally beaten near his hotel. He managed to reach his room and died there. Those who beat him have never been found, and rumor in Moscow has it that Lesin had fallen out of favor with the Kremlin just before this incident.

As if the situation wasn’t already enigmatic enough, Alexei Navalny reported, also in March 2016, that, according to the U.S. Border Service website, a man with a Russian passport in Lesin’s name had left the U.S. on December 15, 2015, forty days after the former minister’s death. The information was picked up by various media outlets, while Vasiliev stressed that he had seen his friend’s body in his coffin. Back in November 2015, Navalny had speculated that Lesin’s death could be staged so as to protect a witness, ready to tell what he knew about Putin.

But an American official pointed out that this departure date had been entered to close the deceased’s visa, according to standard procedure, and did not prove a real departure. However, rumors of an organized disappearance to allow the former minister to change his life have continued to circulate.

On October 28, 2016, the U.S. federal prosecutor’s office declared that Lesin had died alone in his room after a series of falls due to excessive alcohol consumption over several days. It was therefore “an accident”, and the case was closed. However, in July 2017, as part of a series on murders possibly involving Russian secret services, the Buzzfeed website revisited Lesin’s death and asserted that, contrary to the official version, many in the U.S. secret services and law enforcement suspected a Russian involvement. Buzzfeed News had therefore filed a complaint in order to gain access to the entire investigation.

In this article, two FBI agents claimed that Vladimir Putin’s “ex-media tsar” had been beaten to death and that he had an appointment with the U.S. Department of Justice the following day. The latter had paid for the room at Dupont Circle and wanted to interview Lesin about RT. According to one of these agents, “everyone thinks he was beaten up, and that Putin or the Kremlin was behind it”. American officials were therefore worried: would the Kremlin start killing on American soil, as it had done, abundantly it seems, in Great Britain?

Alexei Venediktov, editor-in-chief of radio Echo of Moscow, was interviewed shortly afterwards about Buzzfeed’s claims. Having known Lesin for a long time, he said that he immediately understood that the former minister had died a violent death, not a heart attack, “as the Kremlin told us and Margo Simonyan told us on behalf of the family”. But, curiously, Venediktov refered to the forced NTV takeover (see the episode on Alfred Koch): Lesin was the “main witness” for “annex number 6”, in case a trial was to take place. The journalist assured that he was closely following the Washington police investigation. He did not believe that Lesin had benefited from a witness protection program. According to him, two versions remained: either Lesin had fought with someone in the street, or he had been killed. For the moment, no clear answer could be given:

“I don’t know who had an interest in this death. Mikhail Yuryevich Lesin was a man with whom it was difficult to communicate, someone very abrupt. […] You could say that I had an interest in his death, even though this is not the case, of course. On the contrary, I repeat, we have lost a witness.”

It would be necessary, he added, “to understand what [Lesin] was negotiating with the American government” — and Venediktov thus seemed to validate this hypothesis. But he pointed out that the former minister was about to get a divorce and “had a lot of complicated relationships”: “Who benefits? Everyone and no one.” In any case, if Lesin was buried in the USA, it was because “his whole family” lived there: his children Anton and Ekaterina, his grandchildren, but also his wife Valentina. “He himself lived in the United States, he had left Russia, that’s what you have to understand”, declared Venediktov.

This gives the exact measure of the “patriotism” of those who create, in Putin’s Russia, propaganda channels and patriotic education programs.

In December 2017, the Washington DC police released 58 pages of their investigation into Lesin’s death. But some passages were blacked out, and this report revealed nothing about the beatings, or even the falls. Then, on January 26, 2018, the FBI unveiled part of its investigation: 56 pages that don’t add up to much. On March 27, 2018, BuzzFeed reported what Christopher Steel, a British secret agent who had written a report on links between Trump and certain Russians, was said to have told the FBI: Lesin was allegedly killed by thugs recruited by an oligarch close to Putin, because he had bad professional relations with this oligarch. However, the “thugs” had been instructed to beat and intimidate the former minister, not to kill him, and, according to some sources, they were agents of the Russian services. Three other independent sources confirmed Steel’s claims, but the FBI refused to take them into account.

One year later, on March 16, 2019, Radio Liberty reported that it had access to the report of Washington’s chief medical examiner. It stated that Lesin’s neck may have been fractured before his death, but also during the autopsy. U.S. authorities still regarded the death as an accident, but “media reports have stated that the former minister may have been killed because he agreed to testify about corruption in Russia”. His son, Anton, “who lives in Beverly Hills, told investigators that Lesin always got drunk on business trips”. Did U.S. authorities want to question his father about RT? About corruption in Russia? And / or about his relations with Vladimir Putin, the Kremlin and Yuri Kovalchuk, head of Bank Rossia, as some media wrote? Officially, there is no confirmation that Lesin was preparing to testify about anything before American authorities. But it’s a fact: he knew everything about the Putin system from the inside.

Conclusion: Real estate and succession

Meanwhile, the succession was beginning to be settled. On July 25, 2017, Ria Novosti thus reported that a mansion in Brentwood, Los Angeles, was up for sale. It had been purchased in 2012 for $9 million by the company Dastel Holdings, which on the papers was owned by Anton Lesin, and it was put up for sale in 2017 at $23 million. The approximately 980 m2 property featured seven bedrooms and eleven bathrooms, an elevator, a sauna and a wine cellar. The Dastel company was also offering, for $28 million, a mansion of around 1,200 m2, located in Beverly Hills, in a permanently guarded location also home to actor Samuel L. Jackson and basketball player Magic Johnson. The Dastel company was domiciled there.

Ria Novosti pointed out that, during his lifetime, Lesin had always denied owning any real estate in the United States, where his family lived. He claimed that these properties belonged to his children, but he had lost his position as advisor to the President in 2009 for “excessive activity in business, causing a conflict of interest”.

A well-documented article published on August 8, 2017, on the not necessarily very reliable website Criminal Russia, claims that, according to journalist Evgenia Albats — a reliable source — the capital of Lesin’s “gray business empire” — neither legal nor illegal — could be estimated at a billion dollars. Some sources — including former MP Konstantin Borovoy, who now lives in the USA — believe that a significant part of Lesin’s assets have been diverted from the hundreds of millions of dollars attributed to Russia Today. The properties in California could be just the tip of the iceberg: the former minister is said to have left millions of dollars in business assets in Finland and Switzerland.

He is said to have laundered some of his funds by helping his son produce films. The ones Brad Pitt and Arnold Schwarzenegger starred in? As for Lesin’s daughter, nothing can be found about her on the Internet, even though she headed RT US office. Was her title vague and her job fictitious? Or had the internet been wiped clean? Many mysteries remain around the life and disappearance of Mikhail Lesin, the man “with the good face of a child killer”.

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