Who was Russian ex-media chief Mikhail Lesin?

By Harry Bone
BBC Monitoring

Image source, EPA
Image caption,
Mikhail Lesin was a central figure early on in the Putin era

Mikhail Lesin, the Russian media figure found dead in a Washington hotel room in November, made his name in PR and advertising in the 1990s.

He founded advertising agency Video International or Vi - still one of Russia's biggest - and went on to became head of the state news agency RIA Novosti.

In 1996, he devised the advertising campaign that helped then President Boris Yeltsin win re-election.

The US authorities are investigating his death aged 57. Coroners say he died as a result of blunt force trauma to the head.

His son - Anton Lessine - has made a name for himself as a Hollywood film producer.

Mikhail Lesin, once regarded as a free media pioneer, became one of the first in Russia to advocate tightening state control of the internet - a policy the Kremlin appears to have pursued with greater vigour in recent years.

Image source, Reuters
Image caption,
Vladimir Putin spoke of Mikhail Lesin's "enormous contribution" to Russian media

Ruling against state

As minister for communications and media (1999-2004), he oversaw the hostile takeover of NTV by state-controlled Gazprom-Media in 2000. It happened a month after Vladimir Putin was sworn in as president.

At the time NTV, Russia's third national TV station, was critical of Kremlin policy, including the war in Chechnya. In the takeover, businessman Vladimir Gusinsky lost control of NTV and other major media assets and was imprisoned.

In 2004, the European Court of Human Rights accepted Mr Gusinsky's argument that the state had forced him to sell his media business in return for fraud charges against him being dropped. It ordered the Russian state to pay him €88,000 (£69,000, $97,700).

Lesin was also responsible for the closure of channels TV-6 and TVS and instrumental in setting up international broadcaster RT (Russia Today) in 2005, the Kremlin's TV mouthpiece abroad.

His role in bringing media outlets into the Kremlin orbit earned him the nickname The Bulldozer.

In November 2009, Lesin was sacked from his post of presidential media adviser, apparently over a conflict of interests.

He became head of Gazprom-Media in 2013, overseeing NTV when it broadcast a number of documentary films targeting the opposition.

He resigned in late 2014, citing family reasons, but respected Russian newspaper RBK reported that he had fallen out with a Gazprom-Media shareholder and close Putin associate, Yuri Kovalchuk.

US concerns

In 2014, the US Department of Justice and the FBI launched an investigation into Lesin's property in the US, amid suspicions of corruption and money laundering.

In a 2014 letter to US Attorney General Eric Holder, US Senator Roger Wicker raised concerns about the California property Lesin had bought since moving his family to the US.

"He acquired multiple residences at a cost of over $28 million," he wrote. "That a Russian public servant could have amassed the considerable funds required to acquire and maintain these assets... raises serious questions."

He also pointed to an apparent financial link between Lesin and Mr Kovalchuk, who is under EU-US sanctions, as is Mr Kovalchuk's Bank Rossiya.

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