BY MATTHEW HERBERT
When Russian oligarch Mikhail Lesin ended up bludgeoned to death in his Washington D.C. hotel room in November 2015, the circumstances seemed suspicious.
Lesin was the founder of the English-language TV news channel Russia Today, and before that he had been Russia’s Minister of Mass Communications, twice, under Vladimir Putin. The job he had done for Putin was to eliminate the independent news media and replace it with talking heads that would silence the opposition and kowtow to the Kremlin. He was known as the bulldozer.
So, today, when Putin and other senior Russian officials appear on TV to smirk about the untimely deaths of the Kremlin’s political opponents–as they have done dozens of times–it is mostly Lesin they have to thank for enabling them.
And if you’ve never checked out Lesin’s brainchild, RT, you should. Its production values are just north of Fox News’s and its objectivity just south. Well, maybe. It depends on the day. RT’s mission, which it carries out well, is to make you feel like a sophisticated news consumer for believing there is no such thing as journalistic integrity. There are only messages out there, no truth. So take your pick.
But back to Lesin in that hotel room. The funny thing was, he was scheduled to meet with investigators from the U.S. Department of Justice the day his body was discovered. Despite years of being a loyal propaganda master to Putin, he had fallen out of the Kremlin’s favor since 2012, by drinking too much and squirreling away a suspicious amount of money in his new second home in Los Angeles, where he’d moved in 2011. Ostensibly he had needed the place in LA to establish RT’s beachhead in the U.S., but by 2012, he was starting to look settled there. Too settled. He owned two mansions in Beverly hills, his son was a Hollywood producer, and his $40 million yacht was docked nearby.
All that money came from somewhere, of course, and it probably wasn’t clean. That’s where the DoJ came in. By 2014 the feds knew Lesin was running scared from Putin’s assassins, and Washington was probably eager to make a deal. It would use an investigation of Lesin’s money laundering to strike a quid-pro-quo, offering to go soft on the oligarch’s financial crimes if he would cough up intelligence about Putin and the Kremlin’s inner workings.
Which is basically one of the best ways that exist to end up bludgeoned to death in your D.C. hotel room.
But funny enough, that’s not how the D.C. cops saw it. When the coroner determined Lesin had died of repeated applications of blunt-force trauma to the head, the police concluded Lesin had done it to himself, by getting falling-down drunk and, well, falling down. Many times, and very hard. They didn’t know what to make of an unidentified person seen on CCTV going to Lesin’s room that night, so they dismissed the footage. Lesin had just had a really weird, bad night that ended in a bizarre tragedy. On the night before he was to meet with the DoJ. Is it too much to believe? Well, there is no truth out there, only messages. Take your pick.
From Russia with Blood: The Kremlin’s Ruthless Assassination Program and Vladimir Putin’s Secret War on the West by BuzzFeed journalist Heidi Blake, is a painstakingly researched, ferociously reported story of the Kremlin’s increasingly bold killing of opponents abroad and at home.
Lesin’s death, while luridly fascinating, is only a side show to the string of 14 suspicious killings of Kremlin opponents that have occurred in the United Kingdom since 2006. That was the year two Russians poisoned the defector and former Federal Security Service (FSB) agent Alexander Litvinenko with the radioactive element polonium. Polonium is so radioactive that the two assassins who spread it on Litvinenko’s teacup left a trail of it all over London and inside the commercial airliner they used to escape back to Russia. The cleanup cost several million pounds. A doctor determined the assassins had used 26 times the lethal amount of polonium to kill Litvinenko. The substance could be, and ultimately was, traced to a unique source in Russia.
This meant two things. One, the Kremlin intended Litvinenko’s murder to be an emphatic warning, a deliberate atrocity carried out with Soviet giganticism. Twenty-six times the lethal amount of poison is like shooting someone 100 times with a pistol.
But it wasn’t a shooting, which would have caused a scene and possibly an arrest. So, two, Putin wanted just enough plausible deniability to brush off Britain’s criminal accusations but no more. Like any mob boss, he wanted the victim’s family and supporters to know who had ordered the hit. No sooner had Putin denied the killing with typical icy deflection than a loyal deputy in the Duma said of Litvinenko, “The deserved punishment reached the traitor. I am sure his terrible death will be a warning to all the traitors that in Russia the treason is not to be forgiven.“
We didn’t do it, but if we did, the rat deserved it.
And it didn’t stop there. The alleged assassins, safe back home, were trotted out and interviewed on Russian news channels, establishing their innocence and complete befuddlement at being caught up in such wild international accusations. It is likely that many ordinary Russians watching the two men knew what the world’s intelligence services knew: that those men were really Russian agents and they really had killed Litvinenko. But ordinary Russians liked it that Putin could stick it in the world’s eye by bulldozing the truth and killing traitors wherever he found them.
From Russia with Blood tells an infuriating story of how the Kremlin has been bulldozing the truth and flexing its mob muscle since Putin rose to power in 2000. From the most recent outrage on international law, the brazen poisoning of defector Sergei Skripal in March 2018 in the UK, all the way back to Putin’s recruitment of Mikhail Lesin in 2000 to eliminate the free press in Russia, all the people now dead who were linked in any way to Litvinenko shared a trait that makes them potentially very dangerous. They were all knowledgeable of a credible criminal theory that implicates Putin in acts of state terrorism dating back to the beginning of his career as a national politician.
The causal news consumer in the West can be forgiven for believing the standard line on Putin–that he is a little authoritarian around the edges but not fundamentally different from any strong national leader. In the early 2000s our own leaders, George W. Bush and Tony Blair foremost, worked hard to cultivate this image of Putin. It was part of bringing Russia into the liberal world order after the chaos of Boris Yeltsin’s presidency.
What the Western leaders didn’t know–or, what they refused to believe–was that Putin had likely orchestrated the bloody national emergencies in the heart of Russia that had helped propel him to power, starting with a string of apartment building bombings in late 1999. Although the bombings, which killed more than 300 people, were blamed on Chechen separatists (launching a bloody but highly convenient war), Litvinenko methodically uncovered evidence (about the FSB, the very agency in which he worked) that directly implicated Putin.
By the time Litvinenko defected to the UK in 2001, he had all the evidentiary material he needed to establish Putin’s guilt, which he wrote down in a book, with the shockingly frank title Blowing Up Russia. (You think meeting with the American DoJ to talk about Putin is a good way to get yourself whacked?) It built on an earlier book by Litvinenko, with the less explosive title The Gang from Lubyanka, advancing the eye-popping accusation that Putin’s rise to power had been a criminal enterprise from the beginning because he was in so thick with the mafia.
From Russia with Blood is a clear-eyed, highly readable account of what happened to every Russian (and many foreign associates) who knew of, promoted, or were even looking into the evidence behind Litvinenko’s theories. By the time you put the book down, you cannot fail but take seriously Blake’s thesis that Putin has long gotten away with murder and intends to do so again. It is the foundation of his power. From Russia with Blood is a glaring, violent morality tale of what happens when a vindictive strongman accrues unaccountable power.