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Putin Ally Dead in DC Buried in LA -- Police Mum on Details

In the absence of answers, rumors fly wildly about

This post first appeared on Russia Insider

Suspicions surrounding the unexplained death of Putin ally Mikhail Lesin are persisting unabatedly. A New York Times December 14 piece added to the enigma. "A Mansion, a Shell Company, and Resentment in Bel Air" in part casts aspersions about Lesin's real estate holdings in California.

A former Media Minister and advisor to Putin, Lesin was found dead in a Washington DC hotel room in early November. To date, the police have not been forthcoming with any real explanation of what happened.

Meanwhile rumors swirl about in the absence of an official ruling. They include reports that he did not die but was put into an identity protection program, that his death involved a homosexual assignation, and that he was murdered on Kremlin orders. I've seen no evidence to support any of those rumors. And when I asked the police about them, they declined comment.

Some news accounts say that Lesin had moved his family to California. If that's the case, it probably explains why he was buried there.

Media reporting on all this, however, has been pretty questionable, even down to basic details. For instance, the Moscow Times reported his body was discovered in a "comparatively un-luxurious" DC hotel. But the Irish Times claims "Lesin was found in a luxury suite." I suppose that one man's dump can be another's castle. The Irish story added that the hotel is "Irish owned." Maybe that has something to do with the differing perceptions. The hotel "is close to many of the main embassies in Washington, the Irish Times pridefully added.

But the booby prize for journalistic performance has to go to Ukraine Today. It ran a report by journalist Vitaly Portnikov titled, "The Monster Is Dead: How Mikhail Lesin managed to kill Russian journalism." Extolling the superiority of Russian journalism in the 1990s compared to that in Ukraine, Portnikov boasted, "The reports were professional. Everything was according to standards. Can anyone of sound mind say that today Russian journalism is an example of anything but dishonesty and disregard for these standards?" he asked.

Maybe Portnikov thinks I'm nuts, but he seems to have just a superficial understanding of Russia's journalistic scene. There were no standards back in the day. Yeltsin era laws made it practically impossible for media companies to operate independently and profitably. That sent the outlets straight into the arms of oligarchs and government officials. They were willing to foot the bill in return for the opportunity to color the news in their own favor. Disseminating news content that is biased by the wishes of a financial client whether private or political isn't freedom of the press. It's commercialized dishonesty.

As a media business analyst and consultant I've done intensive work in seventeen different Russian cities. I'm quite familiar with the situation on the ground then and now. It surely doesn't match Portnikov's effusive-cum-condemnatory nonsense. I detail the real media milieu in my book Medvedev's Media Affairs.

The truth is that during Lesin's tenure great strides were made in establishing for the first time a regulatory environment that would permit the successful operation of independent media companies. He lamented the prevalence of "illegal revenues from unregistered, indirect advertising." It is a shame that "articles are ordered and paid for, and written in someone's interest," he added. Russians so resented that kind of journalism that in survey-after-survey a vast majority called for the reinstitution of some kind of censorship. And that's perhaps what they got as the Kremlin took various key media properties under its wing.

Many Lesin case observers find drama in the long time it's taking for the police to disclose what happened to him. Some media bemoan a police suggestion that details may not be released until sometime in February. But experts in the field who I talked with explain that's within normal and routine standards. So there's not necessarily any reason for suspicion there. That means the police have a right to be mum, at least for the time being.

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