Is it too late now to say sorry? We’re about to find out. Amid the scores of front-page stories alleging that an omnipotent Kremlin tried to rig the 2016 election for Donald J. Trump, readers may have missed an important piece of information that undermines one of our most dangerous ruling narratives: the demonization of Vladimir Putin. In early November, almost a year to the day after a former Putin aide and Russian state media executive Mikhail Lesin was found dead in his hotel room in Washington, DC, the US Attorney for the District of Columbia released its findings on Lesin’s death. The statement declared that “after days of excessive consumption of alcohol” Lesin “sustained the injuries that resulted in his death while alone in his hotel room.”
Lesin’s body was found on the morning of November 5, 2015. In the months that followed, the American mainstream media machine kicked into high gear, spinning countless conspiracy theories and more often than not pointing the finger of blame for Lesin’s death at Putin. The episode is instructive in light of the recent wave of McCarthyite hysteria that has swept the political establishment over the alleged links of the Trump campaign to the Russian government. As with the media’s coverage of Lesin’s death, there is no evidence to support the claims. Still, they continue undaunted, as embarrassing, evidence-free hit pieces designed to smear Trump and former advisers like Paul Manafort and Carter Page as Russia’s useful tools.
A look at the media coverage in the weeks and months following Lesin’s demise at the Dupont Circle Hotel sheds a good deal of light on the media’s modus operandi regarding all things Russia.
On March 10, 2016, the New York Times reported that while the DC medical examiner “did not declare his death a criminal act, the authorities clearly no longer consider it to be the result of natural causes.” In fact, according to the Times “the mystery surrounding his rise and fall had only deepened.” Karen Dawisha, the author of the book Putin’s Kleptocracy, was quoted saying that Lesin “knew more than most about the system’s dark center.” The Washington Post followed up the next day with a piece titled “Report deepens mystery of former Putin aide’s death at DC hotel.” The Post noted that Lesin’s death had “fueled conspiracy theories around the globe.” Citing one of them, the report informed readers that critics of the Kremlin “have advanced theories that Lesin may have been killed because officials feared he was about to cut a deal with federal authorities investigating his land dealings in California.”
Then Masha Gessen took to the pages of the took to the pages of The New York Review of Books and called Lesin’s death perhaps “the strongest evidence to date of the kind of state Russia actually is: a mafia state.” According to Gessen, a highly sought after author and journalist who frequently graces the pages of The New York Times and other elite publications, Lesin was a man on the run: “rumor had it that he had a falling out with Aleksei Miller, a native member of the Putin clan who is CEO of Gazprom, the state oil conglomerate. As a result,” writes Gessen, “Lesin lost his job as head of the media company nominally owned by Gazprom.” Gessen speculates that Lesin’s decision to seek refuge in the US in the aftermath of the “falling out” gave the “Putin clan” sufficient cause to murder him. After all, “at a time when any number of Western law-enforcement agencies are investigating the business operations of the Russian elite, Lesin was roaming too far and too freely on enemy territory.”