EXCLUSIVE: Vladimir Putin's media Svengali who was found dead in DC hotel was 'murdered for being an FBI informant' - or could even still be alive, claim Russians
- Millionaire Mikhail Lesin, 57, was found dead in $240-a-night in Washington DC last Friday and police are investigating
- The pro-Putin 'propaganda channel' he set up, RT, claimed he 'had been suffering from a prolonged unidentified illness'
- But DC police have made no such finding and now speculation is mounting in Russia that he was murdered because he had turned FBI informer
- Know as 'the Bulldozer' he was key to media falling into line with Putin but had recently found new love and become father with Siberian model, 29
The death from a 'heart attack' of a longtime close ally of Vladimir Putin in a Washington hotel has led to a swirl of speculation that he was murdered on Moscow's orders after offering to help the FBI.
Mikhail Lesin, 57, was announced last weekend to have been found dead in the US capital. He was a Svengali figure for Putin, who was alleged to have menaced the Russian media into idolizing the strongman president.
The shock death has created an eave of speculation in Moscow that it is related to previous reports that he was helping the FBI - and could be murder.
There are even separate allegations that Lesin may still be alive, with his demise faked by the US authorities.
According to this version, he is being kept safe as part of a witness protection scheme, while spilling to the FBI all he knows on Putin's Russia.
Daily Mail Online can reveal that only weeks before his death was announced, he fathered a child with glamorous model and flight attendant Victoria Rakhimbayeva.
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Murdered? Mikhail Lesin and his new love Victoria Rakhimbayeva, who were photographed when she was pregnant. He was found dead last Friday in a Washington DC hotel - and now speculation is mounting about him
Claim: Lesin was reported by the TV station he set up - RT, known to be pro-Kremlin - to have died from a longstanding illness while staying at the Dupont Circle Hotel (pictured)
World traveler: Victoria Rakhimbayeva, believed to be 29, posted photographs from around the world and said that she and Lesin were planning to live in New York, although she preferred Los Angeles
She is believed to be aged 29, with whom he had enjoyed a close relationship since at least mid-2014.
She has not commented on his death other than to thank friends on social media for their commiserations, but before the tragedy she made clear that they intended to set up home permanently in New York.
Despite Russian reports of a heart attack, police in DC have said no cause of death has been determined while also indicating there was no obvious sign of foul play.
'A ruling on the cause and manner of death is pending further investigation,' said a Saturday statement.
Nicknamed the 'Bulldozer', Lesin was one of the key props of the Putin presidency, personally masterminding a wide-ranging media crackdown which has left the vast majority of Russian TV stations and newspapers obedient to the Kremlin.
He also set up Russia Today, now RT, seen by critics as a 'propaganda' channel aimed at the West.
But earlier this year, after the break-up of his marriage, and in a new relationship with his Siberian lover who he may have wed - she referred to him as her 'husband' - he suddenly quit the latest of several high profile positions, as head of Gazprom Media, a major state owned media conglomerate.
There are unsubstantiated claims in Moscow that when he died he was in debt to billionaire Yury Kovalchuk, one of Putin's closest big business friends.
'He owed huge amount of money to Kovalchuk, which he supposedly didn't intend to pay back,' an unnamed source told The Moscow Times.
His presence and death in Washington shocked many Russians.
Lesin was found dead at 11:30am on November 6 while staying on an upper floor at the $240-a-night Dupont Circle Hotel, seen as modest for his multimillionaire lifestyle.
Key aide: Mikhail Lesin (right, with Putin), who was Putin's press secretary during his first stint as president, founded state television network Russia Today, regarded in the West as a mouthpiece for the Kremlin
Longstanding association: Mikhail Lesin had known Vladimir Putin before the Russian strongman took control of the Kremlin and was nicknamed 'the Bulldozer' for getting the media to dance to Putin's tune
Comrades: Mikhail Lesin was Putin's press minister from 1999 to 2004, then his press adviser from 2004 to 2009, when he created Russia Today
It is unclear if Rakhimbayeva was in the US with him at the time.
Yet some 16 months earlier, Senator Roger Wicker had called for a Justice Department probe into whether Lesin was engaged in money laundering.
The status of any subsequent FBI investigation is unclear, but - rightly or wrongly - in Russia it was widely believed that a probe was indeed under way.
Many elite Russians with links to the Putin regime are currently giving the US, and other parts of the West, a wide berth amid fears of arrest, hence the surprise and bewilderment at him being in Washington.
But there are also suggestions that Lesin had taken a decision to leave Russia for good before his untimely death in America.
Former Russian vice premier Alfred Kokh openly asked this week whether Lesin could have been murdered - like a new Alexander Litvinenko, a Putin foe poisoned by radioactive polonium poured into his tea in London nine years ago.
Kokh spoke amid fears in Moscow that he was ready to trade his inside knowledge of the Putin court for an end to any American investigation into the propriety of his wealth.
Questioning why Putin's former media manipulator was in the US capital, Kokh asked in an online posting: 'What's so interesting about Washington? I've been there quite a few times.
'And I'd answer - nothing. At all. It's a boring city without a touch of spice.
Former model: Mikhail Lesin had found new love with Victoria Rakhimbayeva, a former semi-nude model for Russian Maxim magazine who was 28 years his junior. She has accepted condolences on his death
Blossoming relationship: Victoria Rakhimbayeva is believed to be 29 years old and to have started a close relationship with Mikhail Lesin since at least mid-2014
Getting away: 'Russia is already left behind, and I haven't yet made it to America,' she wrote at one point. 'Getting there with connections: 3 months in Europe and 3 months in Asia.'
'Widowed': In August 2014, Vicoria Rakhimbayeva posted from Italy saying: 'Every day of my life is so full of happiness that it seems it can't get any better.' She now faces raising their child alone
'But that's where FBI and the Russian Embassy are located. And also the body of a renowned Putin confidant found in a city hotel room, who the FBI was investigating on suspicion of money laundering.
'And Russian Embassy tries to create the impression that it was death by heart attack.
'Maybe they were afraid that Lesin was telling the FBI something in return for suspending the investigation?
'And that's why they had tea? As has happened a few times before.'
Human rights activist Pavel Chikov claimed the death of a man with an intimate knowledge of Putin's circle, was suspicious, stating: 'It would be right to assume that Lesin, who knows quite a lot, was ready for a deal within the FBI's investigation, which would make his position better.
'You don't normally go to Washington for treatment or for business but to communicate with officials.'
He added: 'There are not enough grounds to speak about murder. He could have been nervous. He may have had health issues.
'It could have been suicide. But anyway, it smells fishy.'
Prominent commentator Sergey Parkhomenko said of Lesin's death: 'To be honest, I wouldn't rule out the option of a program for witness protection.'
The one-time close Putin apparatchik is said to have owned property worth $28 million in Los Angeles, a rumored focus of the supposed FBI investigation, and two adult children who live in America.
Lesin's company the Dastel Corporation bought a 13,000 sq ft Beverly Hills home in August 2011 for $13.8 million and a 10,600 square foot property in Brentwood for $9 million in 2012, it was reported.
'For over a year he was living under FBI scrutiny and a total check on his assets,' he said.
Action girl: Victoria Rakhimbayeva emphasized her elite lifestyle posting picture after picture of her enjoying her travels. Her lover or husband - it is not clear if they married - leaves behind a reported $28m in LA property
Postings: Five weeks ago, Victoria Rakhimbayeva posted from Hawaii, seven weeks ago from Los Angeles. Earlier she was in the Komodo Islands, Switzerland, Singapore, Bali, and Greece
On the move: This was among Victoria Rakhimbayeva's postings. She had worked for a private jet firm before taking up with Mikhail Lesin
'For some reason he came to Washington where he suddenly died but not from not of something he had been suffering from.'
Echoing Kokh, he suggested Lesin 'had something to swap his death for' - adding: 'There was a lot to swap it for.'
Moscow is prone to conspiracy theories when prominent people die before their time, but while Lesin had a number of medical issues, they were not seen as life-threatening and there was genuine shock among his friends and those who crossed paths with him.
'Lesin died. It's impossible to believe this,' tweeted Margarita Simonyan, editor-in-chief of RT.
Alexey Venediktov, one of Russia's most respected journalists, who had dealings - and clashes - with him, wrote online:
'He left the country. September 25 he had a baby daughter. This September, now, so it's been a month, a month and a half.
'And honestly, when I found out about his death, my first thought was about the baby, to be honest. It's also about empathy, because, okay, he's gone but the girl with a baby - how is she?
'My condolences to the baby and her mother, his family, his son, daughter, Valentina, his wife.'
The head of Russian media regulator Rospechat, Mikhail Seslavinsky, said of Lesin: 'I saw him a month ago.
'He was full of energy, going through a new period in his life, talking about forgotten feelings because of his newborn little daughter'.
In private, Lesin 'highlighted his responsibility for all the members of his extended family, loved all of his family, and was hoping for an harmonious existence in a world new to him.'
He spoke of a succession of surgeries that Lesin - who had been a heavy drinker and smoker - had undergone. These were not for heart problems, but linked to his spine.
'He was always a fighter, even after going through several complex surgeries, He had recovered, was doing sports, and looked absolutely healthy,' he said.
Simonyan revealed he had lost 66 pounds after breaking his spine three years ago, and undergone 13 operations after his back became infected.
After his death was announced, RT said without explanation that Lesin 'had been suffering from a prolonged unidentified illness'.
Lesin had himself denied allegations of a US property empire and shrugged off the US scrutiny. 'I got used long ago to not being loved,' he said.
'Wicker's request has fed speculation about whether Lesin was in Washington to cut a deal with US authorities,' stated The Moscow Times.
'Some say he was killed by enemies to silence him; others say his death was faked as part of a witness protection scheme to keep him safe.'
White House press secretary Josh Earnest was asked this week 'all kind of speculation about the nature of his death', but replied: 'I don't have any comment on it.'
In the months before his death, Irkutsk-born Rakhimbayeva traveled on an odyssey to some of the most exotic places in the world, according to her social media accounts.
Always alone: Victoria Rakhimbayeva never posted pictures of Mikhail Lesin on her social media profiles but in one exchange told another user: 'Traveling is about my husband - he's a brilliant mind and a great organizer of his (and also my) life'
Something fishy: One human rights activist's verdict on the death chimed uncannily with a picture posted by the dead man's lover - or wife - Victoria Rakhimbayeva on social media (left). She had posted extensively on her travels (right) with Lesin
Former wife: Lesin, pictured in Paris with his wife in 2002, went on to run Gazprom-Media but stepped down last year. He had two children from his earlier marriages and a new baby with Victoria Rakhimbayeva
RUSSIA TODAY: THE 'PROPAGANDA BULLHORN' FOUNDED BY LESIN
The idea for Russia Today (RT) was conceived by Mikhail Lesin as the Russian government sought to improve the public image of the country.
Before its conception in 2005, the head of the RIA Novosti news agency Svetlana Mironyuk said Russia was only known for 'communism, snow and poverty'.
Some would argue RT has done little to change that, with most of the West seeing the state-funded television network as a media arm for the Kremlin and Vladimir Putin.
During the conflict between Russia and Georgia in 2008, RT named Georgia as the aggressor, despite Russia invading parts of Georgia, which had merely defended itself against attack from the separatist governments of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
The channel caused consternation in the US in 2010 when it released controversial adverts showing President Barack Obama merging into Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
It was captioned 'Who poses the greatest nuclear threat?' and subsequently banned in US airports, while a similar advert showing a soldier merging into a Taliban fighter causing similar uproar.
In 2012 RT's website was hacked by a group called Antileaks, believed to be because of Wikileaks chief Julian Assange backing of the channel or because of the jailing of protest group Pussy Riot.
Secretary of State John Kerry has referred to Russia Today, often shortened to RT, as a 'propaganda bullhorn'.
Following the crisis in Ukraine, Kerry said: 'Russia Today network has deployed to promote president Putin's fantasy about what is playing out on the ground.
'They almost spend full-time devoted to this effort, to propagandize, and to distort what is happening or not happening in Ukraine.'
Even Vladimir Putin has admitted RT is biased, saying: 'Certainly the channel is funded by the government, so it cannot help but reflect the Russian government's official position on the events in our country and in the rest of the world one way or another.
'But I’d like to underline again that we never intended this channel, RT, as any kind of apologetics for the Russian political line, whether domestic or foreign.'
A former semi-nude model for Russian Maxim magazine, from 2010 she worked as a flight attendant on a British private jet firm.
It is unclear if Lesin - who she does not name - was with her at all times, but in one online exchange she made clear they intended to settle in New York, although she preferred Los Angeles.
'Russia is already left behind, and I haven't yet made it to America,' she wrote at one point.
'Getting there with connections: 3 months in Europe and 3 months in Asia.'
She said: 'Los Angeles is the best city in the world but husband is against', adding 'Poor me.'
She was asked: 'How did you manage to travel so globally between America and Russia, if it's not a secret? Savings?'
She replied: 'Traveling is about my husband - he's a brilliant mind and a great organizer of his (and also my) life.'
Five weeks ago, she posted from Hawaii, seven weeks ago from Los Angeles. Earlier she was in the Komodo Islands, Switzerland, Singapore, Bali, and Greece.
'We passed through all the islands in Greece on yacht,' she boasted around nine months ago.
In August 2014, she posted from Italy saying: 'Every day of my life is so full of happiness that it seems it can't get any better.
'But a new day comes and shows me new goals. I start thinking that happiness has no limits.
'Wish everyone love and unlimited happiness!'
A friend asks her: 'Who is he?'. She replied, believed to be alluding to Lesin: 'The one I need, finally.'
Lesin had been previously been married to Valetina, 57, with whom he had one son. He also had a daughter from an earlier marriage.
After the death announcement, a Kremlin spokesman said: 'The president appreciates the enormous contribution made by Mikhail Lesin to the formation of the contemporary Russian media.'
He had been press minister in Putin's first term, before becoming an adviser to the president between 2004 to 2009.
He quit amid claims of a conflict of interest between his business interests and his work as a civil servant.
Controversy surrounded him, as when during his stint as press minister the media empire of oligarch Vladimir Gusinsky media assets - noted for their independence - were transferred to state energy giant Gazprom.
He was also rumored to have played a key role in the creation of a secret tape compromising former Prosecutor General Yuri Skuratov.
Skuratov was seen in bed with two women, claimed to be prostitutes, forcing the resignation of a man who was probing alleged corruption in then president Boris Yeltsin's circle.
When he quit Gazprom Media in December, a move seen as a shock, he cited 'family reasons' although there were unconfirmed claims he had fallen out with other influential figures close to Putin.
Senator Wicker said of Lesin: 'That a Russian public servant could have amassed the considerable funds required to acquire and maintain these assets in Europe and the United States raises serious questions.'
The FBI has made no comment on any investigation.
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