Washington death of Vladimir Putin's former press minister was due to blunt force trauma
Russian President Vladimir Putin listens takes part in an annual televised phone-in with the nation in central Moscow on April 16, 2015 (AFP Photo/Alexei Druzhinin )

By David Smith and Shaun Walker

Medical examiner’s office report contradicts Russian TV report that family members of Mikhail Lesin, who died in November, said he had a heart attack

The mystery surrounding the death of Vladimir Putin’s former press minister in a Washington hotel deepened on Thursday when an autopsy revealed blunt force injuries to his head.

Mikhail Lesin’s body was found in November in a room at the Dupont Circle Hotel, in an upmarket neighbourhood that contains foreign embassies and policy thinktanks. Russia’s RT television quoted family members at the time as saying he had died of a heart attack after long-term illnesses.

But on Thursday the DC medical examiner’s office said Lesin, 59, had blunt force injuries to the head, neck, torso, arms and legs. The manner of death remained “undetermined”, the office’s statement said, and the incident is still under police investigation.

After news of the medical examiner’s report broke, Maria Zakharova, spokeswoman for Russia’s foreign ministry, wrote on Facebook that the Russian embassy in Washington had asked several times to be informed about the inquiry into the circumstances of Lesin’s death but had been told nothing.

“We are waiting for Washington to give us the relevant information and official data about the investigation,” Zakharova wrote.

“If the information published today in the media is true, the Russian authorities will send their American counterparts a request for international legal assistance.”

Yury Melnik, a spokesperson for the Russian embassy in Washington, echoed Zakharova when he said in a statement: “In the past several months the Russian embassy … repeatedly requested through diplomatic channels information regarding the progress of investigation of the death of the Russian citizen. No substantial information has been provided.”

Known as a tough and ambitious political operator, Lesin broke the stranglehold of the oligarchs on Russian media and ushered in the era in which the Kremlin controlled all major television stations. In 2013, he became the head of Gazprom Media, one of Russia’s largest media holdings.

He was press minister between 1999 and 2004, and is credited with the idea of setting up Russia Today, the English-language Kremlin-funded channel which has grown over the past decade to become a major international station.

He quit Gazprom Media unexpectedly in 2015, and for some time rumours of illness swirled. After his death, Margarita Simonyan, editor-in-chief of Russia Today, wrote that Lesin lost 30kg (66lb) after breaking his spine in 2012, and was known as a heavy smoker and drinker.

“It’s been a long time since I was scared by the word propaganda,” Lesin said in 2007, according to Russia Today’s website. “We need to promote Russia internationally. Otherwise, we’d just look like roaring bears on the prowl.”

Last year the Mississippi senator Robin Wicker called for Lesin to be investigated on suspicion of money laundering and corruption. He allegedly amassed millions of dollars in assets in Europe and the US while working for the Russian government, including $28m in Los Angeles real estate.

Wicker wrote: “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.”

Lesin left a wife and two children, including a daughter who is a bureau chief with Russia Today.