The recent return of Vladimir Putin’s longtime éminence grise, Vladislav Surkov, to the Kremlin was widely discussed in the media. Much less noticed was the appointment of Mikhail Lesin, Putin’s former information minister, as the new head of Gazprom-Media, Russia’s largest—and de facto state-run—media group, which incorporates several broadcast, print, and online outlets. Lesin’s return to a senior position is no less symbolic than that of Surkov—and says a lot about the Kremlin’s plans for Russia’s few remaining uncensored media.
Lesin was a central figure in the early Putin years, spearheading the Kremlin’s effort to silence the country’s independent television—the first step in the consolidation of authoritarian rule. The first target was NTV, at that time Russia’s largest and most popular independent TV channel, whose hard-hitting news broadcasts, talk shows, and satirical programs criticized the government over growing corruption and the war in Chechnya and gave airtime to the opposition. In June 2000, a month after Putin’s inauguration, NTV’s founder and majority shareholder, Vladimir Gusinsky, was arrested and placed in Moscow’s infamous Butyrka prison. While he was there, the information minister made an offer: Gusinsky could have his freedom if he agreed to transfer his media holdings to Gazprom, the state-owned energy monopoly.
The Ominous Return of Putin's Media Enforcer