The drug was fugu poison. The Japanese use it for committing suicide. It comes from the sex organs of the Japanese globe-fish. Trust the Russians to use something no one’s ever heard of.
– M, James Bond’s boss, on a Russian agent’s attempt to poison 007. From Ian Fleming’s Doctor No
When German authorities announced that Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, then still in intensive care at the Charité hospital in Berlin, had been poisoned in Siberia with Novichok, a military-grade nerve agent, the Kremlin’s involvement became almost impossible to deny. Novichok, after all, was developed in the Soviet Union and it was notoriously used to try to assassinate Sergei Skripal, former Russian military intelligence officer turned British spy, just two years ago in the United Kingdom. The Russian authorities vehemently denied the German diagnosis, which struck many as illogical. Why use a bespoke toxin, which is internationally known as poison developed and deployed by the Russian government?
Among criminals, there are only two types who deliberately leave traces of their handiwork, making law enforcement’s job of identifying and catching them all too easy. The first are psychopaths who have an irrational, subconscious desire to be caught. The second are mobsters who like to turn their murders into lessons or warnings to others that a similarly grim fate awaits them should they cross the line. The Kremlin’s track record of poisonings certainly doesn’t suggest anything irrational.
The Russian tsars – arrogant, short-sighted and fairly unqualified – fought a desperate struggle for years with the revolutionaries who called themselves, proudly, terrorists or “bombists.” The tsars kept hanging them, or sending them to Siberia, or spying on them abroad. The one thing they didn’t do was poison these radicals.
What elevated poisoning as a state assassination method in Russia was the Bolshevik regime. Vladimir Lenin inaugurated the program by proposing himself as its first victim: After suffering a debilitating stroke in 1922, the first leader of the Soviet Union asked his successor, Josef Stalin, for cyanide to commit suicide. Stalin refused. Four years later, in 1926, the Russian secret services launched the first poison laboratory, according to most historians, although some argue the laboratory was really established in 1921 under Lenin’s direct orders. As with the name of the Russian secret services themselves, the name of the laboratory changed over time; it was known variously as “Laboratory No. 12,” “Laboratory X,” or just “Camera.” It was headed by Professor Grigory Mairanovsky, a gaunt man with the sunken cheeks of an ascetic. His lab was attached to a group of assassins tasked with killing enemies of the regime. Over the years, Mairanovsky experimented with more than a dozen poisons, from thallium and sodium cyanide to colchicine, digitoxin, aconitine, strychnine and curare. In short order, the poisons were exported for use against Russian political exiles, starting with Gen. Alexander Kutepov, a tough anti-Bolshevik and a veteran of the Russian Civil War, and the head of the military wing of the anti-Soviet émigré organization ROVS (Russian All-Military Union). In January 1930, a bystander saw Kutepov snatched from the streets of Paris by four unknown assailants and injected with something; he was shuffled into a car and driven off, never to be seen or heard from again.
Poison was also used inside Russia. In 1937, Camera came under the personal control of Genrikh Yagoda, the head of the NKVD (People’s Commissariat of Internal Affairs), the forerunner agency of the KGB. Yagoda had been a pharmacist before the October Revolution, so this new purview suited him well, albeit not long. Stalin soon had Yagoda arrested and accused, ironically, of poisoning several prominent Russians including Yagoda’s predecessor, Vyacheslav Menzhinsky, as well the famous Russian writer Maxim Gorky. Yagoda was promptly shot. Grigory Mairanovsky kept Camera in dark business throughout the decades that followed, testing poisons on many recourseless victims, including over 200 Gulag inmates. The list of victims also included an American, former Comintern agent Isaiah Oggins, who in 1939 had been sentenced to eight years in the gulag for supposed “anti-Soviet propaganda” (in reality, he was yet another victim of Stalin’s paranoia). Then, Mairanovsky, too, was purged in 1951.
Although the Soviet secret services dispensed with Mairanovsky, they didn’t give up on his weapon of choice. In 1959, Stepan Bandera, leader of the Ukrainian independence movement, was shot on the streets of Munich with a bullet filled with a cyanide. It was a mere year after Ian Fleming’s sixth 007 novel, Doctor No, was published, which made ample use of Russian poison in its plot. (Not that the Kremlin was alone in trying to off its opponents this way; in 1960, the CIA had Fidel Castro’s cigar box tainted with a botulinum toxin, although the stogies in question never found their way to El Commandante’s lips.)
By the height of the Cold War, a clear target pattern emerged in the Soviets’ use of nerve agents and chemical weapons, with political rivals, dissidents, defectors, exiles, and leaders of independence movements in Soviet republics, including one prominent Ukrainian priest, being wiped out with these toxins.
And the research never stopped. In 1978, a Bulgarian dissident, Georgi Markov, was famously killed after an assassin stuck an umbrella point into his leg, injecting him with a pellet filled with ricin, a poison found naturally in castor beans and therefore somewhat easy to manufacture, making its point of origin harder to uncover. (As this story was being written, a Canadian woman was arrested on charges of having sent ricin to U.S. President Donald Trump.) The KGB had given the pellet to its Bulgarian counterpart, the Committee for State Security.
When the Soviet Union collapsed, the legacy of Camera appeared to be just that – a thing of the past. The 1990s were a bloody time for Russia – a Chechen separatist insurgency and the brutal repression of it, the gangland violence of organized criminals and billionaire oligarchs. It was a period of guns, bombs, and missiles, but not poisons. The lone exception to this rule involved Novichok, which was used against a Russian financier in a purely commercial dispute. The killers had bribed one of the scientists who’d formerly worked on the Soviet program to manufacture a small dose – the rare instance of a state actor being seconded by non-state actors to deploy the nerve agent.
Everything changed when Vladimir Putin came to power.
In the early 2000s, Russia was embroiled in its Second Chechen War – only this time the rebels were assisted in no small way by international jihadists. One of these was the infamous Emir Khattab, an Arab warlord who’d become public enemy number one for Russia’s FSB, the domestic security agency, which Putin had headed until becoming prime minister and then president. Khattab had been responsible for many terrorist attacks inside Russia, and his assassination became a matter of the highest state priority.
In March 2002, he was hiding in the mountains of the North Caucasus, surrounded by his bodyguards, and was expecting a letter from Saudi Arabia. To prevent being tracked by the FSB, Khattab communicated only via couriers, much as Osama bin Laden later did in Pakistan. The FSB had recruited one of them and poisoned an intercepted letter with a nerve agent, whose toxins were released slowly upon contact. The letter was delivered. Khattab opened it, read it, and threw it into a campfire. Three days later, he suddenly started foaming at the mouth. In a few hours, he was dead.
This operation, distinct from prior Soviet models that typically involved direct engagement between assassin and victim, was a slow-burn hit, relying on double agents with an underground jihadist network. It was seemingly inspired by Mossad’s killing of Fatah or Hamas targets in Palestine. Indeed, officers from Vympel, the FSB’s elite special operation unit, told us how fascinated they were by the Israeli intelligence’s targeted assassination program. For a short while, it appeared that Russia would refashion Camera’s methodology into a tool of counterterrorism against religious fundamentalists, not as one of terrorism against ordinary citizens or political activists. That trajectory proved false.
In 2003, Yuri Shchekochikhin, a member of the Russian parliament and the deputy editor of Novaya Gazeta, one of Russia’s most well-respected newspapers, was conducting a series of sensitive investigations into corruption within the FSB. He died suddenly from some mysterious intoxication at a hospital at the age of 53. Within two weeks, all his internal organs failed one by one, his skin came off in clumps, his hair fell out, and he said his entire body felt like it was on fire. Shchekochikhin had been in good health and fit condition. One of his friends who returned from his funeral told us how transformed he was from the toxin that killed him: His corpse was that of an old man.
We were young journalists, but we knew that many of our colleagues were gunned down, stabbed, or blown up as retaliation for their reporting. None, however, had ever been poisoned before. It was a gruesome escalation against what was still a relatively independent Russian press, a way of telegraphing to critics of the wealthy and powerful that no longer would they just be murdered. Now they’d die horrible, agonizing deaths that would torment their friends and families. It was right out of Stalin’s textbook. The authorities didn’t even pretend to investigate Shchekochikhin’s killing. A criminal case was opened five years later and then quickly dropped. Officially, the journalist and Duma delegate died of “an allergy.”
A year later, in 2003, Anna Politkovskaya, Shchekochikhin’s colleague at Novaya Gazeta and a muckraking opponent of Putin’s wars in the North Caucasus, was en route via plane to the city of Beslan, North Ossetia, after terrorists captured over a thousand people, most of them children, in a local school. It became one of the worst hostage crises of modern times, and it ended calamitously when Russian security forces stormed the building with tanks and heavy weapons. The incident left 334 of the hostages, including 186 children, dead. Politkovskaya had drunk a cup of tea on the plane and lost consciousness. It was widely assumed she’d been poisoned so as to stop her from reporting live from the massacre. She survived, only to be fatally shot outside her apartment building two years later.
After that, Russia poisoning Russians became common practice again, although the substances used –radiological isotopes, synthetic nerve agents – were no longer designed to hide the perpetrators. Now they were designed to advertise them.
The most powerful image of 2006 was the photograph of Alexander Litvinenko, an FSB whistleblower turned British agent, taken from the intensive care unit of University College Hospital in London. The dirty-blonde exile had already gone bald from exposure to polonium-210, a highly radioactive and extremely rare isotope. Litvinenko died three weeks later. Of the two FSB officers accused by the British government of assassinating him, one, Andrei Lugovoi, was elected to the Russian parliament and awarded a seat on its Security Committee, the body tasked with defining the rules for Russia’s intelligence agencies.
According to Vil Mirzoyanov, the Soviet scientist who first exposed the existence of Novichok to the world, the option to restore the production of this bespoke family of nerve agents in some form or another was always there. Polonium, on the other hand, has never stopped being manufactured in Russia, guarded by the secret services, home of the lion’s share of it.
While we were researching our book The Compatriots: The Brutal and Chaotic History of Russia’s Exiles, Émigrés, and Agents Abroad, it struck us that almost everyone we met – an oligarch in exile, an oligarch tamed by the Kremlin, a high-ranking priest of the Russian Orthodox Church – mentioned Novichok. They’d all evidently come to the conclusion that, from now on, they couldn’t rule out being killed with it.
Poisoning an enemy of the Kremlin with such signature agents is never meant to be about just the death of that enemy. It’s meant to send a message, which is itself a holdover from the bad old days of Communism. The KGB didn’t just destroy one life when it removed a troublemaker from the Soviet system; it then set about destroying the lives of his friends and relatives. If a dissident, for instance, was arrested, his spouse would lose her job, his children would be expelled from university, and/or his other family members would be banned from traveling abroad. Poison, deadly and effective, is perfectly efficient in that its victim doesn’t even die alone. The loved ones must share the horror of death by watching the poisoned expire slowly and painfully.
Today, with the proliferation of social and digital media, the effects are even more pervasive and menacing: News of someone being rushed to the ICU with symptoms of acute stomach pain, pupil dilation, asphyxiation, or loss of consciousness sends shockwaves around the world. As with any act of terrorism, this one enlists everyone who so much as hears about it as ancillary psychological victims. Even President Trump, it was reported, was chilled by the sight of lifeless Syrian children following the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons in Douma in April 2018, an attack which led to a U.S. and UK military response against the facilities which manufactured and distributed those weapons.
Poisoning is always a murky business, even when it’s meant to be transparent. By its very nature, use of an invisible murder weapon seen only by toxicologists in closed-off institutes and laboratories leads to wild conspiracy theories and “alternative” explanations. When somebody is shot to death in the street, with multiple gunshot wounds, it’s not really possible, except perhaps for the most febrile mind, to claim that the victim topped himself. But one can always insinuate suicide with poisoning, or even suggest that the victim hadn’t been poisoned at all but was in fact a lead actor in an elaborate act of political stagecraft designed to foster a diplomatic crisis or even war.
When Litivineko was irradiated in London, a popular Russian newspaper claimed he’d succumbed to his own criminal business activity – namely that he’d tried to hawk radioactive materials on the black market and had accidentally killed himself with them. Many Russians found that theory credible. More than a decade hence, at the height of Salisbury’s containment in 2017, Russian state television was fond of insisting that Sergei and Yulia Skripal weren’t poisoned at all; rather, their entire ordeal was just a hoax orchestrated by British intelligence. Why? Because the Skripals, then under close British government guard, were never carted out before the cameras.
To a paranoid and distrustful Russian audience, victim-blaming comes easily, and thus the target of state poisoning is attacked twice: first physically, then reputationally.
In 2015, opposition politician Vladimir Kara-Murza, who has lobbied incessantly for the passage of anti-Kremlin U.S. sanctions, suddenly fell into a coma in Moscow and spent weeks unconscious in hospital. The Russian doctors first alleged his sudden illness was brought on by a dangerous combination of sedatives, nasal sprays and alcohol. Most Americans, with their long history of antidepressant use, would have seen right through such a feeble misdiagnosis. But to an ordinary Russian, it sounded plausible. Kara-Murza thus went from victim to irresponsible self-medicator and boozer. He was poisoned a second time, in 2017, while traveling in Russia.
The following year, Pyotr Verzilov, the man behind the punk-activist group Pussy Riot, was also admitted to a hospital in Berlin after he left the Moscow district court, walked for two hours and then suddenly started losing his sight, speech and motor skills. Soon he had convulsions and fell into a semiconscious state in the ambulance. Pro-Kremlin media then came up with a theory that Verzilov had simply overdosed. He was declared a junkie, the easier not only to exonerate his assailants but to also dismiss the agitational life he’d led up to that point as one drug-fueled dissipation.
It came hardly as a surprise, then, that when Navalny’s poisoning was announced, Margarita Simonyan, the editor-in-chief of RT, the Russian state propaganda channel, suggested on Twitter that he was only suffering from low blood sugar. The Russian Health Ministry put out a statement suggesting Navalny had had alcohol in his system, prompting a disinformation campaign on social media that he was drunk. Even Andrei Lugovoi, Litvinenko’s accused assassin turned parliamentarian, trolled the world. Russia’s opposition leader, he said, could only have been poisoned in Germany.
Using Novichok or polonium means leaving a calling card. And yet, built right into this stark attribution of Kremlin responsibility are also the ingredients for conspiratorial denial. The West knows right away whodunit. Russians, meanwhile, are invited to consider that the culprit could be anyone and everyone except Putin.