Eliminating political adversaries by using poison has been a favoured method since ancient times. In fact, some historians are still debating whether Alexander the Great, Cleopatra, Napoleon and even Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Stalin were assassinated using this method.
However, in the course of the past century, although poisoning of political rivals and critics has been used by a number of intelligence agencies around the world, from around 1921 onwards, it definitely became a Soviet and later, a Russian state-sponsored speciality.
Russian activist and Putin critic, Alexei Navalny is merely the latest in a long list of victims.
The weapons of choice : toxins and nerve agents hidden in food or drink.
In 1921, Vladimir Lenin ordered the setting up of a secret research and development laboratory in the outskirts of Moscow known as the ‟Kamera“, which means ‟the cell“ in Russian. It was run by the secret police agency, known as Cheka, with the purpose of dealing efficiently and mercilessly with critics and opponents of the young Soviet regime.
The speciality of this facility was to combine known poisons into original and untraceable forms.
Lenin’s Mausoleum, situated in the Red Square in the centre of Moscow, is a tomb that currently serves as the resting place of Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin © Edm
According to Pavel Sudoplatov, a high ranking general in Stalin’s intelligence services who was also involved in the assassination of Leon Trotsky in 1940 as well as Soviet attempts to obtain information about the atomic bomb from the Manhattan Project, the NKVD and its sucessor, the KGB had long come to the conclusion that poison was the most effective method of getting rid of troublesome critics and opponents.
The Cold War period, from 1947 to 1990 witnessed a large number of assassinations of adversaries through the use of various poisons by the KGB throughout Europe.
It seems that the KGB’s successor, the Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation (FSB) under Vladimir Putin fully shares this view.
ISAIAH OGGINS, 1947
Isaiah Oggins as a prisoner in a Soviet gulag, shortly before he was executed in 1947 by injection © Courtesy Robin Oggins
In 1947, a US-born communist and Soviet spy, Isaiah Oggins was accused of treason and arrested. After serving eight years in a Gulag, he was taken to the ‟Kamera“ laboratory where he was injected with curare. He died fifteen minutes later.
Stalin feared that Oggins might reveal Soviet secrets if he was allowed to return to the United States.
BISHOP THEODORE ROMZHA, 1947
Theodore George Romzha © Wikipedia
There was another Soviet state-sponsored assassination that same year. Theodore Romzha was a bishop in the Ukrainian Eastern Catholic Church who had organised a religious celebration, to the great discontent of Communist officials. It was decided he had to be eliminated.
And so, in October 1947 while on his way home, his carriage was rammed by a Soviet military truck. He and his companions were then beaten up by soldiers dressed as civilians.
He was taken to a hospital where the nuns nursing him were dismissed and replaced by a nurse who was a Ministry for State Security (MGB) agent. She poisoned him with an injection of curare, again provided by the NKVD laboratory, ‟Kamera“.
According to Russian investigative journalist Yevgenia Albats who is also the editor-in-chief of the respected New Times Magazine, the order for the bishop’s elimination came from Nikita Khrushchev in person.
NIKOLAI KHOLKHOV, 1957
Nikolai Evgenievich Khokhlov © Wikipedia
Nikolai Kholkhov was an NKVD and then a KGB agent who, during World War II was assigned various sabotage operations behind enemy lines, disguised as a Nazi officer.
In 1954, the KGB ordered him to supervise the assassination of Georgiy Okolovich who was the chairman of the National Alliance of Russian Socialists.
However, Kholkhov decided not to follow the orders and went to Frankfurt to warn Okolovich of the assassination plan.
In an act of retaliation, the KGB arrested his wife and sentenced her to five years of forced settlement in a remote region of the Soviet Union.
Kholkhov decided to defect to the United States and to testify about the activities of the KGB.
In 1957, while passing through Frankfurt, he drank a cup of coffee that had been laced with poison. In what proved to be the first radiological attack by the KGB, doctors at the hospital found traces of radioctive polonium in the former agent’s body.
Nikolai Kholkhov survived the assassination attempt and went on to obtain a PhD in psychology at Duke University in the United States.
He was pardoned in 1992 by Boris Yeltsin and returned to visit family and friends in Moscow the same year.
STEPAN BANDERA, 1959
In 1959 another Ukrainian national was targeted by the KGB. Stepan Bandera was the leader and ideologue of the far right Ukrainian Ultranationalists and strategist for the Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN).
These were fiercely anti-communist and collaborationist parties during Word War II.
In 1941, when the Wehrmacht reached Ukraine, Bandera and the OUN declared independence in the hope that Nazi Germany would officially recognise a fascist Ukraine after the war. However, things did not go quite as expected and in September of that year, Bandera and other leading members of the OUN were arrested by the Gestapo.
But in 1944, Bandera was contacted by SS officials to discuss plans for sabotage and disruption against the Red army.
In October 1959, Bandera was walking in a street in Munich when he suddenly collapsed and died a short time later. German medical examiners established the cause of death as poison by cyanide gas.
Two years later, German judicial authorities announced that Bandera had been assassinated by a KGB defector who had acted under the orders of the then head of the KGB, Alexander Shelepin and Soviet premier Nikita Khroushchev.
ALEXANDER SOLZHENITSYN, 1971
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn © Verhoeff, Bert / Anefo, via Wikimedia Commons
In 1971, the celebrated Russian dissident and Nobel Prize laureate for literature, Alexander Solzhenitsyn suffered extensive burns, followed by a mysterious illness that lasted three months. He survived what was most probably a KGB assassination attempt.
His novel ‟The Gulag Archipelago” among others was considered a head-on challenge to the Soviet state and had severely angered the authorities when it was published abroad and sold millions of copies.
According to Russian journalist Dmitri Likhanov, who writes for the Sovershenno Sekretno (Top Secret) newspaper, he has read eyewitness accounts of the assassination attempt in the memoirs of Lt. Col. Boris Ivanov, a retired KGB operative.
The memoirs reportedly describe how Ivanov and two other agents were sent to Rostov-on-the-Don in August 1971, on a mission to eliminate Solzhenitsyn. The writer entered a department store, followed by the three agents. At the candy counter, Solzhenitsyn was approached by two of the agents and separated from the other shoppers.
According to Ivanov, one of the agents took out an object from his pocket and began manipulating it before suddenly leaving the scene and heading for the exit.
It is still not clear how Solzhenitsyn might have been poisoned but an analysis by the Russian poison control centre concluded that the symptoms were due to ricin, a poison extracted from seeds that causes red blood corpuscles to stick together.
In 1974, Solzhenitsyn was stripped of his Soviet citizenship and went into exile in the US before being allowed to return to Russia in 1994.
GEORGI MARKOV, 1978
Georgi Markov © Wikipedia
The next high-profile case was the assassination of Bulgarian dissident writer and broadcaster, Georgi Markov in 1978.
Due to government censorship of his works, Markov left Bulgaria and settled in London in 1971. He began working as a broadcaster in the Bulgarian section of the BBC World Service, as well as with Deutsche Welle and Radio Free Europe.
He launched a campaign of sharp and sarcastic criticism against the Bulgarian communist regime headed by staunch Stalinist leader, Todor Zhivkov.
In September 1978, Markov had been waiting to board a bus on London’s Waterloo Bridge to go to the BBC when he suddenly felt a sharp sting in his right thigh. When he turned round, he saw a man pick up an umbrella from the pavement and hurriedly step into a cab.
That night, Markov developed a fever and was hospitalised. But he died four days later.
Police forensic pathologists found a pea-sized, hollow pellet in his thigh with traces of ricin. The wax-coated pellet had been injected into Markov’s thigh when the assassin jabbed him with the tip of his umbrella.
KGB’s umbrella gun at International Spy Museum.Washington D.C.USA
This diagram made by Wiki Commons user DO’Neil shows the possible umbrella mechanism by which the ricin-filled pellet was injected into Georgi Markov, resulting in his death
The clues were there but the proof was missing.
Investigations by British police showed that the Bulgarian secret service had received the help of the KGB to plan and execute the hit. This was later corroborated by Oleg Kalugin, a defector and former general in the KGB who confirmed that the Bulgarian assassin had been supplied with the required equipment.
After 42 years and despite many investigations, the perpetrators have not as yet been brought to justice.
HAFIZULLAH AMIN, 1979
Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko (l) and then Deputy Prime Minister Hafizullah Amin (r) in 1978 © Gwu
In December 1979, there occurred two poisoning attempts that didn’t quite go according to plan. It was that of the second President of Afghanistan, Hafizullah Amin in Kabul.
Amin’s predecessor Nur Mohammad Taraki had set up Afghanistan’s first communist government in 1978 with the help of the Soviet Union. After much intrigue and suspect dealings and wheelings with friend and foe alike, Amin managed to come to power by deposing Taraki and later ordering his execution in October 1979.
He then tried to win the support of those who had opposed Taraki’s communist regime but without success. There followed a massive wave of executions and harsh measures that greatly displeased the Soviet Union.
Moscow decided it didn’t need Amin any longer. The KGB even alleged that he was an agent of the CIA ; there was no need for him to stay alive.
Amin was invited to a dinner at the Soviet embassy in Kabul. Instructions were given for his food to be poisoned. But for some unexplained reason, Amin suspected that something was afoot and decided to switch his food and drink with his nephew who became severely ill and ironically, was promptly flown to a hospital in Moscow !
Before resorting to brute force, the Soviets gave it another try. Department 8 of the KGB managed to infiltrate one of their agents, a certain Mikhail Talibov (codenamed Sabir) as a chef into the presidential palace.
On 27 December, Amin organised a lunch for party members for discussions and to show them around the former Afghan royal palace that he had moved into. During the meal, Amin and a number of his guests became seriously ill and even lost consciesness ; the poison had apparently worked. But luckily for Amin and very unfortunately for Moscow, he somehow survived. Apparently, the carbonation of the Coca Cola he was drinking had somehow diluted and weakened the toxic agent.
KGB head and subsequently Soviet General Secretary Yuri Andropov, who approved the invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 © Gwu
Sometime later, Soviet forces stormed the Tajbeg Palace and shot Hafizullah Amin.
This time, Moscow installed its own trusted man, Babrak Karmal as the new president while the Soviet army began its ten year intervention in Afghanistan.
There was a lull in these types of exotic murders in the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s. Boris Yeltsin had come to power and this was a time of cooperation between the west and Russia.
But no sooner did Vladimir Putin become president in 2000, than political assassinations in the form of poisonings gradually resumed.
It was even speculated that the poisons laboratory known as “Kamera” which had become a gloomy-looking building in the outskirts of Moscow was up and running again.
ANATOLY SOBCHAK, 2000
Vladimir Putin and Anatoly Sobchak Photo: Mikhail Razuvaev / Kommersan
In 2000, one of the most creative Russian political poisonings involved a lethal lamp.
Anatoly Sobchak, the first democratically elected mayor of Saint Petersburg had been highly critical of Vladimir Putin during his campaign for president that same year.
After meeting each other in February 2000, Putin urged Sobchak to travel to Kaliningrad to support his election campaign. Sobchak duly arrived in the town of Svetlogorsk, accompanied by two assistants who were also his bodyguards.
But that night, Sobchak died in his hotel room of what was believed to be a heart attack.
What seemed very strange was that his young and physically fit bodyguards also had heart attacks, albeit mild ones, at the same time.
They survived however and were later treated for symptoms of poisoning.
Russian forensics experts believed that the reading lamp next to Sobchak’s bed had been sprayed with a poisonous substance. The heat from the lamp would have vaporised the poison, spreading it into the air and killing its intended victim who was sitting right next to it. The bodyguards suffered minor heart attacks because they probably only came briefly into Sobchak’s room before retiting to their own quarters. The vapour would have completely dissipated over time, leaving no trace.
A criminal investigation into this death as a possible premeditated murder was opened two months later, only to be closed after three months, without a finding.
However, the fact that all three men had heart attacks simultaneously indicated a probable contract killing by poisoning.
SAMIR ABDULLAH a.k.a KHATTAB, 2002
Samir Abdullah © Wikipedia
In 2002, another poisoning incident took place on foreign soil.
Saudi Arabian-born jihadist fighter Samir Abdullah, more commonly known as Khattab first came to Chechnya posing as a television reporter in 1995. He began producing videos of Chechen rebels in combat operations in order to raise money and to boost international recruitment efforts. He became famous in 1996 when he filmed an ambush which he personally led against a Russian armoured column. He actively fought throughout the Chechen wars.
The 1999 apartment bombings in Russia proved a turning point in the career of Khattab. An FSB investigation named him as the main instigator and organiser of the bombings. A number of western journalists and political analysts claimed that the bombings were carried out by the Russian themselves in order to justify the resumption of heavy military operations in Chechnya.
Whatever the case, it was decided that Khattab had to be eliminated. In 2002, a Dagestani double agent by the name of Ibrahim Alauri was recruited by the FSB to act as messenger and to deliver a letter to Khattab, whose wife was also Dagestani.
The letter was from Khattab’s mother in Saudi Arabia and had been intercepted by Alauri and handed over to the FSB.
Khattab died of poisoning when he opened the letter ; it contained a lethal dose of a potent nerve agent, possibly sarin or a derivative. Shortly after the poisoning, Moscow announced that Khattab had been killed in a “special operation.”
VIKTOR YUSHCHENKO, 2004
Viktor Yushchenko and Vladimir Putin
The year 2004 proved a particularly difficult and sometimes a tragic one for politicians and other prominent figures who publicly and defiantly voiced their opposition to the seat of power in the Kremlin.
In the heat of the 2004 presidential election in Ukraine, Viktor Yushchenko who was running against Russian-backed candidate Viktor Yanukovich fell ill and disappeared from the campaign trail. He was rushed to an Austrian hospital where doctors found he had ingested a massive dose of dioxin that had been put into a soup he had eaten. Yushchenko survived the assassination attempt but when he reappeared, he was badly disfigured. His face was left bloated and pockmarked as a result of the near-fatal dose of dioxin, in the form of TCDD, an ingredient of ‘agent orange’.
The pro-Western and pro-NATO Yushchenko eventually won the presidency after large scale street protests dubbed the Orange Revolution forced the authorities to organise a re-run of the election. But he had to undergo regular treatment in Switzerland to flush the toxin from his body.
There was no definitive proof but it is more than likely that the dioxin had come from a Russian laboratory.
ROMAN TSEPOV, 2004
Roman Tsepov © public-welfare
In the 1990s, Vladimir Putin held a high ranking post of Vice Mayor at the Saint Petersburg City Administration. Roman Tsepov was a wealthy businessman and a confidant of Putin during this period who had founded a security firm providing protection to high ranking officials including the mayor Anatoly Sobchak as well as Putin himself. He had also established close ties with the Saint Petersburg branches of the Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs and the FSB.
However, Tsepov was arrested in 1994 on charges of illegally storing drugs and weapons. But it is thought that the real reason for his arrest was his obtaining protection money and securing gambling licences for various individuals by using Putin’s position and influence in the city administration.
Tsepov had clearly become a liability for Vladimir Putin.
In September 2004, Tsepov went to the FSB office to see some of his colleagues who offered him a cup of tea. Later that day, he felt unwell and gradually began developing symptoms such as diarrhoea and vomiting. He was admitted to Hospital 31 in Saint Petersburg where doctors noticed a massive drop of white blood cells. Tsepov died a few days later.
A postmortem examination revealed massive poisoning by an unspecified radioctive substance. It was later rumoured that the substance was an isotope of polonium.
ANNA POLITKOVSKAYA, 2004
Anna Politkovskaya © OSCE/Ayhan Evrensel
The investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya was another victim of an attempted poisoning in 2004.
She was not only a very vocal critic of Vladimir Putin but had also won a great many enemies within the Russian political establishment for her coverage of the Russian invasion of Chechnya for the Novaya Gazeta newspaper. Despite many acts of intimidation and other threats, she continued her reports on the war in Chechnya and the abuse of human rights on the part of Russian troops stationed there. She was even arrested by military authorities there and subjected to a mock execution.
In 2004, she boarded an Aeroflot flight to North Osetia to help negotiate the release of children who had been held hostage during a school siege in Beslan. During the flight, she asked for a cup of tea and after drinking it, fell ill and began losing consciousness.
She was taken to hospital where it was found that her tea had been laced with an unspecified poison. It later emerged that the results of some preliminary tests performed by airport medical personnel had been destroyed or had gone missing.
That same year, Politkovskaya published a book entitled ‘Putin’s Russia’, written especially with a Western readership in mind and which quickly became a best seller.
This may have been Anna Politkovskaya’s one step too many. This time, her adversaries didn’t take any chances and hired a professional hitman. On 7 October 2006, she was shot in the head at point blank range in the elevator of her apartment building in Moscow. It was ironic that this assassination happened exactly on Vladimir Putin’s birthday. It attracted widespread international attention and although in 2014 five men were sentenced to prison terms, it is still unclear who ordered the contract killing.
ALEXANDER LITVINENKO, 2006
Alexander Litvinenko at University College Hospital London © Wikipedia
Possibly the most notorious poisoning ever took place in London in November 2006. Alexander Litvinenko was an FSB secret service officer who had defected to London with his family in 2000 after he had accused his superiors of ordering the assassination of Russian oligarch Boris Berezovsky. He was granted asylum and began working as a consultant for the British MI5 and MI6. He also published two books in which he accused the FSB of terrorist actions and false-flag attacks and accused, among others, Vladimir Putin for ordering the assassination of Anna Politkovskaya.
From that moment on, his days were counted. On November 1 2006, Litvinenko met with two former FSB colleagues, Dmitry Kovtun and Andrei Lugovoi at the Millenium Hotel in London. They had tea and discussed various business matters. Shortly after this meeting, Litvinenko fell ill and was admitted to a London hospital two days later. Doctors attributed his illness to poisoning with radiocative polonium-210. He was moved to an intensive care unit where doctors tried every treatment they thought might reverse the effects of the radiation poisoning.
But on 22 November he suffered what his doctors called a ‘major setback’ due to an overnight heart attack. Litvinenko died the following day. British experts said he probably was the first person ever to die of the acute radiation effects of polonium-210.
A criminal inquiry in 2016 concluded there was “strong circumstantial evidence of Russian state responsibility” and that Russian President Vladimir Putin and FSB chief at the time, Nikolai Patrushev, “probably approved” Litvinenko’s poisoning.
British judge, Sir Robert Owen, also concluded that the two former FSB agents, Andrei Lugovoi and Dmitry Kovtun carried out the assassination by placing polonium-210 in the teapot that was served to Litvinenko at the London hotel.
British scientists managed to trace the source of the polonium to a Russian nuclear plant and in May 2007, the British government submitted a formal request for the extradition of Andrey Lugovoy to face criminal charges relating to Litvinenko’s murder.
But as expected, Russia declined on the grounds that extradition of Russian citizens is not allowed under the Constitution and moreover, that British authorities had not handed over any evidence against Lugovoy.
ALEKSANDR PEREPILICHNY, 2012
Aleksandr Perepilichny © Nat
We are in 2009 and back in England.
Russian oligarch, Kremlin critic and whistleblower Aleksandr Perepilichny had been granted political asylum in Britain.
He then went on to provide Swiss judicial authorities with incriminating documents detailing the involvment of high-ranking Russian officials in a money-laundering scheme and the fraud of $230 million from the Russian Treasury through Hermitage Capital Management, an investment fund and asset management company founded by British-American financier Bill Browden and Lebanese-Brazilian banker Edmond Safra.
This case had attracted world media coverage following the death of anti-corruption lawyer and tax advisor Sergei Magnitsky in a Moscow prison following his arrest. Perepilichny had also provided evidence against Russian officials linked to the lawyer’s suspicious death.
In November 2012, Perepilichny went out for a jogging session near his home in Surrey. He was found dead on the road by a neighbour. Two autopsies and toxicology tests failed to find any conclusive evidence.
However, two years later Perepilichny’s life insurance company ordered advanced tests that this time detected a toxin in his stomach. The poison came from the highly toxic flowering plant, Gelsemium elegans. The leaves of this plant which is colloquially known as ‘heartbreak grass’ and only grows in south Asia trigger rapid cardiac arrest when ingested.
It is a long known method of assassination by Russian and Chinese contract hitmen.
In 2017, there were unconfirmed reports that the CIA had communicated information to the British MI6 indicating that Perepilichny was probably “assassinated on direct orders from Putin or people close to him.”
A U.S. intelligence report to Congress also stated with chigh confidence” that Perepilichny “was assassinated on the orders of Russian officials”.
SERGEI SKRIPAL, 2018
Sergei Skripal and his daughter and fellow victim Yulia © Facebook Yulia Skripal
Sergei Skripal is a former military officer of the Main Intelligence Directorate or GRU. This organisation is the foreign military intelligence agency of the General Staff of Russian armed forces.
However, throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, Skripal acted as a double agent for British intelligence services.
In December 2004, Skripal had just returned from Britain when he was arrested outside his house in Moscow.
After a trial conducted behind closed doors, he was stripped of his military rank and convicted of high treason in 2006. He was sentenced to 13 years in a high security detention centre.
In 2010, there was a spy swap between Russia and the United States as part of the Illegals Programme. This was the name given to a network of Russian sleeper agents under non-official cover in the US. The FBI arrested ten such Russian agents and proposed a prisoner exchange with Moscow.
And here, Skripal had an incredible stroke of luck ; Britain insisted that Skripal be included in the swap.
He promptly moved to Britain and bought a house in the town of Salisbury in Wiltshire. Skripal reportedly continued to cooperate with British and other Western intelligence agencies and travelled to meet officials in Colombia, Estonia and the Czech Republic among other countries to discuss Russian spying techniques.
For Vladimir Putin who himself had been a KGB officer and spy, Skripal’s behaviour must have seemed intolerable ; Moscow was becoming increasingly irritated.
In March 2018, Skripal and his daughter Yulia who had come visiting were found unconscious on a park bench by a doctor and a nurse who happened to be passing by. They were immediately taken to hospital where doctors discovered traces of the lethal nerve agent Novichok. This highly toxic poison causes respiratory and cardiac arrest.
The toxic substance had been smeared by Russian operatives on the door handles of Skripal’s house.
In September 2018, British counter terrorism police identified two Russians using the names Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov, as suspects of the Skripals’ poisoning.
However, it turned out that Ruslan Boshirov was in fact Anatoly Chepiga, a GRU colonel and as for Alexander Petrov, his real name was Alexander Mishkin, also a GRU operative.
Later, a third agent who was also present at the time of the poisonings was identified as Denis Sergeyev, a high-ranking officer of the GRU who, according to investigators, liaised with superior officers in Moscow.
Skripal and his daughter Yulia finally recovered after a lengthy hospitalisation and constant treatment. They lived in a safe house somewhere in Britain for over one year after their release from hospital, but their lives would never be the same. British intelligence arranged for them to settle in New Zealand and will probably have to give Skripal a new identity.
He may also have to undergo plastic surgery in order to minimise the risk of being recognised by his former, probably vengeful employers.
ALEXEI NAVALNY, 2020
Alexei Navalny splashed with green antiseptic solution in 2017© Wikicommons/Evgeny Feldman
The poisoning and assassination attempt on Russia’s best known opposition figure is the latest in a long list of Kremlin opponents. Considering past events, it may, very regrettably, not be the last.
It’s reasonable to say that Alexi Navalny is the most prominent critic of President Putin. He is certainly not shy ; he has called Putin and his party “crooks and thieves who are sucking the blood out of Russia”. He has also vowed to destry what he calls “a feudal state being built”. He has been jailed over ten times for organising anti-government protests.
And to be clear, he has enemies among opposition groups too. For example, he was criticised in 2014 after what he said about Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea during a radio interview : “Despite Crimea being seized, the reality is that it’s now part of Russia…Crimea is ours”. Navalny was criticised for saying so.
But he has also led high profile campaigns against corruption in Russia’s biggest state companies. So, there are a number of people who may not be well inclined towards him.
As is now only too well known, Navalny drank some tea at the cafeteria of Tomsk airport before boarding a flight to Moscow. He fell ill and the pain he suffered was so severe that the plane had to make an emergency landing in Omsk, so that he could be taken to hospital.
A spokeswoman said that Navalny was in a coma and on a ventilator. She added that since the tea he drank in Tomsk was the only thing he had had that day, it was suspected that something had been put in the tea.
The head physician at Omsk hospital said that poisoning was “one scenario among many” being considered.
Meanwhile, the Kremlin’s official spokesman Dmitry Peskov delivered this message to the press : “We are reading this information…We know that he is in serious condition…As with any citizen of the Russian Federation, we wish him a speedy recovery”.
Two days later, Navalny’s supporters in Germany arranged for an air ambulace to evacuate him from Russia and fly him back for specialist treatment at Berlin’s Charité Hospital.
On August 24, German physicians in Berlin announced that Navalny had been poisoned with some sort of cholinesterase inhibitor. This substance acts by blocking the breakdown of a key chemical in the body, acetycholine, that transmits signals to the muscles.
The Charité hospital – Universitätsmedizin Berlin © Charite.de
Further tests revealed the exact nature of the poison. On 2 September 2020, the German government announced that samples taken from Navalny’s blood contained traces of Novichok nerve agent, from the same family of nerve agents that was used to poison Sergei Skripal and his daughter.
Novichok is a military grade, highly toxic nerve agent that was developed in the former Soviet Union, in a secret laboratory in Uzbekistan in the 1970s and 1980s. Subsequently, the nerve agent was refined by Russia to be used as an assassination weapon, especially by the GRU.
We know the effect it can have from what happened in Salisbury in 2018. Pretty much the entire city had to be decontaminated by specialists in hazmat suits.
Even though this event took place on Russian soil, it has touched a raw nerve with Western governments. There have been reactions from Washington, Paris, London, Berlin and there will certainly be others.
If the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) backs up the claims from these governments, it is really going to put the pressure on Russia to explain this.
In the end, there are really only two possible explanations : either the Russian state was behind this or they’ve got a leak, and this very dangerous chemical has found its way into rogue hands.
Colonel Hamish de Bretton-Gordon © christianvoice.org
They will have to decide which of these two is the explanation.
However, according to Colonel Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, a highly-respected British chemical weapons expert, the second possibility is very unlikely : “This is a really important Russian weapon. They designed it to overmatch NATO’s capabilities to defend against it, and they have one up on NATO as it were. So, it would be very strange if they gave it to other people or allowed it to fall into the hands of criminals. Without another explanation, one cannot see how this is not a state-sponsored event”.
Given the wide range of chemicals and methods that can be used with great effect to eliminate or at least silence troublesome critics and opponents of the government, the use of a Novichok nerve agent so soon after the uproar that followed the attempted assassination of Sergei Skripal is somewhat baffling.
It is almost as though the Russians wanted the world to know that they are responsible for this latest event.
Be that as it may, this time Navalny narrowly escaped death, but like all poisonings, it sent a potent message of terror to all opponents of the regime. It seems as if the bullet is out of fashion ; apparently, the state assassin doesn’t consider a bullet makes a big enough impression on the citizens any more.
This is the 21st century. Poison is a medieval weapon and it’s not meant to happen any longer. But it’s undeniable ; poison is out there, being used for assassination and terror.
In the present day, in Moscow, in Kiev and in London, people are being poisoned.
We probably don’t know even half of it and what we see in newspapers, magazines and on television is only the tip of the iceberg.
So, next time you read of some mysterious illness or the sudden death of a Russian politician or billionaire, dont blame the vodka and the shellfish…blame poison !
Click below to read the 2020 September edition of Europe Diplomatic Magazine