Sunday, August 21, 2016

Notable Poisonings in the Soviet Union and Russia 1921-2008

Andrew Kramer wrote an interesting article in the New York Times today detailing the rise of suspected state-sponsored poisonings of opponents of the Kremlin.  Kramer's survey goes back to 1978, which seems pretty far, but there is actually much more before that.  Just in case people might be interested, here is a  chronology I constructed that discusses notable poisonings from 1921 until 2008.  The list is grim but instructive about how Soviet, and now Russian, methods have scarcely changed.  Of course, many more regime opponents have been executed over the years by other means, but poisoning remains one of the vilest and most terror-inspiring techniques.
 
1921
The first Soviet government poison laboratory is established.  Its activities are expanded significantly during the Stalin era.
 
1930
White Army General Alexander Kutepov is drugged and kidnapped in Paris.  He dies in transit due to an overdose of the drug used to subdue him.
 
1936
Soviet writer Maksim Gorkiy and his son are allegedly poisoned on orders of NKVD head Genrikh Yagoda.
 
1937
Future NKVD boss Nikolay Yezhov, aka “the poisoned dwarf” is allegedly the object of a poisoning plot by his predecessor, Genrikh Yagoda.
 
1937
White Army General Yevgeniy Miller is drugged and kidnapped in Paris.  He is later executed in the Soviet Union.
 
1938
Abram Slutskiy, head the Foreign Intelligence Service of the NKVD, is poisoned with cyanide put in his tea.
 
1938-1946
Laboratory No. 1, headed by Grigoriy Mayranovskiy, provides poisons for use by Pavel Sudoplatov’s NKVD Administration for Special Tasks.  Mayranovskiy’s laboratory is later accused of experimenting on live human subjects in order to determine the most effective poisons to use in dealing with enemies of the state. 
 
1947
Ukrainian Catholic Archbishop Theodore Romzha is poisoned by the MGB with a dose of curare.
 
1953
Soviet leader Josef Stalin is allegedly poisoned by MGB Chief Lavrentiy Beria.  The more accepted explanation, however, is that Stalin died of natural causes.
 
1953
Yugoslav leader Josip Broz Tito is allegedly the object of an MGB poisoning plot, which was reportedly called off shortly after the death of Stalin.
 
1957
Following his defection to the United States in 1953, former KGB Assassin Nikolay Khokhlov is poisoned, probably on KGB orders.  He recovers in a West German hospital.  The exact poison was never determined, but was narrowed to two suspects: Thallium and Polonium.
 
1958 
Ukrainian nationalist leader Stepan Bandera is assassinated in Munich by KGB agent Bogdan Stashinskiy.  Stashinskiy shot Bandera while passing him on the steps, using a cyanide gas gun concealed in a rolled up newspaper.  Initially, it was thought that Bandera had died of a heart attack.
 
1962
During their investigation of Colonel Oleg Penkovskiy for espionage, KGB agents reportedly plant poisoned wax on the seat of Penkovskiy's office chair.  As a result, Penkovskiy was hospitalized, giving the KGB the opportunity to plant bugs and cameras in his office and apartment and thereafter to obtain incriminating evidence.  Penkovskiy, one of the most effective spies ever recruited by the West, was the first to reveal that the so-called "missile gap," a dominant theme of the Kennedy-Nixon campaign, did not actually exist.
 
1971
According to former KGB official Oleg Kalugin, five KGB agents successfully poison dissident novelist Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn with a near-fatal dose of ricin.  The five agents followed Solzhenitsyn into a grocery store in the city of Novocherkassk and stuck him with a needle to administer the poison.
 
1975
Georgian dissident Zviad Gamsakhurdia reportedly survives two KGB attempts to poison him.
 
1978
Bulgarian dissident Georgi Markov is fatally poisoned by ricin while walking in London.  The ricin was delivered by means of an umbrella that was jabbed into him from behind.
 
1979
Just prior to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in late December, the KGB reportedly attempts to poison the food of rebellious Afghan leader Hafizullah Amin, whom KGB chief Yuriy Andropov erroneously believes is a CIA agent.  The attempt fails, although Amin’s son does suffer poisoning symptoms.  Two weeks later, the KGB resorted to more direct measures: special KGB Alpha troops and GRU Spetsnaz landed in Kabul in advance of the Soviet invasion and took Amin’s palace by force, killing him and his guards. 
 
1993
There are allegations, never substantiated, that elements of the defunct KGB successfully poisoned to death former Georgian leader Zviad Gamsakhurdiya.  The more accepted version is that Gamsakhurdiya committed suicide, although his wife says he was murdered. 
 
March 2002
Prominent Chechen commander Omar Khattab is poisoned in an FSB operation.  Khattab was handed a letter by a trusted associate who had been turned by the FSB.  The letter, which was doctored with an unspecified neurotoxin, killed Khattab in five minutes.
 
July 3, 2003
Apartment bombing investigator and Yabloko Duma Deputy Yuriy Shchekochikhin dies suddenly, reportedly of an "acute allergic reaction."  Relatives and political allies believe, however, that he was poisoned.  Observers speculated at the time that Shchekochikhin may have been murdered in order to prevent him from uncovering the true story of the FSB's involvement in the 1999 apartment bombings, which took 243 lives and were blamed on Chechen terrorists.  The Russian authorities refused to cooperate with relatives in an investigation of Shchekochikhin's death.  Speculation that Shchekochikhin may have been poisoned was lent greater credence by the fact that only three months earlier another apartment bombing investigator, "Liberal Russia" Duma Deputy Sergey Yushenkov, was shot to death.  Just to muddy the waters further, in September 2003, stories surfaced in London that an SVR agent had attempted to poison exiled Oligarch Boris Berezovskiy, a prominent proponent of the FSB-apartment bombing theory. 
 
October 2003
On October 26, during the Nord Ost crisis, Russian authorities pump "incapacitating gas" into a Moscow theater in an effort to free over 800 hostages held by Chechen terrorists.  The gas, Tri-Methyl Fentanyl, was intended to knock out everyone quickly, but, through dreadful miscalculation, was pumped into the theater in sufficient strength to have fatal effects.  129 hostages died (most from the gas, although reportedly a few hostages were shot by mistake by the Special Forces that stormed the theater).
 
January 2004
Russian Presidential candidate and Berezovskiy ally Ivan Rybkin mysteriously disappears from Moscow in late January.  Five days later, he resurfaces in Kyiv.  Later, after returning to Moscow and then London for drug tests, Rybkin claimed he was lured to Kyiv on the false promise of peace talks with Chechen rebel leader Aslan Maskhadov.  Instead, according to Rybkin, he was drugged and compromising videos were taken of him.  As of now, no proof has surfaced to substantiate Rybkin's claims.  Putin spin-doctor Gleb Pavlovskiy theorized that Rybkin was just seeking an excuse to withdraw from the Presidential contest, and that he dreamed up the kidnap story to cover himself.  Others are not so sure, but the following month Rybkin did indeed withdraw from the race.
 
April 21, 2004
Chechen Guerilla Commander Lecha Islamov is poisoned to death in prison.  Islamov had met on several occasions with FSB officials, who tried unsuccessfully to turn him.  A month later, jail officials summoned him to another meeting, at which he was offered tea and a snack.  Shortly after this meeting, Islamov suffered symptoms consistent with Thallium poisoning and died.
 
September 2004
Anna Politkovskaya, one of Russia's premier investigative journalists, is allegedly poisoned while traveling to Beslan to cover the hostage crisis.  According to Politkovskaya, she got on a plane, drank some tea and promptly passed out.  Politkovskaya believed that she was sidelined on orders from the FSB, but could offer no proof.  Two years later, on October 7, 2006 Politkovskaya was shot to death in her apartment elevator.  Two Chechens have been arrested and are on trial for her murder.  Politkovskaya, known for her criticism of the policies of President Putin, was murdered on his birthday.
 
September 5, 2004
Ukrainian opposition candidate Viktor Yushchenko falls ill shortly after having dinner with SBU head Ihor Smeshko.  In December, Austrian doctors confirm that Yushchenko was poisoned with a near-fatal dose of dioxin.  Ukrainian authorities claim that they know who was behind the poisoning, and subsequent reports have implicated former SBU Deputy Chairman Volodymyr Satsiuk.  Satsiuk and others have fled to Russia, which has refused to extradite them on the grounds that they are Russian citizens.
 
September 24, 2004
Roman Tsepov, a shady businessman and associate of Vladimir Putin during his days as Deputy Mayor of St. Petersburg, dies of poisoning.  The type of poison was not identified, but it was radioactive and the symptoms were the same as those suffered two years later by Litvinenko.  Tsepov, who had a number of connections with the St. Petersburg underworld, had been the target of numerous assassination attempts over the years.
 
November 23, 2006
Berezovskiy associate and former KGB agent Aleksandr Litvinenko dies of Polonium poisoning in London.  Former KGB agent and current Duma Deputy Andrey Lugovoy is suspected in the murder.  Russia has refused extradition on the grounds that he is a Russian citizen.
 
March, 2007
American citizens Marina Kovalevsky and her daughter Yanna return to Los Angeles after suffering Thallium poisoning in Moscow.  Initially listed as being in fair condition, they are treated at Cedars Sinai Hospital and released.  It is unknown whether they were deliberate targets of poisoning, or just unlucky.
 
 
October, 2008
Russian human rights lawyer Karina Moskalenko falls ill in Strasbourg, complaining of symptoms that include nausea, headaches and vomiting.  A few days later, Moskalenko’s husband finds ten mercury pellets in her car and notifies the French police.  According to Le Figaro, the police have concluded that the poisoning was accidental, the result of a broken thermometer that was left in the car by its previous owner.  Moskalenko spends much of her time before the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg representing Chechen human rights victims, had also represented Aleksandr Litvinenko.  Before she fell ill, Moskalenko was due to attend the trial of the Chechens accused of murdering Anna Politkovskaya, in her capacity as lawyer for the Politkovskaya family.
 
 

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