On May 23, 1938, a Soviet intelligence agent named Pavel Sudoplatov assassinated the Ukrainian nationalist leader Yevhen Konovalets in Rotterdam. The order for the murder had come personally from Josef Stalin. The method was none too subtle: Sudoplatov had given his victim a box of chocolates, containing a bomb.
Subtler forms of liquidation had been in the works for some time in Soviet Russia. In 1921—the year Sudoplatov was recruited at age 14 into the Cheka, the Soviet security organization formed by Vladimir Lenin—the Soviets established their first laboratory for the study and testing of poisons. They made rapid progress. From 1928–35 secret laboratories were overseen by the accomplished Soviet biochemist Grigory Mairanovsky. The author of a 1940 classified doctoral thesis on the interaction of mustard gas with human skin, Mairanovsky was tasked to develop tasteless, colorless, odorless, and lethal poisons that could be placed in the food and drink of enemies of the state. Mairanovsky and his colleagues tested their concoctions on political prisoners of various sizes and ages. He was so successful that by the 1940s he had become a key member of Pavel Sudoplatov’s team for political assassinations. In summer 1947, again on the order of Stalin, Mairanovsky killed the American spy for the Soviets Isaiah Oggins by injecting him in one of his laboratories with a lethal dose of the poison curare.
Poisoning has a long history. Socrates was forced to take hemlock as his death sentence. For a period of time in ancient Persia, different poisons were the weapons of choice for rivals bent on doing away with this or that Persian king. British science writer John Emsley provides a helpful history of poison in his riveting book The Elements of Murder. In 19th-century France, arsenic came to be known as poudre de succession—”inheritance powder,” a method by which wily women would rid themselves of cumbersome husbands. Thallium, according to Emsley, was Saddam Hussein’s poison of choice for political opponents.
Russians have always seemed to have a special fondness for poisoning. In 1453, Dmitry Shemyaka, the Grand Duke of Moscow, was poisoned with arsenic in a chicken dinner, his cook having been bribed by Muscovite agents of a rival. In 1610, Russian general Mikhail Skopin-Shuisky was poisoned on orders of the Tsar; in this instance, his wife enlisted to poison his food. In 1936, Abkhaz Communist leader Nestor Lakoba was poisoned by orders of Lavrentiy Beria, head of the NKVD, the Soviet security organization responsible for extrajudicial killings and the gulag system. Lakoba was poisoned during a dinner in Tbilisi with Beria, his death announced as a heart attack.
During the Cold War, the tradition continued. Most spectacular and famous is the case of Georgi Markov, an anti-communist Bulgarian writer who in exile had worked for Radio Free Europe and the BBC. On the morning of September 7, 1978—the birthday of Bulgarian dictator Todor Zhivkov—Markov made his way across Waterloo Bridge in London to wait for a bus. An assassin, working for the Bulgarian secret police and aided by the KGB, poked Markov with the tip of his umbrella. By evening, Markov was checked into a hospital, feeling unwell with a high fever. Four days later he was dead. Forensic pathologists discovered a pellet filled with traces of ricin in the back thigh of Markov’s right leg. According to former Russian intelligence officer Boris Volodarsky in his book, The KGB’s Poison Factory, Markov had likely been surveilled before the assassination by another Bulgarian BBC broadcaster named Vladimir Simeonov. Twenty days after Markov’s murder—and two days after being questioned by Scotland Yard—the 30-year-old Simeonov was himself found dead under mysterious circumstances. In the kitchen of his flat, reports Volodarsky, “two glasses were found in the sink without any fingerprints. Traces of a bottle were identified on the table.”
A decade earlier, Alexander Dubcek, the reform communist leader of the ill-fated Prague Spring, was thought in Czech anti-Communist circles to have been poisoned by the KGB, in this instance by radioactive isotopes sneaked into his soup during a brief captivity in Moscow. Dubcek fell ill later in Bratislava, had to cancel a speech, and was hospitalized due to “a cold.” He recovered.
As in the case of Pavel Sudoplatov’s detonating chocolates in Rotterdam, surreptitious poisoning gets trumped at times in Russian political assassinations by a somewhat heavier hand. In 1940, at his compound outside Mexico City, Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky was fatally wounded by an ice-axe-wielding assassin (whose murder was ordered by Stalin and carried out under the direction of Sudoplatov). And there was no poison involved in the murder this winter of Kremlin critic and former Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov. Shortly before midnight on February 27, walking after dinner with his Ukrainian girlfriend, Anna Durytska, across the Bolshoy Moskvoretsky Bridge close to Red Square, Nemtsov had four shots pumped into his back at close range from an assassin’s handgun.
Which brings us to the case at hand. At this writing, Nemtsov’s associate, journalist and civil society activist Vladimir Kara-Murza, lies ill in a Moscow hospital, according to reports stricken by kidney failure, double pneumonia, and pancreatitis. The 33-year-old Kara-Murza fell suddenly ill and collapsed in his Moscow office on May 26. The day before, the organization for which Kara-Murza currently works (Open Russia, which was created in September 2014 by former political prisoner and Russian businessman Mikhail Khodorkovsky) had released a documentary about Ramzan Kadyrov, the ruthless ruler of Chechnya and a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
No one can say for sure at this point whether Kara-Murza has been poisoned. What we do know is that Russia has a ghastly tradition of poisoning political dissidents. We also know that very recent history has been alarming. Although he survived—his face disfigured—pro-Western Ukrainian Presidential candidate Viktor Yushchenko was poisoned with dioxin at a dinner in Kiev during an election campaign in September 2004. Former FSB man and Putin opponent Alexander Litvinenko died of polonium ingested in a London hotel bar in 2006. Russian businessman Alexander Perepilichny, a key witness in a Moscow money laundering case, expired outside his Surrey home in London in 2012, apparently having been killed by poison from the highly toxic Gelsemium plant (grown remote areas of China). Then there’s the case of journalist and Putin critic Anna Politkovskaya. She was shot to death by assassins in the elevator to her apartment on October 7, 2006. But in September 2004, Politkovskaya had become violently ill and lost consciousness after drinking tea on a Russian flight.
And we can be certain of one thing: Kara-Murza was a Kremlin target.
Let’s hope he’s transported out of Russia to a hospital in the West very soon. If it turns out Kara-Murza wasn’t poisoned, leaving him in Moscow is to tempt fate.