“I know everyone who tried to kill me”, stated Alexei Navalny after publishing the investigation into his poisoners. But do we know the names of everyone the Kremlin has tried to poison? Investigations into opposition activist Alexei Navalny, spy Sergey Skripal, and civic activists from the North Caucasus are just the tip of the iceberg. Who have the FSB and their colleagues tried to poison, and how? Watch our new explainer and find out!
Novichok poisons are among the world’s most toxic, approximately ten times more powerful than military VX nerve gas. In ideal conditions, one gram is enough to poison 5,000 people. The poison attacks the nervous system, causing cardiac arrest and respiratory failure, but these aren’t its only “features”.
Despite being toxic, Novichok is easy to conceal. If the dose is not lethal, no one would even guess that somebody had tried to kill them.
Slow-acting poisons are mostly used if the secret services wish to deal with someone not covertly, but blatantly – a long, painful death to make an example of them. Using poison also allows them to discredit the victim, claiming that they died not due to poison but, for example, poor health, alcohol, or drugs.
Pyotr Verzilov is a founder of the Mediazona website and a former member of the Pussy Riot group. In September 2018, he was moved from intensive care in Moscow to the Charité hospital in Berlin. German doctors said that Pyotr had been poisoned, but couldn’t identify it exactly.
Vladimir Kara-Murza is a politician lobbying for sanctions against Russian officials and oligarchs. Kara-Murza was poisoned twice, in May 2015 and February 2017. French experts detected high levels of heavy metals in his body.
Aleksandr Litvinenko was given tea containing radioactive polonium by former colleagues in 2006. This ex-FSB officer, who had been granted political asylum in Britain, took 22 days to die. Before his poisoning, Litvinenko had accused Vladimir Putin of corruption and the FSB of masterminding the bombing of apartment blocks in 1999.
Anna Politkovskaya was a legendary journalist for Novaya Gazeta. On September 2, 2004, she visited Beslan to negotiate with militants who had stormed a school, and planned to involve the Ichkerian leader Aslan Maskhadov in the talks. Politkovskaya fell unconscious on the plane and was hospitalised. Despite being diagnosed with “poisoning by unknown toxins”, she survived, but was shot dead in her building’s lift two years later.
Politkovskaya’s colleague, Yuri Shchekochikhin – who had also investigated the Moscow apartment-block bombings, and corruption among security officials – died in July 2003 after suffering for two weeks. Journalists speculate that he was poisoned with the heavy metal thallium or Novichok.
The Russian security services have poisoned not only political opponents. In 2002, the Chechen guerrilla leader Emir Khattab was killed by a poisoned letter. Media claim that the security services poisoned at least 17 insurgents in 2010 alone.
This poison factory, known as Laboratory 12, Laboratory X, or Kamera, was set up by order of Vladimir Lenin. Since 1921, this unit has prepared the toxins and devices used by Lubyanka to carry out dozens of political assassinations, including, historians say, the White Army General Pyotr Wrangel, Ukrainian nationalist leader Stepan Bandera, and Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg.
Kamera’s successors, officers from the FSB’s Poisonous Criminalistics Institute, were directly responsible for Navalny’s poisoning, as analysts from Bellingcat and The Insider discovered.
Novichok agents were first developed in the 1980s and 1990s at the State Organic Chemistry and Technology Research Institute in Moscow and produced near Saratov, at the Defence Ministry’s testing institute in the village of Shikhany-2.
The Convention on the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons came into force in 1997, and was signed by Russia. In 2017, the military destroyed its last munitions in the presence of Vladimir Putin. But – in violation of the convention – the Kremlin never stopped developing chemical weapons. Investigative journalists found out that the poison-makers simply changed address.
The Novichoks were enhanced by the State Military Medical Research Test Institute in St. Petersburg and the Signal Scientific Centre in Moscow, which officially works in sports nutrition.
These poison factories were exposed thanks to the failures of Russian agents. Skripal’s poisoners were given foreign passports with numbers of the same series as many GRU agents. Navalny’s poisoners were betrayed by their smartphone data. And Litvinenko’s poisoners were traced by British police following the trail of radiation.
The scandalous poisoning of Sergey Skripal in Salisbury, England, led to the expulsion of 150 Russian diplomats and sanctions against the Kremlin. Following the poisoning of Navalny, the EU has already imposed sanctions on six individuals from the Kremlin, Defence Ministry, and FSB. But neither sanctions, nor the international treaties signed by Moscow have been able to break the Kremlin’s tradition of poisoning its opponents.
Alyaksandr Papko, Belsat