No Country for Dissidents: 18 Years of Mysteries in Putin’s Russia
Giovanna Pavesi 3 September 2020

Novichok, then. Two weeks after he fell sick on a flight from Siberia to Moscow, Aleksei Navalny’s illness eventually has an official cause – poisoning – and tool whereby the aggression was conducted: the too well-known Soviet-era nerve agent. So has concluded with “unequivocal proof”, based on in-depth medical tests, the government of Germany, where Navalny is being treated since he was fled on an emergency rescue flight to Berlin last August 22nd. “Alexei Navalny was meant to be silenced”, commented gravely Chancellor Angela Merkel, “and this raises very difficult questions that only the Russian government can answer, and has to answer.”

Indeed, to most Westerner observers traces of Novichok in the body of Vladimir Putin’s most fearsome rival looks almost as the perfect smoking gun. Yet until there are no unequivocal proofs of that as well, no one can openly attribute responsibility to the Kremlin: just as there have never been over the last two decades, when journalists, activists and political opponents were systematically inhibited.

Speaking with Italian daily Corriere della Sera, Gleb Pavlovskij, a former political adviser to Putin who later joined the opposition, did not exclude in fact, that, assuming there is an involvement, the operation against Navalny may have been started without the consent and authorization of the president himself. He confirmed nevertheless that the number of poisonings in today’s Russia is alarmingly increasing. And that’s by no means the only way ‘thorny’ people get harassed: since 2002, at least 15 activists, political opponents, and protesters have been weakened, silenced or expelled from the country. Arrests, disappearances, suspicious intoxications or exile, as if everyone had a different destiny reserved for them. It seems a showcase for a range of “punishments” perhaps organized on the basis of fame and the level of danger of those involved. And yet in each and everyone of those cases, the hand of the Kremlin remains invisible.


Forgotten names

The first one was Ibn Al-Khattab, a famous Saudi commander who died in Chechnya in March 2002 after opening a tainted letter. According to the reconstructions of some Chechen sources, the missive was full of nerve gas and it had reached the fundamentalist disguised as a message from his mother. A year later, in July 2003, Yuri Shchekochikhin, an investigative journalist and parliamentary deputy, lost his life in circumstances that were never fully understood. Symptoms were those of a violent allergic reaction, but later the cause of death was attributed to a cerebral hemorrhage (version that friends, family and co-workers have never believed). Seventeen years later, medical records on his case have still not been published. In his career, the journalist had told and described the violence of the Chechen conflict, blaming Boris Eltsin and Putin’s government. In 2003, two separatists from the Caucasus were poisoned with a phosphorus substance in Georgia.

On 25th October 2003, oligarch Mikhail Borisovic Khodorkovsky was arrested (and later sentenced in 2005) for fraud and tax fraud with up to eight years in prison, with his former Yukos partner, Platon Lebedev. In December 2010, the sentence was increased to 14 years, because he was held responsible for the theft of 350 million tons of oil and laundering nearly 24 billion dollars. He has been considered, for long time, a political prisoner, because he had denounced corruption in Russia. On December 18th, the Duma approved an amnesty provision for the crimes he was accused of and two days later, just out of prison, he moved to Germany. As a free man, he now lives in London, practically in exile.

In September 2004, Ukrainian politician and former president Viktor Yushchenko (not a domestic dissident, but certainly an opponent of Russian political power) was facially disfigured by a major rash. Damages were permanent and only later, John Henry, an English toxicologist from St Mary’s Hospital in London, said that chloracne had caused those scars, due to dioxin poisoning, which, in fact, was found in his blood. Through laboratory analysis, Bram Bouwer identified a quantity 6 thousand times higher than normal and confirmed Henry’s diagnosis. According to initial reconstructions, even the alleged poisoning would have occurred by ingestion, probably during a dinner. Evidence of Russian involvement was never confirmed.

At the same time, Anna Politkovskaja, a journalist from Novaja Gazeta, a critical voice against political power, got sick while she was flying to Beslan, during the hostage crisis, after drinking a cup of tea. She lost consciousness and the flight was forced to land to take her to hospital. The reporter publicly denounced the attempted poisoning, but no substance was ever identified. In December 2005, during a conference of Reporters without Borders, she said: “People sometimes pay with their lives for saying aloud what they think”. Her body was found less than a year later, on the 7th October 2006, in the elevator of her building in Moscow. Next to her, authorities, found a gun and four shells. Fourteen years later, nobody knows the name of the instigator and the material perpetrator of her murder.


State enemies

On the 23rd November 2006, former Russian secret agent Aleksander Litvinenko died following complications from a rapid illness brought on by polonium radiation poisoning, a radioactive isotope of polonium. The circumstances were never fully clarified, and some traces of the substance were identified in several places in London, where the former agent had been before his hospitalization. Even then, the toxin may have been poured into a teapot and then taken unknowingly. The last pictures of him (already in exile), sick and completely bald, spread all over the world. Before dying, he accused Putin.

In 2007, chess champion Garri Kimovic Kasparov publicly declared his opposition to Putin after having created a political movement inspired by social liberalism and social-democracy. On April 13th 2007, during some protests in the capital, in Pushkin Square, he was stopped and then arrested for being involved in a march against the president. His second arrest took place just a month later, on May 18th, at the Moscow airport (he was there with some activists and journalists). On November 24th he was put in jail for five days for participating in an unauthorized demonstration organized in view of upcoming parliamentary elections. On August 17th 2012, he declared that he was stopped for no reason and then beaten by police officers. Intimidated, arrested several times and discouraged by the treatment he received, in 2013 he left his country to go to New York and on January 28th 2014 he obtained Croatian citizenship.

In February 2012, a punk rock band composed by hooded women raided the Cathedral of Christ the Savior, a major symbol of the Orthodox Church in Moscow. Pussy Riot, after making the sign of the cross, had performed a song against the re-election of the president. Stopped by the police, after an anti-terrorism investigation, on March 3rd 2012, Moscow authorities arrested Maria Alëchina, Nadezda Tolokonnikova and Ekaterina Samucevic. Interrogated many times, none of them ever revealed the names of the other members of the group. After five months of precautionary detention, their performance was punished bitterly; two years in prison for “religious hate-motivated vandalism”, although in December 2013 Alëchina and Tolokonnikova were released thanks to an amnesty granted by the Duma.

On February 2015, Boris Nemtsov, the then leader of opposition, was found dead in the streets of the Russian capital, killed by a number of gunshots. No one publicly claimed responsibility for the action, but Moscow blamed potential hit men. A few days after the murder, the police arrested five Chechen citizens suspected of being responsible for his death. Putin called the murder “a provocation”. In May 2015, Vladimir Kara Murza, a man very close to Nemtsov, got sick during a meeting. Doctors identified the typical symptoms of poisoning, but the cause of his illness was never defined. “If someone did want to frighten us, then they succeeded” his father told the BBC. In 2017, Kara Murza was rushed to an intensive care unit in a very similar condition. Taken to a foreign hospital, the diagnosis was that of intoxication due to an unknown substance. After that last alleged poisoning, he left the country. He now lives abroad.


The voice of survivors

On March 4th 2018, former Russian spy, Sergei Skripal, and his daughter, Julija, suddenly fell unconscious on a bench near a shopping center in Salisbury, in Britain. Seeing them without visible wounds, someone called for help and they were admitted to a hospital in the city. The cause of the illness was determined to be severe nerve gas poisoning. The father and daughter fell into a coma and, in addition to them, 21 other people who were involved in the Novichok case. Sergei and Julija survived, but the episode led to a serious deterioration in relations between Russia and the Uk.

After Skripal but before Navalny, in September 2018, activist and Nadezda Tolokonnikova’s former husband, Pyotr Verzilov, suffered from severe intoxication symptoms, with a dynamic similar to that of Navalny. He was transported to the same hospital in Berlin where he was saved. Two months earlier, he had run onto the field of the World Cup final in Moscow with some members of Pussy Riot, dressed as a policeman, to demonstrate against the persecution of dissidents. He still claims to be constantly intimidated by the police and in an interview with  Corriere della Sera he said: “They have opened an investigation for passport irregularities. In June, I was picked up by 20 policemen and was interrogated for 13 hours straight on suspicion of sedition for a demonstration. I was in jail for 15 days. In Russia, this is the norm, the ordinary life: we live in an oppressive regime and we try to behave like honest people, we try to do what we think is right. It’s not about having exceptional courage, it’s very common behavior: there are so many people who, despite the threats, do not give up, do not accept abuses. They ask for democracy, free elections and the rule of law”.


Cover Photo: Odd Andersen / AFP

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