Russia: The Modern-Day Borgias

Poison is no laughing matter. Shakespeare knew as much: Claudius poured poison into the ears of Hamlet’s father who was sleeping and tried to kill Hamlet with a cup of poisoned wine.  Romeo poisons himself beside what he wrongly thinks is Juliet’s lifeless body. Cleopatra died from a poisonous snake known as the asp.

The Alexei Navalny case in August 2020 is but the latest of the attacks on prominent critics of Kremlin policies in recent years. Poisoning is replacing old-fashioned assassination by shooting since it is more difficult to detect and prove. Putin’s Russia is the modern facsimile of the Borgia family of Renaissance Italy, avid for power, masters of the art of using reliable and deceptive poisons.

Alexei Navalny, a 44-year-old Moscow lawyer, is a leading member of the Russian opposition to Russian President Vladimir Putin, and his most persistent critic. He has been jailed 13 times for protests against Putin in which thousands marched. He is active in both local and national politics. He ran for mayor of  Moscow in 2013, getting 27% of the vote in an election he called fraudulent. He wanted to run for the presidency in 2018 but was ruled ineligible by the Central Electoral Commission.

Since Navalny challenged Putin, his phone calls and messages have been intercepted, he has been followed and recorded on video everywhere he goes, and has often undergone police searches. His vision was permanently affected by a green chemical dye thrown in his face by opponents. In October 2019 a court ordered Navalny and the group he had founded, the Anti-corruption Foundation, which produces reports on high-level corruption in the Russian government, to pay 88 million rubles to  a company that makes school dinners. The case was brought by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a restauranteur called “Putin’s chef,” who is linked to a private army of mercenaries involved as military contractors.  The chef is alleged to have sought to influence the U.S. midterm elections in 2018.

Navalny in a broadcast on the BBC World Service and Radio Free Europe in March 2017 accused then-prime minister Dmitry Medvedev of corruption. Navalny was planning to be active in Russian regional elections in September 2020. He was also been critical of the Belarus presidential election and the official result on August 9, 2020 which declared that Alexander Lukashenko won with 80% of the vote.

The sequence of events concerning Navalny in August 2020 is clear, even if conclusions differ. He was at the airport at Tomsk, Siberia where he drank a cup of hot tea before his flight on August 20 to Moscow. On the flight he fell ill, experiencing extreme pain. The plane was diverted to Omsk in an emergency landing. In Omsk, Navalny was taken to hospital where he was tested by doctors who at first suggested the problem was an imbalance in carbohydrates, a metabolic disorder, possibly due to low blood sugar level, and held they had found no trace of poison in his urine.  For a few days they refused to let him leave for treatment in Western Europe, but then changed their minds. They did, however, administer atropine, an antidote to nerve agents, used to treat nerve gas and pesticide poisonings. But the controversial issue  is whether the Omsk doctors under pressure from the police delayed the departure long enough for any poison or toxic substance in the blood to diminish and thus make it difficult or impossible to identify.

Navalny was then flown to Berlin, in a transport arranged by the Cinema for Peace Foundation and the movie producer Jaka Bizilj, based in the German capital, and taken to the Charite hospital. He was given chemical tests which suggested he had been poisoned with a substance from the drug class of cholinesterase inhibitors, which  interfere with the nervous system by blocking the breakdown of a key chemical in the body,  acetycholine, that transmits signals between nerve cells, and which are used medically to treat problems such as  Alzheimer’s disease and  dementia. Navalny remains in a coma, treated with the antidote atropine. It is too early to gauge long-term effects.

The German doctors are suggesting a comparison of Navalny’s condition with a Bulgarian case in which the same toxic unknown substance was used by a unit of the Chief Intelligence Directorate (GRU) on an arms dealer named Emilian Grebev in April 2015,  and that the same or a very similar substance was used on Sergei Skripal on March 4, 2018 in Salisbury, England.

Notoriously, critics of Putin have paid the ultimate penalty for opposition. Some of the more prominent include Anna Politkovskaya , Russian journalist and human rights activist  who was born in New York, an ardent critic of the Chechen war and of the abuse committed by Russian military forces. She was poisoned in 2004 while on a flight from Moscow but survived. She was shot, on Putin’s birthday, October 7, 2006, in front of her apartment in Moscow. She had warned of the fate of critical journalists -- the bullet or poison. Though five men were convicted in Moscow Criminal Court of the crime, it was left unresolved who had ordered the killing.

In the same year Alexander Litvinenko, former officer in the FSB secret service and defector was poisoned by radioactive polonium 210 in a cup of tea in a central London hotel on November 23, 2006. He had accused Putin of ordering the assassination of Poltkovskaya  and of the oligarch Boris Berezovsky.  British courts found only two intelligence offices guilty of the murder in absentia. But a British public inquiry concluded that Putin probably approved the assassination.

Boris Nemtsov, a physicist and liberal politician who had introduced reforms in the Russian economy, an outspoken critic of Putin, whom he called increasingly authoritarian, was shot in the back four times on February 27, 2015 on a bridge rear the Kremlin. Vladimir Kara-Mutza, a protégé of Nemtsov and opposition politician, became ill on May 26, 2015 after lunch in a Moscow restaurant, and was diagnosed with poison.

Others inside and outside Russia have experienced similar attacks of poisoning. One notorious case was the fate in September 1978 of Georgi Markov, a Bulgarian dissenter, who on Waterloo Bridge in London was jabbed in the leg by an umbrella that contained a dose of ricin. He died four days later in London, killed by the Bulgarian Secret Service associated with the KGB.

In  2004, during the election campaign, Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko was poisoned with a toxic chemical, leading  to facial disfigurement by lesions and blisters.

On November 10, 2010 in Berlin’s Charite hospital, high levels of mercury were found on a dissident Russia  couple Viktor Kalashnikov and his wife. He was a freelance journalist and former KGB colonel who became a critic of the Kremlin. The poisoning was by the FSB, successor to the KGB.

In September 2018 Pyotr Verzilov, Russian-Canadian member and spokesman of the opposition art group Pussy Riot, became seriously ill in Moscow. He was transferred to a Berlin hospital where it was confirmed he had symptoms consistent with poisoning. 

In all these cases of poisoning Russian authorities and Putin himself have denied responsibility. In the case of Navalny, the office of the Russian prosecutor general says there is no basis to open an inquiry into suspected poisoning and no indication of any deliberate criminal act committed against him. In what appears an act of brazenness, Vyacheslav Volodin, the leader of the Duma, Russia’s lower house, ordered a committee to see if a foreign agent, unstated the CIA,  had been involved in the poisoning.  Putin has exhibited no sympathy for the victims. He called Sergei Skripal a “scumbag who betrayed  his country,” a spy, a traitor to his homeland, while he honored the suspected perpetrator,  a colonel in the GRU, who in 2014 was privately made a Hero of the Russian Federation.

Though some of the evidence in Navalny's case is circumstantial and doctors have not yet able to identify a specific substance that caused the poisoning, there is an urgent need for a swift and transparent investigation by independent authorities. In the meantime it would be wise not to drink hot Russian tea, and to make sure that the umbrellas of suspicious people are upside down.

Image: Pikrepo