If you travel to Russia, don’t drink the tea, whatever you do. Be especially careful at airports or in flight – they are regular death traps.
To wit: after campaigning in the Siberian city of Tomsk, Alexei Navalny, the most influential critic of Putin, was on his way back to Moscow. For years now, Navalny has been exposing the Putin gang as “a party of crooks and thieves”, which qualifies as a high-risk pastime by any sensible standards.
Before boarding his flight, he stopped for a quick cuppa at the airport’s Vienna Coffee House. Like most Russians, Navalny likes his tea black, straight as it comes. But that particular tea didn’t come straight. It was laced with a dollop of hallucinogenic poison, believed to be sodium oxybutyrate.
Navalny collapsed on the plane, which then had to make an emergency landing at Omsk. The campaigner, who had slipped into a coma, was rushed to hospital and put on a ventilator. He is fighting for his life and, as I write, his condition is described as grave.
Let me tell you, if Lucretia Borgia lived in Putin’s Russia, she wouldn’t be short of gainful employment. Before going to work, however, she’d have to brush up on modern toxins and the up-to-date methods of their administration.
Navalny isn’t the first of Putin’s detractors to be poisoned, and he won’t be the last. Actually, this wasn’t even the first time Navalny himself was poisoned.
Last year, while in police custody for the umpteenth time, he developed what the FSB doctors described as an “acute allergic reaction”. The allergen wasn’t specified, but one rouble gets you ten it had come courtesy of Laboratory 1, the poison factory established by the Soviet secret police in 1921.
The laboratory has made many valuable contributions to the field of applied toxicology. Its extensive research on human subjects was facilitated by an unlimited supply of enthusiastic volunteers recruited through GULAG’s good offices.
Numerous successes followed, such as Bulgaria’s leader Georgi Dimitrov (1949) and his dissident compatriot Georgi Markov (1978). The latter was murdered with a ricin pellet administered through an umbrella tip on Waterloo Bridge.
Gen. Kutepov, the White émigré leader in Paris, was killed inadvertently in 1930. His kidnappers only wanted to drug the general and ship him to Moscow, but they accidentally overdosed him, and Kutepov’s heart gave way.
Several secret police bigwigs also got the taste of their own poison. They included the Cheka founder Dzerzhinsky possibly, his successor Menzhinsky probably, and the foreign intelligence chief Slutsky definitely.
It has even been widely alleged that both Lenin and Stalin had their passage to hell hastened by Lab 1 concoctions, but that has never been proved. As to the smaller fry, people like the Abkhaz party secretary Lakoba, Afghan communist chieftain Amin or the KGB defector Kokhlov, they are too numerous to mention. The last two actually survived the poisonings, suggesting a lapse of quality control at Lab 1. Or else a lethal outcome wasn’t actually intended.
Fast-forward to the Putin era, with Lab 1 as its prominent feature, and you’ll find this long tradition lovingly maintained.
In 2003 the dissident writer Yuri Shchekochikhin was fatally poisoned with a radioactive substance, probably thallium. In 2004 another dissident writer, Anna Politkovskaya, prefigured the Navalny incident by also drinking a cup of poisoned tea on a flight. She lived, only to be shot dead two years later. Dissident politician Vladimir Kara-Murza barely survived two poisoning attempts, in 2015 and 2017.
And of course two defectors, KGB’s Alexander Litvinenko and GRU’s Sergei Skripal, were both poisoned in Britain by Putin’s agents. Litvinenko perished, Skripal and his daughter miraculously survived, but two Britons died as collateral damage.
Litvinenko’s murderer, Alexei Lugovoi, was hastily ‘elected’ to the Duma, which gives him parliamentary immunity from the extradition requested by the British government.
Litvinenko was killed with polonium, which qualifies his murder as nuclear terrorism, albeit so far on a small scale. The Skripals were poisoned with an equally exotic compound, novichok.
Yet Putin’s chaps don’t ignore ancient remedies either. In 2012, the Russian whistle-blower Alexander Perepelichny collapsed while jogging in Surrey. The autopsy showed a heart attack, but two years later tests ordered by Legal & General, Perepelichny’s life insurance company, found traces of Gelsemium in his stomach.
The extract of this Chinese plant has been used as a poison for centuries. Nicknamed ‘heartbreak grass’, it triggers cardiac arrest if ingested, with poisoning a less certain verdict than in the case of polonium or novichok.
It’s for a good reason that Putin’s conservatism is praised in some Western quarters. After all, his chosen method of settling political disputes has a long and venerable pedigree.