Many commentators portray the bringing down of Yevgeny Prigozhin’s business aircraft on Aug. 23, killing all ten occupants, as just the latest manifestation of a centuries old Russian tradition of brutally eliminating political opponents. First the tsars then the Soviet authorities freely used political assassination to silence opposition.

The “custom” has been continued with alacrity by Putin and the cabal of serving and former intelligence officers that surround him. Much KGB and FSB training reinforced the words of Felix Dzerzhinsky, the founder of the Soviet secret police: “Terror is an absolute necessity.”

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Praveen Swami, an award-winning Indian journalist, commented that, since Putin came to power, many of his “rivals have died in circumstances far too opaque for Russian authorities to even trouble themselves with the pretense of an investigation. 

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Prigozhin is just one in a long list of “undesirables” who have hung themselves, fallen or jumped out of high windows, slashed their wrists, eaten something which killed them or, in the words of historian and author Simon Sebag-Montefiore, met their end in a demonstration of “brazenly atrocious and baroque violence,” since Putin took office.

In 2018, the Senate foreign relations committee warned that “the trail of mysterious deaths, all of which happened to people who possessed information that the Kremlin did not want to be made public, should not be ignored by western countries,” and yet, as the events of last week show, they continue.

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The 70-year-old, a key figure of the Nobel Prize-winning Memorial group, is the latest target of Kremlin repression, which has intensified since the offensive in Ukraine.

Twenty years of suspicious deaths and assassination attempts

Almost from the day Putin took office there have been a number of suspicious deaths which have been laid at the Kremlin’s doorstep. Those that had an “international dimension,” because they happened abroad are well known and documented, while many of those that happened in Russia out of the sight of the global media are not. These include:

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·    In 2003, Sergei Yushenkov, a former Russian army colonel, was gathering evidence he thought would prove that Putin was behind the 1999 “terrorist” bombings in Moscow when he was shot dead;

·    In that same year Yuri Shchekochikhin, a journalist also investigating the 1999 bombings, contracted a mysterious illness and died suddenly;

·    The 2004 pro-European Ukrainian presidential candidate, Viktor Yushchenko, was poisoned with a highly toxic dioxin, which left him permanently disfigured;

·    Forbes Magazine's Russian editor Paul Klebnikov was shot dead outside his office in Moscow in 2004 after writing about corruption in Russia and publishing a list of the country's richest people;

·    The murder of former FSB officer Alexander Litvinenko, a Russian defector, was poisoned drinking tea laced with radioactive polonium-210 in London in 2006;

·    Also in 2006, Anna Politkovskaya, a human rights journalist was shot outside her flat in Moscow during what was ruled a contract killing arranged by a person unknown – it was Putin’s 54th birthday;

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·    Lawyer Sergei Magnitsky who had been investigating the Russian polices involvement in tax fraud, died in police custody in November 2009 after being brutally beaten. The US Magnitsky Acts which were created in 2012 and 2016 to sanction any foreign government official that is a human rights offender;

·    Stanislav Markelov, a human rights lawyer involved in investigations of Russian military atrocities in Chechnya and the death of Politkovskaya, and Anastasia Baburova, a journalist, were shot dead near the Kremlin in 2009;

·    Also in 2009, Natalia Estemirova, a journalist investigating abductions and murders by security forces in Chechnya, was abducted outside her home, shot several times and dumped in nearby woods;

·    Boris Berezovsky a Russian oligarch and former ally of Putin who became an outspoken critic of the Kremlin was found dead at his Berkshire home in 2013 in a locked bathroom with a noose around his neck;

·    Boris Nemtsov, the leader of a Russian opposition party and an outspoken critic of Russia's 2014 military invasion of Ukraine who was shot dead close to the Kremlin in 2015;

·    Also in 2015, Mikhail Lesin, a former supporter of Putin, who founded the RT (formerly Russia Today) TV network but was later dismissed for unknown reasons was found beaten to death in a hotel in Washington DC;

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·    Former Russian MP Denis Voronenkov, who criticized Russia’s annexation of Crimea before fleeing to Ukraine, was shot dead in Kyiv outside his hotel in 2017;

·    Nikolai Andrushchenko, founder of the Novy Peterburg newspaper and a critic of both Putin and corruption among city officials died after being beaten by a group of attackers in 2017;

·    In 2018, Sergei Skripal, a defector from Russian military intelligence, and his daughter Yulia were poisoned by the Soviet-era Novichok nerve agent sprayed on the front door of his home in the UK city of Salisbury. Both survived;

·    Nikolai Glushkov, a close friend of Berezovsky and the former deputy director of Aeroflot, who claimed 25% of its employees were intelligence officers, was found hanged with his dog’s lead in his home in London in 2018;

·    In 2019, Zelimkhan Khangoshvili, a Georgian who fought against Russia during the second Chechen war, was shot by an FSB agent, who was arrested and jailed, in Berlin;

·    In 2020, the opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who was later jailed, was poisoned with Novichok nerve agent that had apparently been applied to his underwear. He survived. 

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Critics of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine or other “crimes”

Prigozhin was the latest victim among those who criticized the illegal invasion, his complaints were because it had been unsuccessful not because it had happened. A significant number of influential individuals, who dared to question its validity or necessity, have also met fatal accidents or “committed suicide,” which most consider too many to be coincidental.

Three aviation experts died within days of each other after unconfirmed reports suggested that they may have been accused of being involved in espionage:

·    In February 2022 the Head of Russia's Corporation for the Development of the Far East and the Arctic (KRDV), Igor Nosov an aviation specialist, died suddenly from what was claimed to be a stroke;

·    In September 2022, Ivan Pechorin a former colleague of Nosov, said to have been working directly with Putin to modernize Russia's aviation industry, drowned after allegedly falling off his luxury yacht in the Sea of Japan;

·    Ten days later, another former KRDV aviation expert who had been involved in the development of several MIG aircraft, Anatoly Gerashchenko, died after “falling down several sets of stairs;”

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It seems that since the invasion that working in the energy sector can be detrimental to your health:

·    In January 2022 Leonid Shulman, head of Gazprom’s transport service, was found dead with slashed wrists at his country house;

·    Alexander Tyulakov a senior executive at Russia’s Gazprom was found hanged in the garage of his St Petersburg home in February 2022;

·    Sergei Protosenya, a former senior manager of the Russian Novatek gas company apparently killed his wife and daughter before committing suicide, in April 2022 near Barcelona;

·    Former Kremlin official and Vice President of the Gazprombank Vladislav Avayev, was found shot dead alongside his wife and young daughter in a supposed murder/suicide inside their Moscow apartment;

·    In May 2022 Alexander Subbotin, 43, a former head of LUKoil and owner of a shipping company, was found dead in a house near Moscow died in May after “having ingested toad venom to cure a hangover;”

·    Yuri Voronov, head of a logistics company holding contracts with Gazprom, was found dead from a gunshot wound in a swimming pool in St. Petersburg;

·    In September 2022, Ravil Maganov, then head of LUKoil died after falling from the fifth floor of a Moscow hospital while under treatment for “a severe illness”;

·    Pavel Antov, a Russian politician and multi-millionaire businessman fell to his death from a hotel window while on holiday in Rayagada, India in December 2022. He had sent a WhatsApp message condemning the war in Ukraine shortly before his “fall.”

This list is not exhaustive. Wikipedia lists a total of 43 Russian individuals who were critical of the government, the war in Ukraine or other perceived transgressions in the last two years. The list includes politicians, judges, army officers, policemen and journalists among others.

The bottom line is criticism of the President, his policies or of those around him implied or obvious is a risky business in the 21st century.

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