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Russia’s Reign of Poisonous Terror

A closer look at the mysterious deaths on UK soil

On 6th March, a story broke in the press of the poisoning of a man, now known to be Sergei Skripal, 68, and his daughter, Yulia, in a shopping centre in Wiltshire. More evidence has now been uncovered, declaring that Skripal was a Russian spy who was jailed in Moscow but released in 2010 and given British citizenship as a result of a spy swap between Western powers and Russia. We also now know that the nerve agent Novichok was used, a chemical developed by the Soviet Union in the 1970s. At present, it is unknown how the two victims were exposed to Novichok – a police officer who responded to the scene was also placed in intensive care, with another 21 injured.

On 12th March, Theresa May stated in the House of Commons that it is very likely the Russian state is responsible for this act of terror. Vladimir Putin, an ex-KGB agent himself, once warned that “traitors always end in a bad way,” and certainly, both Russia and its predecessor the USSR have form for dealing with any loose ends in a brutal fashion. From poisoned umbrellas to mysterious suicides, there have been a number of Russia-related deaths that have happened in the UK, and here I will explore just a select few of these.

Georgi Markov, September 1978.

Markov was explicitly anti-communist at a time where it was not permitted to be so in the Eastern Bloc. Originally working as a novelist and playwright in Bulgaria, he moved to London in 1971 and started working for the BBC. Between 1975 and 1978, Markov broadcasted a show on the US-owned “Radio Free Europe,” giving an analysis and criticism of life in Communist Bulgaria, which was firmly within the orbit of the USSR at this point. This made him a clear enemy of the Bulgarian state and he was dealt with accordingly. On 7th September 1978 while waiting at a bus stop, having just walked across Waterloo Bridge, he was pricked with an umbrella in his thigh. That night he developed a fever, and despite being admitted to hospital, he died four days later. The exact cause of death was poisoning from a ricin filled pellet, which was contained within the umbrella. The assassin is claimed to be Francesco Gullino, believed to still be alive and free to this very day. It is speculated that the Bulgarian authorities asked the KGB, the Soviet secret police, for assistance in the assassination.


Alexander Litvinenko, November 2006.

Litvinenko worked for the Russian Federal Security Service up until 1998 when he and several others accused the Russian state of organising the assassination of Russian oligarch Boris Berezovsky. Subsequently, Litvinenko was arrested the following March, but was ultimately acquitted in 2000. Following this, he fled with his family to Turkey, eventually being granted political asylum in the UK in 2001 on humanitarian grounds. Between 2001 and 2006, Litvinenko worked closely with MI6, MI5 and other authorities to provide information about Russian organised crime, including alleging that the KGB and other Russian security services supported and funded global terrorism – even going as far to imply that Russia was the originator of the London 7/7 bombings. It was clear that Litvinenko was too dangerous for Russia to tolerate, and on 1st November 2006, he suddenly fell ill and was hospitalised, where large amounts of radiation were found in his body. Later enquiries have found that he was poisoned by the radioactive polonium which was slipped into his tea by two other Russians. He died on 23rd November, prompting international outrage and a public inquiry that concluded that Litvinenko’s murder was “probably personally approved” by Vladimir Putin. 

Alexander Perepilichnyy, November 2012.

Out of all the examples in this article, this one is perhaps the biggest conspiracy theory, as little is known about the causes of Perepilichnyy’s death as the inquiry is still ongoing. Perepilichnyy was aiding an investment firm uncover a $230m Russian money-laundering scheme, and the firm alleges that Perepilichnyy could have been deliberately killed as a result of attempting to uncover this scam. His death, which occurred suddenly while jogging, was to be ruled as a result of natural causes. However, tests have shown a “suspect compound” that potentially matches a type of “vegetable poison.” Furthermore, Perepilichnyy had received threats from an organised crime group before his death, which prompted him to take out multiple life insurance policies before his death. The fact so little is known about the death does suggest something suspicious.

So, does Russia really pose a threat to our way of life? It does seem that way, at least to an extent. While some attacks are more closely linked to Russia than others, such as the attacks on Litvinenko and the recent one on Skripal, it is clear that Russia has very little regard for international diplomacy when it comes to dealing with potential threats to its regime. As Theresa May stated, “Russia views some defectors as legitimate targets for assassination,” and it certainly doesn’t seem to be fazed by the prospect of tighter sanctions or breakdowns in relations. However, it should be stated that Russia has described the allegations as a “circus,” denying all responsibility. It is unclear what will happen in the future, but these do seem to be troubling times for Russia-West relations, which are now at the lowest point since the Cold War.


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