From Russia, With Polonium

In light of the Litvinenko assassination, Kris Hollington, author of the forthcoming How to Kill: The Definitive History of the Assassin and whose website will launch in March 2007, explains the culture of assassination in Russia and why we can expect several more Russian hits to take place in the UK in the coming years.

As I researched How to Kill, I became interested in and started to collect the ‘odd’ stories of assassination; particularly fascinating were the relatively unknown attempts made on political leaders by lone nuts.

One intriguing story came from St Petersburg, Russia, in the weird, topsy-turvy world of the collapsing Soviet Bloc of 1990. Alexander Shmonov was a disgruntled biznismani (entrepreneur) who blamed President Mikhail Gorbachev for the collapse of the economy which had taken his hat-making business along with it. He decided to settle his complaint with a Russian VEPR hunting rifle, the rifle version of the AK47, accurate over 100 metres. Shmonov was caught trying to smuggle the cumbersome weapon under his coat into an apartment block near to where Gorbachev was due to make an appearance (his plan was to make a sniper’s nest, Day of the Jackal style, in an empty apartment).

Shmonov was carted off to his local psychiatric hospital from where he was released five years later. “This man is no longer a danger to anyone,” state psychiatrist Alexander Chenov told Pravda on July 14, 1995. Perhaps the paper’s sub-editors removed the phrase “…except Mikhail Gorbachev” as Shmonov emphatically told the same reporter: “I would do just what I did again”.

Three years later, in 1998, Shmonov had bounced back and had joined the ranks of Russia’s novii Ruski (nouveaux riche). He even decided to run in the elections for Russia's lower parliamentary house, the Duma. “I know people have a negative attitude toward terrorists today, but I have a strong programme,” he insisted. Bonkers, maybe, but Shmonov wasn’t any crazier than many of the other characters in the colourful cast battling for a place in the Duma – the candidates included a pair of cosmonauts, a feminist author, an accused contract killer, a wrestling champion, Stalin's grandson and the inventor of the infamous Kalashnikov AK47 assault weapon. In a way, it’s not that strange that so many crazy people try to get in the Duma, it’s a dangerous place to work. The accused contract killer would have fitted right in - six out of the previous ten of the Duma’s parliamentary deputies had been assassinated. Shmonov didn’t get elected, although he came close.

Of course, aside from the lone nuts, Russia is also home to hundreds of professional killers. In boom-time Russia, where politics are made from a combination of business and crime, life is the only commodity getting cheaper. While the murder of former FSB agent Alexander Litvinenko was an exceptional event in London, this sort of thing goes on all the time in Russia, where assassination is an essential part of everyday business.

Russia’s cities are teeming with broke ex-soldiers, FSB, KGB, GRU and Spetznatz officers who can be hired for as little as £200 per hit (a year’s pay for a non-commissioned army officer). Around 700 attempted and actual assassinations take place each year in St Petersburg alone (there are about 15,000 fatal shootings in Russia every year); the targets are mainly prominent businessmen and journalists, along with media moguls, politicians and ex-spies and army men. And the motivation behind all of them, almost without exception, is money. The methods range from the professionally mundane ‘three in the head you know they’re dead’ to the downright extraordinary (in one case a pet was dognapped, explosives were strapped to its body and the animal was returned to its owner for an extremely short-lived reunion).

One of the most popular candidates in the elections in which Shmonov was running was Galina Starovoitova who, perhaps more than any other journalist or politician, had made a large number of enemies in her long political fight against crime and corruption (she was also one of Boris Yeltsin’s most trusted aides). She was gunned down on her doorstep by an ex-GRU (Russian Military Intelligence) officer, shot three times in the head.

On President Boris Yeltsin's insistence, the case was to be directed from Moscow by the FSB. The newly appointed head of the FSB at that time was a little-known former mid-level spy nicknamed the ‘Gray Cardinal’ for his Vatican-like mastery of backroom intrigue. His name was Vladimir Putin. It took a while but Putin (to many people’s surprise) managed to track down the killers and brought them to justice (the culprit was one of the many corrupt businessmen/politicians whom Galina had investigated and had threatened to ruin).

Assassinations continued apace in the days following Galina’s assassination. Fuel boss Pavel Kapysh was killed when his car was attacked with rocket-propelled grenades and automatic rifle fire. Next was the prominent Russian parliamentarian Viktor Novosyolov (who had been left wheelchair-bound by a 1993 attack). He was targeted by two hit-men who placed a bomb on the roof of his car as he waited at a set of traffic lights. The blast took off his head. One of his assistants was shot and killed in his home two days later.

Although these were spectacular killings, it was just another week in Russian business and politics. The killings and cover-ups have continued to rise steadily. In 2005 journalist Askhat Sharipzhan, who was looking into corrupt deals between big business and politicians, died in a ‘traffic accident’. Sharipzhan had conducted interviews with two prominent opposition leaders on the day he died, and his recordings of those interviews were never found. The opposition figures he interviewed later died in separate incidents. One of them, a former emergency situations minister and mayor, died from two gunshot wounds to the chest and one to the head. The official investigation concluded that it was suicide.

No doubt the same investigators tackled the even stranger case of the head of an independent journalists' union and newspaper editor who was found hanging from the handle of an industrial refrigerator. He had often written about corruption among local officials. The verdict? Suicide.

As assassination is such a common tool in Russia it was inevitable it would spill over into other countries; the UK, more than any other western country has welcomed the biznismeni and novii ruski and Russians call London Londongrad or Moskva-na-Temze (Moscow-on-Thames). As of December 2006, 300,000 Russians were living in the capital and 100,000 of those arrived in the past two years, bringing £60 billion with them.

With all that cash swimming about, it won’t be long before the less desirable side of Russian life catches up with it. There are signs that it is starting. In March 2004, police discovered the body of Simon Turkov in a room in the Marriott near Marble Arch. He had been strangled. Turkov, a UK resident and convicted drug smuggler was killed by Russian criminals because he had failed to pay off his huge debts. In November 2005, Vladymyr Chevtsev, a millionaire Russian businessman was shot dead by a motorbike assassin near Kings Cross. Now we have Litvinenko, done in by a radioactive pill.

I am certain we will be seeing several more similar hits in the coming years .One only has to read Robert I. Friedman’s book Red Mafiya: How the Russian Mob Has Invaded America, (Little Brown, 2000), for an unnerving prediction of what might be coming our way. Friedman, whose name is on a Russian mobster’s hit-list, believes that it’s only a matter of time before UK journalists and investigators cross swords with Russia’s assassins.

The moral is, I suppose, never become between a biznismani and his money. I suspect that money, not his wild conspiracy theories about Putin, will prove to be the ultimate motive behind the assassination of Alexander Litvinenko. Meanwhile, Putin claims that assassination has fallen away under his much publicised anti-corruption drive. Not true. Here’s a list of a tiny proportion of the prominent officials from the CIS you won’t have heard of who were hit in 2006:

Andrei Kozlov: Russia's top anti-money-laundering official was assassinated by three shots to the head after leaving a football stadium. The as-yet unnamed mastermind who ordered the assassination was arrested in January 2007. Aleksandr Givoev: Head of a children's rights NGO gunned down in a drive-by shooting at a roadside market (a Russian press report later listed him among Russia's leading crime figures). Shahen Hovasapian: Head of a State Taxation Service division tasked with combating tax fraud was killed by a car bomb placed under his seat inside his vehicle. Ryszard Badon-Lehr: Polish vice-consul Badon-Lehr was found beaten unconscious in his apartment. He never woke up. Altynbek Sarsenbaev: Formerly Kazakhstan’s ambassador to Russia and opposition MP, Sarsenbaev was executed along with his driver and bodyguard with their hands tied behind their backs. Ogulsapar Muradova: an otherwise fit and healthy activist and journalist investigating corruption died in prison from ‘natural causes’ (her injuries included a crushed skull). Geday Akhmedov: a former governor also died in jail, apparently of a heart attack. He was just starting a 17 year sentence for corruption when he threatened to turn whistleblower. Hryhoriy Potylchak: the city council deputy was shot to death in a local park. He headed a commission that investigated the activities of local authorities.

About article author

Kris Hollington

Kris Hollington

Kris Hollington is a bestselling non-fiction author and ghost-writer of twenty books, several of which have been adapted for TV documentaries and dramas. The Interceptor: The Inside Story of the UK’s Elite Drug Squad, written with former Customs operative Cameron Addicott (Michael Joseph, ...More about Kris Hollington