Top of page

Murder as Statecraft

Share this post:

The following is a guest post by Peter Roudik, director of legal research at the Law Library of Congress. Peter specializes in Russia and the former Soviet Union. He has written a number of posts on topics related to countries in that region, including posts on Christmas, Soviet Style; Soviet investigation of Nazi war crimes, lustration in Ukraine, Crimean history and the 2014 referendum, regulating the Winter Olympics in Russia, Soviet law and the assassination of JFK, and the treaty on the creation of the Soviet Union.

What do a U.S. federal budget, Russian court ruling, British public inquiry, and results of blood tests performed by a French lab have in common? They all relate to the allegation that political assassinations remain a “form of statecraft” in the Russian Federation.

Svoboda Today, Daily Guide to Developments in Russia, Ukraine, and the region.  RFE/RL (Jan. 22, 2016),  Copyright (c) 2016. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave NW, Suite 400, Washington DC 20036.
Svoboda Today, Daily Guide to Developments in Russia, Ukraine, and the region. (RFE/RL (Jan. 22, 2016) (Copyright (c) 2016. RFE/RL, Inc.) Republished with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.

About a month ago, a district court in Moscow, Russia, ruled that killers of Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov can be charged with first degree murder, despite the Nemtsov family’s request to requalify charges against the murderers and recognize this crime as an assassination of a public figure. Even though the investigation had not been concluded, the court was already of the opinion that the murder of the most vocal opponent of the current regime in Russia had no political motivation and was dictated by the greed of the perpetrators only.

Vladimir Kara-Murza, a close ally of the murdered Boris Nemtsov and leader of another opposition party, fell suddenly ill last spring in Moscow. All of his major organs starting failing, and he was in a coma for nearly a week. When a French medical laboratory tested his blood, skin, and hair, it found “a significant excess” of the permissible concentration of heavy metals for an individual in the samples.

Around the same time, Sir Robert Owen, a former assistant coroner, held public hearings in the Royal Courts of Justice in London as part of a British government-initiated inquiry into the death of Russian dissident Alexander Litvinenko, who was poisoned by polonium in London in 2006. The Litvinenko Inquiry Report, delivered to the British Parliament on January 21, 2016, found “strong circumstantial evidence of Russian State responsibility for the killing of Mr. Litvinenko and President Putin’s approval for the killing.”

And finally, section 503 of the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2016, passed last December by the United States Congress, requires that the “Director of National Intelligence submits to the appropriate Congressional committees an intelligence community assessment on the use of political assassinations as a form of statecraft by the Russian Federation since January 1, 2000.”

While Congress is going to review deaths or health problems of Russian and foreign journalists, dissidents, politicians, and secret service defectors associated with alleged foul play during the presidency of Vladimir Putin, it is worth noting that poisoning of political opponents seems to have long been a part of Russian political culture. The Soviet regime specifically appears to have mastered “the craft of political assassination.”

Soon after coming to power, the Bolsheviks started to use “ruthless methods to suppress real or perceived political enemies in the name of revolutionary cause.”  In 1997, the Library of Congress published newly-revealed documents from the Russian archives showing orders, coming directly from Vladimir Lenin, then the head of the Russian government, to hang as many priests and wealthy people as possible. Later, assassinations became an integral part of Stalin’s policies, as documents from the KGB archives demonstrate. However, many of these documents still remain unavailable to researchers in Russia. Although President Yeltsin issued a decree in 1992 requiring the declassification of all information related to mass repressions and human rights violations committed by the Soviet secret police during the period of 1917-1991, this did not happen. Then, in 2014, the Government Interagency Commission on the Protection of State Secrets stated that these documents shall remain secret for the next thirty years through 2044. Russian courts confirmed the validity of this decision even though the same documents were declassified and published online in other former Soviet republics.

Another example of a case, which is a secret in Russia but was disclosed by Ukrainian authorities, is the so-called Harbin case. Harbin was a city in Manchuria established by Russian settlers in the 19th century. It became a center of Russian emigration after the 1917 revolution. In the 1930s, Manchuria was occupied by Japan and almost all 40,000 Russian-speaking Harbin inhabitants were removed by the Soviet authorities and taken back to the USSR. The secret police then accused all of them of being Japanese spies and saboteurs and created a plan for their arrests and executions. This plan was approved by the Soviet Politburo, then the highest governing Soviet body, in September 1937. About 30,000 people were killed in accordance with the plan.

In 1947, an American citizen became a victim of political murder. Isaiah Oggins was the longest-serving and highest positioned American spy in Stalin’s underground network. He was arrested in Moscow in 1939 on charges of treason and espionage. An investigation and trial did not confirm these allegations, and he did not plead guilty. However, he was sentenced to eight years in labor camps. The Soviets did not want to let him go when his prison term expired. In May 1947, the State Security Minister wrote in a letter to Stalin and Vyacheslav Molotov, then the Soviet foreign minister, that “the appearance of Oggins in the USA might be used by persons hostile to the USSR for active propaganda against the Soviet Union.” (State Security Minister’s letter, reprinted in Andrew Meier, The Lost Spy: An American in Stalin’s Secret Service (2008).)

Therefore, the USSR Ministry of State Security considered it necessary to “liquidate” Oggins, informing the Americans that “Oggins died in 1946 of tuberculosis of the spine at the place of his internment.” The State Security Minister assured his bosses that the archives of the prison where Oggins served his term would reflect the course of his illness and the medical aid rendered to him. Oggins’ cause of death was recorded officially as illness following a fraudulent autopsy, and a fake burial certificate was issued. In reality, Oggins was brought to Moscow and poisoned in the KGB “laboratory of death.”

Poison Gas Assassination Gun (Photo by Flickr user OnesandFutureLaura, Apr. 26, 2014.) Used under Creative Commons License 2.0,
Poison Gas Assassination Gun. (Photo by Flickr user OnesandFutureLaura, Apr. 26, 2014.) Used under Creative Commons License 2.0,

A former Soviet intelligence officer Boris Voldarsky has written that “poisons never stopped fascinating Soviet and Russian leaders.” According to him, the first KGB chemical lab was established in 1921, and it soon became a “poison factory” working on the production of an odorless poison that could not be detected in the victim’s body after death. It seems that poison was often preferred by planners of KGB special operations over conventional weapons.

Evidence that Soviet intelligence officers, working on direct orders from the highest national leaders, killed or attempted to kill Soviet and foreign public figures was found in the so-called Mitrokhin Archive. Vasili Mitrokhin was a KGB archivist between 1956 and 1985, and during his service he secretly copied the most important documents telling the story of special operations conducted by Soviet secret police. He kept these handwritten copies in his apartment in Moscow, until he gave them to the British intelligence in 1991. The documents he disclosed were analyzed and published by historian Christopher Andrew in his 2005 book, The Mitrokhin Archive II: The KGB and the World. Almost all of the examples used in this post are taken from this book.

In addition to such well-known political murders ordered by the Soviet government as the killing of Trotsky in Mexico, for example, recently revealed documents demonstrate how in 1953, a KGB agent gave Trotsky’s secretary, Wolfgang Salus, a substance. This made him sick and caused his death in ten days without creating any suspicion, looking like death from pneumonia. (Volodarsky, p. 127.) Also in 1953, attempts on the life of Yugoslav leader Josip Tito were discussed. Files obtained by Mitrokhin show that Soviet leaders were choosing between administering a lethal dose of pneumonic plague from a silent spray concealed in an assassin’s clothing during a personal audience with Tito (the assassin was supposed to be inoculated with an antidote beforehand), and presenting Tito with jewelry in a booby trapped box which would release a poisonous gas as soon as it was opened. (Andrew, p. 357.)

Soviet attempts to assassinate enemies of the Kremlin did not stop with Stalin’s death in 1953. Documents in the Mitrokhin Archive also show how in 1959 the Soviet leadership ordered the murder of leaders of Ukrainian nationalists in Munich. The execution weapon was an electrically operated gun with a silencer, concealed inside a cigarette pack, which fired a jet of poison gas from a crushed cyanide ampule and caused death by cardiac arrest. No pathologist was able to find a real cause of death. After committing these murders, the assassin turned himself in to West German authorities and confessed to his crimes. He was sentenced to only eight years of imprisonment because the judge said that “the main culprit was the Soviet government which had institutionalized political murder.” (Andrew, p. 361.) In addition to Ramon Mercader, Trotsky’s killer, who served 20 years in a Mexican prison, this was probably the only other case where a KGB assassin was prosecuted.

Despite bad publicity, the Soviet government continued to use assassinations. In 1962, a program of special actions against defectors and traitors was adopted. This involved sending killers abroad to carry out sentences against those who were sentenced in the USSR to death in absentia for “causing political damage to the country.” (Andrew, p. 367.) Apparently, the KGB wanted to maintain an image of a ruthless service with unlimited capabilities, which as they said made sure that “the hand of justice is longer than traitor’s legs.” (Id.) Even if they did not actually kill a person and someone died in a simple car accident, as happened in the U.S. with Reino Hayhanen, an agent who reported Willy Fisher (the protagonist Soviet intelligence officer in the Bridge of Spies movie), the KGB tried to confirm rumors that this accident was their doing. (Id.)

Later, the Soviet government turned to other, non-lethal types of special operations. These included attempts to “lessen Rudolph Nureyev’s (Soviet ballet dancer who defected in Paris) professional skills in order to localize negative effect of his forthcoming performances” ( id. p. 370), which meant sending someone to break his legs; and placing in Western newspapers forged letters from Ronald Reagan and other U.S. officials in order to discredit people.

Soviet Assassination Umbrella. (Photo by Flickr user OnesandFutureLaura, Apr. 26, 2014.) Used under Creative Commons License 2.0,
Soviet Assassination Umbrella. (Photo by Flickr user OnesandFutureLaura, Apr. 26, 2014.) Used under Creative Commons License 2.0,

In the 1970s, assassinations outside of the Soviet bloc were done in extraordinary circumstances. Among the best known cases are the 1979 killing of Afghanistan President Hafezulla Amin, who was ending Soviet influence and Communist rule in this country, by a 700-member special force unit sent to storm his palace in Kabul; and the poisoning of Bulgarian émigré Georgi Markov, who worked as a radio journalist at the BBC in London. On September 7, 1978, while he was standing at the Waterloo Bridge bus stop, Markov felt a sting in his right leg. He saw a man who had dropped his umbrella. The stranger apologized, picked up his umbrella and got a cab. The next day, Markov became ill, and died in a hospital on September 11. As was revealed later by a KGB general who was involved in this operation, an American umbrella was converted into a gun capable of firing a tiny pellet containing a lethal dose of ricin, a poison made of castor beans (Andrew, p. 389).

While I did not find any reference to a legal act expressly authorizing undercover special operations conducted by Communist agents during the Soviet era, many documents prove that these were performed with the knowledge and approval of the highest Soviet leadership. It will be very interesting to learn from the U.S. intelligence assessment whether there are further allegations of political assassinations currently being used by the Russian Security Service and its agents.

Add a Comment

This blog is governed by the general rules of respectful civil discourse. You are fully responsible for everything that you post. The content of all comments is released into the public domain unless clearly stated otherwise. The Library of Congress does not control the content posted. Nevertheless, the Library of Congress may monitor any user-generated content as it chooses and reserves the right to remove content for any reason whatever, without consent. Gratuitous links to sites are viewed as spam and may result in removed comments. We further reserve the right, in our sole discretion, to remove a user's privilege to post content on the Library site. Read our Comment and Posting Policy.

Required fields are indicated with an * asterisk.