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  • Writer's picturebjmagnani

The Russians Have a Tender Spot For Poison


The title of this blog is a line from my 2019 novel The Queen of All Poisons, spoken by Chad, Dr. Lily Robinson’s Agency contact. “You know the Russians have a tender spot for poison, Robinson. Anyone who speaks out as a political dissident runs the risk of death.” Poisoning is not just the stuff of novels and stories; it is the world we live in. Many civilizations have used poisons to eliminate rivals, enemies, spouses, and lovers throughout the ages. However, in my opinion, the Russians have a most formidable reputation for poisoning for political gain.



I venture this means of murder is popular because poisons are ubiquitous, easily obtainable, and can either create an immediate effect or produce death after a prolonged period of exposure. Compared to sharp force trauma or death by a firearm, poisoning is a relatively “bloodless” crime distancing the poisoner from the gory or tragic effects of their work. Perhaps it also allows the perpetrator to detach from the victim in a way that more violent crimes will not permit. More importantly, poisons sometimes mimic natural death, may be difficult to trace, and can easily be slipped into food or drink, inhaled, or enter the body through the skin. The options are so numerous that the intended victims are usually unaware of the impending assault—making poisons ideal for assassinations.

 

Looking back at history, Dimetry Yurievich Shemyaka, the Grand Prince of Moscow, battled with his cousin for the throne and was poisoned with arsenic in a chicken dinner in 1453, presumably with the help of the cook who was bribed by his opponents. Was it the Tsar or another relative who poisoned the Russian Commander Mikhail Skopin-Shuisky in 1610 with a cup of wine because he was considered a threat to the throne?

 

During the late 1920s and early thirties, Soviet biochemist Grigory Mairanovsky oversaw secret laboratories for developing and testing poisons. In the 1940s, Mairanovsky worked on creating lethal poisons that were colorless, odorless, and tasteless—the perfect weapon for eliminating your political opponent. Ordered by Stalin, Mairanovsky killed an American spy—with curare. In 1957, Nikolay Khokhlov, a trained Soviet assassin who worked for the KGB, later defected to the West and was subsequently poisoned (a failed attempt) by the KGB with thallium.

 

However, the poisoning tale I like the best is the one from the Cold War period. In 1978, journalist and dissident Georgi Markov was killed with a poison-filled pellet delivered into his leg from the tip of an umbrella, purportedly at the hands of the KGB. Markov was hospitalized after falling ill and subsequently died several days later. During Markov’s autopsy, forensic pathologists found a small pellet embedded in the back of his right thigh that was drilled with tiny holes. Presumably, the pellet had been covered in a gelatin-like substance that melted under the heat of the human body—thus releasing the toxin ricin.

 

In the 21st Century, we have the 2004 poisoning of Viktor Yushchenko, who ate dioxin-laced food at a political dinner. Although he survived, he bears the pockmarked scars of dioxin poisoning. In 2006, Alexander Litvinenko, former FSB (former KGB), died from tea tainted with polonium. Vladimir Kara-Murza, a journalist and opposition activist, was presumably poisoned twice—once in 2015 and then again in 2017. The toxin, if identified, was not made public. In both cases, he was left comatose with multiple organ failures, and yet, against all odds, he survived only to be imprisoned.

 

In 2019, Sergei Skripal (a former double agent) and his daughter were poisoned in England with Novichok—a powerful nerve agent. They survived. Alexei Navalny, opposition leader to Russia’s current government, had a similar experience in 2020 when he was poisoned with Novichok. Although he survived, he later died in 2024 of unknown causes. Was it poison? I’m sure many cases of poisoning have been overlooked because the deaths were ruled “natural” or “undetermined,” not homicide, particularly if the poisons were not easily detected—or no one bothered to investigate.

 

In 2011, I wrote in the forward of Lily Robinson and the Art of Secret Poisoning, “Poisoning is as much a part of our culture as anything else. Whether intentional or unintentional, it has played a role in shaping history, politics, literature, love, and war.”  That’s for sure —We’ll Always Have Poison.






Coming July 17th, 2024



 

 

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