Assassins and poisons out of Russia

In his book The KGB’s Poison Factory, Boris Voladarsky does something unique. He tells you of a “James Bond” type world that most people don’t know about, and the poisons that very ruthless people use. it is important to know about that world.

“Poisons were experimented with since the early days of Communism in Russia  A first try was Mustard gas (Yperite), which was first used as chemical weapon in World War I by the German army against British soldiers near Ypres, Belgium, in July 1917 shortly before the Bolshevik revolt in Russia. These experiments were disappointing as the chemicals were immediately detected during autopsies. This contradicted the main goal – to find a poison devoid of any taste or smell that could not be detected in the victim’s body after death. Later experiments were done with ricin, digitoxin and curare. Finally, a preparation with all the desired properties, called K-2 (carbylamine choline chloride), was created and successfully tested on prisoners. According to Vladimir Bobrenyov, an investigator at the Russian general prosecutor’s office who has made a lengthy study of the case, K-2 killed the victims in fifteen minutes.

“As late as 1953, the state security maintained at its Moscow headquarters a quietly notorious laboratory called the ‘Chamber’ (Kamera). Its staff consisted of a medical director and several assistants, who performed experiments on living people – prisoners and persons about to be executed…”

Russian assassins were very active. I will give a small sample here of the methods they used and the people they targeted:

[in the 30’s] “A lot of murderers and murders were spattering the European landscape, largely unseen and unrecognised by the public that was under assault.”

For instance, against Ukrainian nationalists:
“Most of the ‘nationalists’ came from the territories of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire like Galicia and Transcarpathia that had been forcibly brought under Stalin’s rule. And Moscow used its murder weapons to eliminate their leaders. On orders from Moscow Simon Petlyura, a leader of Ukraine’s fight for independence and briefly head of state, was shot and murdered in Paris in May 1926. In October 1947 the young and popular bishop Theodore Romzha, who had called his parishioners to resist the Soviet occupiers and was hated by Khrushchev, the Ukrainian leader at the time, became Moscow’s murder target. Initially, the Ukrainian NKVD under Sergey Savchenko mounted the operation, using their favoured technique of a road ‘accident,’ but the bishop survived and was hospitalised. In panic, Khrushchev called Stalin for help. A special group from the Pavel Sudoplatov’s Bureau No. i flew from Moscow and on the night of 31 October a new relief nurse was assigned to care for Bishop Romzha. Soon after midnight she used the syringe provided by Mairanovsky to poison the priest with curare. In the morning he was found dead. The nurse disappeared.” (In 2008 another important Ukrainian, Victor Yushchenko got extremely sick after being poisoned with a dioxin.)

“In the summer of 1937 the NKVD mounted a wide-scale operation in Europe to find and liquidate Ignatz Reiss, an important illegal rezident (a station chief residing in a target country and operating without the protection of diplomatic immunity) who had defected to the Trotskyites in Paris. As usual, several groups were involved. One of them, headed by Sergei Efron, the husband of a famous Russian poet, Marina Tsvetayeva, handed a box of strychnine-poisoned chocolates to a Swiss NKVD agent named Renate Steiner with the instruction to bring them to Switzerland where the Reiss family was hiding. On 4 September, Gertrude Schildbach, a family friend and an NKVD German agent, was to hand over these poisoned chocolates to Reiss’s wife and their little child, but her nerve failed. She had enough courage, however, to invite her old friend, Ignatz, for a dinner in a restaurant near Lausanne. It was a trap. When they went out late in the evening, Reiss was pushed into the car, shot and killed and his bullet-ridden body dumped on the side of a road in Chamblandes.

“In the 1950s and 1960s the ‘products’ of the Special Laboratory, were used against ‘enemies of the people’ who lived in Europe in exile. In February 1954 Nikolai Khokhlov was sent to Frankfurt am Main to organise the assassination of a prominent anti-Soviet activist by shooting him with a poisoned bullet (actually a lethal gas) from a gun concealed in a packet of cigarettes. In September 1957 Khokhlov, who had turned himself in and begun working for the CIA, was poisoned while attending a conference in Frankfurt. A month later Lev Rebet, a Ukrainian immigrant, was poisoned by a Russian operative named Bogdan Stashinsky. In October 1959 one of the leaders of the Ukrainian anti-communist opposition, Stepan Bandera, was poisoned entering his house in Munich. Stashinky subsequently defected to tell the West German authorities all about the Rebet and Bandera assassinations that he had carried out…

“When the Bolsheviks took power, there was armed military opposition to them in Russia, and one leader of it was a man named Peter Wrangel. When his Polish allies gave up, he said:
We are now alone in the struggle, which will decide the fate not only of our country but also of the whole of humanity. Let us strive to free our native land from the yoke of this Red scum who recognize neither God nor country, who bring confusion and shame in their wake.
He may have been right about the fate of humanity, but he lost.

Pyotr Wrangel
Pyotr Wrangel

The Bolsheviks saw him as a threat. He suddenly fell ill and as his mother, Baroness Maria Dmitriyevna Wrangel recalled, ‘those were 38 days and nights of excruciating torment’. Mycobacteria were found in the autopsy – which shows that the general was almost certainly poisoned with strains of Koch’s bacilli, a biological agent that can easily be used as a weapon. General Wrangel’s daughter, Yelena Meindorf, had all the time insisted that her father was deliberately poisoned.

What was the motive for all this ruthlessness?
One poisoner defected, and said this:
“My name is Pavel Anatolyevich Sudoplatov, but I do not expect you to recognize it because for fifty-eight years it was one of the best-kept secrets in

Pavel Sudoplatov
Pavel Sudoplatov

the Soviet Union. My Administration for Special Tasks was responsible for sabotage, kidnapping, and assassination. It is strange to look back fifty years, and re-create the mentality that led us to take vengeance on our enemies with cold self-assurance. We did not believe there was any moral question involved in killing Trotsky or any other of our former comrades who had turned against us. We believed we were in a life-and-death struggle for the salvation of our grand experiment, the creation of a new social system that would protect and provide dignity for all workers and eliminate the greed and oppression of capitalist profit.’

So there was Utopian ideology at work.  I think there must some enjoyment too in coming up with a custom poison or drug in your laboratory to destroy an enemy.

Poisons can be delivered in innovative ways.  From the book:

‘I’m looking for something that will work with a gadget I’ve designed,’ said the KGB colonel to Ken Alibek (who later defected from the Russian biological weapons program). ‘Let’s say we put this assembly into a tiny box, maybe an empty pack of Marlboro, and then find a way to put the pack under someone’s desk, or in his trash basket. If we were then to set it in motion, the aerosol should do the job right away, wouldn’t it?’

“By the autumn of 1957 KGB scientists and engineers had developed a weapon – the special technology laboratory modified their earlier silenced tube gun into a poison gas gun while the chemical laboratory came up with the poison – hydrogen cyanide (HCN). When inhaled, it causes what is called ‘chemical asphyxia’ – immediate unconsciousness, convulsions and almost instantaneous death ideally imitating myocardial infarction, also known as a heart attack. The gas-firing gun, like its predecessor, was to be hidden in a rolled-up newspaper, a favourite gadget of the Chekists. The firing lever activated a firing pin, which detonated a percussion cap, rupturing an ampoule of acid. The acid evaporated into HCN and was propelled out of a small hole in the muzzle. The gun was just 7 inches (18 cm) long. The disadvantage was that it had to be fired directly into the victim’s face. Stashinsky used it, but later defected to the West, where he got a plastic surgery operation and then was hidden in South Africa.

Blogger thought: Note that even in the 1950’s, poisons could be delivered person to person, in the form of a gas.

Not every chemical that the KGB manufactured was designed to kill. There were “soft poisons”.

“‘Soft’ remedies are also used to frighten the victim, or to incapacitate him or her temporarily to prevent a particular activity. They may also be used as sleep-inducing agents, or in specific operational circumstances to simulate death.”

One example of a soft poison being used was in the case of Anna Politkovskaya, a journalist and activist who took a plane ride south to try to defuse a hostage-taking situation (Muslim separatists had taken over a school in the town of Beslan and held the children and staff hostage). She later said:
“Half an hour to pack my things as my mind works furiously on how to get to the Caucasus. And another thought: to look for the Chechen separatist leader, Asian Maskhadov, let him come out of hiding, let him go to the hostage takers, and then ask them to free the children. Then followed a long evening at Vnukovo airport. Crowds of journalists were trying to get on a plane south, just as flights were being postponed. Obviously, there are some people who would like to delay our departure. I use my mobile and speak openly about the purpose of my flight: ‘Look for Maskhadov’, ‘persuade Maskhadov’. We have long stopped talking over our phones openly, assuming they are tapped. But this is an emergency. Eventually a man introduces himself as an airport executive: ‘I’ll put you on a flight to Rostov.’ In the minibus, the driver tells me that the Russian security service, the FSB, told him to put me on the Rostov flight. As I board, my eyes meet those of three passengers sitting in a group: malicious eyes, looking at an enemy. But I don’t pay attention. This is the way most FSB people look at me. The plane takes off. I ask for a tea. It is many hours by road from Rostov to Beslan and war has taught me that it’s better not to eat. At 21: 50 I drink it. At 22: 00 I realise that I have to call the air stewardess as I am rapidly losing consciousness. My other memories are scrappy: the stewardess weeps and shouts: ‘We’re landing, hold on!’ ‘Welcome back,’ said a woman bending over me in Rostov regional hospital. The nurse tells me that when they brought me in I was ‘almost hopeless’. Then she whispers: ‘My dear, they tried to poison you.’ All the tests taken at the airport have been destroyed – on orders ‘from on high’, say the doctors.’

In this case the dissident journalist was probably not meant to die. She just had to be stopped.

Anna was finally shot and murdered in her apartment block in Moscow in October 2006. The day of the assassination was very special. Somebody had given Putin a birthday present.

In the Frontline Club near the Paddington Station Sasha Litvinenko, himself soon to be murdered with radioactive polonium, speaking through interpreter, addressed a gathering:
“The question was asked here who killed Anna Politkovskaya. I can give an answer. It was Vladimir Putin, the President of Russia. After her book Putin’s Russia was published in the West, Politkovskaya started to receive threats from the Kremlin. Only one person in Russia could kill a journalist of her standing, only one person could sanction her death. And this person is Putin.”

In the case of the slow death of Litvinenko, there was some sloppiness to the operation, because British law enforcement was able to trace Polonium to the various places the assassins had been.

The choice of poison is interesting, The Russians did not use a nerve agent. Nerve agents can be inhaled, ingested or placed on skin. G-type nerve agents are clear, colorless liquids that are volatile at ambient temperature.  They might seem a good choice. So why use a radioactive poison?

The use of radioactivity might have made sense because you could give poisoned tea to Litvinenko in a public place, and everyone would walk away, including him, and the effects would only hit later, though once the tea was drunk, he was a walking dead man.

Here is a description of what Polonium does to you, from an article by Will Storr:

“Polonium is hugely radioactive, firing off a massive bombardment of alpha particles–and without any screening, the delicate mechanisms of the body’s internal organs get the full dose. As the atoms try to stabilize, alpha particles crash into nearby body tissue, knocking electrons from the molecules they encounter. Each time they do, the trail of wrecked cells expands; the poison turns them cancerous, or kills them off entirely.

“And that is just the beginning. Even as it weakens, the stomach continues to digests its contents, pulling the polonium into the bloodstream. Once it’s there, the poison uses the body’s own functions against it: each beat of the heart distributes radioactive material further around the organs and soft tissues.

“As the blood unwittingly delivers its payload, polonium gathers in its most perilous quantities in the liver, spleen, bone marrow, kidneys, skin, and hair follicles. From there it emits alpha particles at a devastating rate. Motorways of dying cells are pushed out through the body.

“By the time it invades the ends of the long bones and gets into the marrow, the terror has reached its most vital target-—the place where new blood cells are created. Just as skin cells were mutilated as the alpha particles smashed their way through, the marrow cells are stripped of their electrons and left corrupted, damaged, or dead.

“With its source of new blood polluted by radioactivity, the body goes haywire. The lymphatic system begins to shut down. White blood cell count drops. The body loses its ability to fight off disease. It commits suicide, cell by cell.

The poison used on Litvinenko also had the advantage that it had a short half-life, and would soon be untraceable. Luckily, investigators eventually figured out what it was.

Back to “soft” agents:

“In Moscow, February 8, 2003 in a packed theatre … there is an exuberant gala atmosphere. Black tie, evening dress, the whole of the political beau monde has assembled here. Sighs and gasps, kisses and hugs, members of the government, members of the Duma, leaders of the parliamentary factions and parties, a sumptuous buffet’
And then several dozen terrorists from Chechnya moved in and took everyone hostage, hoping to force President Putin to put an end to the Second Chechen War and withdraw his troops from their republic. They didn’t succeed. a gas attack was mounted against all those present in the [theatre] building, some 800 people, both terrorists and hostages. The secret military gas was chosen by the President personally. The gas attack was followed by the storming of the building by special anti-terrorist units in the course of which every one of the hostage-takers was killed, along with almost 200 hostages. Many people died without medical attention, and the identity of the gas was kept secret even from the doctors charged with the saving of lives.

hostage rescue after sleeping gas
hostage rescue after sleeping gas

Blogger thought: this was a “military gas”. If you can put all the inhabitants of a theatre asleep so fast that the hostage takers don’t even detonate their explosives – then perhaps you could use a gas like this on enemy troops that you want to take hostage.

One of the strangest agents used was a psychotropic drug called SP-17.

“This drug… induces a person to share his most deeply hidden secrets with his interlocutor. It loosens the tongue and has no smell, taste or colour and no known side effects. And, according to Alexander Kouzminov, a KGB/ SVR officer who worked with the drug, a person exposed to it has no recollection of ever having had a ‘heart-to-heart’ talk. It is sometimes used during covert interrogations…but more often to test illegals, especially when they return from the first overseas familiarisation trip. SP-17 may also be administered to field agents when they come home for furlough or a briefing.”

Blogger thought: Assume you are a Western spy or double agent – I would think that this drug can be used on you, and you will give up your identity. It makes spying much harder. And the amnesia means you don’t even know you were compromised.

But wait, you might say, this is crazy. No drug could make you forget a long speech to an interrogator!  But I did a Google search for “Retrograde amnesia induced by drugs” and found articles. I did not find interrogation drugs (apart from barbiturates).

The discovery of SP-17 was a side effect of Soviet experiments with various nerve poisons – they found that victims started talking and spilling out information.

Four months after I wrote the above, I read a book by former police officer Marc Goodman.  He states that in the “Dark Web” (criminal internet marketplace)  you can obtain Scopolamine, the so-called Devil’s Breath powder used as an offensive zombification drug, which, when blown into a victim’s face, leaves him or her coherent but with no free will.  Once ingested, within minutes the odorless and tasteless dust allows burglars, robbers, and rapists complete control over their victims, and worse, completely wipes the victims’ memories of the details of the incidents.  – So this does bear out Volodarsky in the idea that memories would not be formed.  (Wikipedia’s article on the topic has an un-cited sentence saying the “zombie” part of the above is a hoax, but there are other articles that say its true – I don’t know what to believe in this case.).

As far as strange drugs go, you can also do a search in Google (in the regular web, not the dark web) on drugs that cause nightmares (as side effects). Presumably if you wanted to give some a bad dream, you could slip one of those in his tea. Or suppose you wanted your lover to be more amorous – there is a drug named Bremelanotide that can accomplish that. The brain is new territory, and ruthless experimenters can plough through it looking for ways to control or destroy other people.

How ruthless? Who are these people?
Dissident Vladimir Bukovsky says that Russia, Ukraine and other post-Soviet states, are ruled by ‘a criminal clique, a merger of the underworld, security services and so-called business’, which had become completely uncontrollable’.

Lets take the man at the top, Vladimir Putin:

Putin
Putin

Putin himself has a kind of violent sense of humor: In November 2002, during a EU-Russia summit, a French journalist asked a question about bombings affecting the civilian population of Chechnya. Putin responded by suggesting that the questioner was an ‘Islamic radical’ who would do well to come to Russia to procure a circumcision, ‘and I’d recommend that the operation be performed in such a way that nothing will grow there again’.
The doomed Sasha Litvinenko had met Putin, and said that Putin was cold and formal. “He listened in silence to Sasha’s passionate depiction of corruption in the service, and refused to accept hand-drawn diagrams that Litvinenko had prepared to show relations between the FSB officers and the criminals. Putin said he would call if he needed the, hmm, lieutenant colonel further. ‘I know a man by his handshake,’ Sasha told Marina after that meeting. ‘His was cold and spongy. I could see it in his eyes that he hated me.’

Masha Gessen, an American lesbian who was born in Russia and opposes Putin, has noticed a thread that runs all through the Putin story:

“everyone who knows anything about him is living in exile or dead or working in the Russian government very close to the man himself. One of those exiles, she reports, Marina Salye, now lives in a village in Russia more than one hundred miles from St Petersburg. Throughout the 1990s, Salye was a leading liberal politician in St Petersburg, deputy of the legislative assembly of the city, one of only two women prominent on the national liberal political scene since perestroika. (The other, Galina Starovoitova, was shot dead in her apartment building in St Petersburg in 1998.) In 1992 Salye headed a committee of the city council formed to investigate the activity of the deputy mayor, Vladimir Putin. After she and another deputy, Yuri Gladkov, presented the results of the investigation, the city council passed a resolution calling for the mayor to fire Putin and to have the prosecutor’s office investigate apparent corruption and misappropriation of funds. The mayor ignored the recommendation. In early 2000, in the run-up to the presidential elections, Salye campaigned against Putin, attempting to draw attention to the conclusions of the committee’s investigation. Then, abruptly, she left St Petersburg and disappeared. Masha learned why. Around New Year’s Day 2001, her sources told her, Salye received a holiday telegram from President Putin. ‘Here is wishing you good health,’ the telegram said, ‘and the opportunity to use it.’ The next day, she packed up and moved to the most obscure place she could find. Salye today won’t speak publicly about this or anything else. And what happened to Yuri Gladkov? The deputy chairman of the Legislative Assembly of St Petersburg died on 6 October 2007 from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). Experts know that ALS can be simulated by mercury intoxication or exposure to other heavy metals. And the date, as in the case of Anna Politkovskaya, is remarkable – Putin’s birthday.”

Now I’m going to add my two cents here. There are poisoning cases where the goal is to destroy a person without anyone knowing what happened. There are poisoning cases where the goal is to damage or destroy a person as a lesson, so that everyone knows what happened.
But could you have a situation where the victim is aware of what happened, but the people around him are not? In that situation, it is likely that the victim would not be believed if he was rash enough to report what happened. And if the symptoms he was being hit with were behavioral in nature – such as what happened to me when I drank an open glass in my refrigerator one day, and got hit by the most incredible sexual desire symptoms that I’ve ever had, then he would be laughed at as well. Such a person might report that drug-dust was put in the compartment between his house’s door and the glass door in front of it, so that when he opened the door to get the morning paper, he got hit. He could report that when he came out of a restaurant and onto his bicycle, there was a new grease on his handle bar that rubbed into his palm and he was soon lying by the side of the road, his chest feeling as if it was exploding. He could report that he put on his clothing in the morning, and the clothing itself had a chemical on it at that made him sick. It would be a completely paranoid scenario – and probably technically possible.
I believe this all happened. I believe that criminal organizations in the U.S. have this technology, a technology that even Boris Volodarsky has not conceived of.

So:
James Bond – where are you when we need you?

Sources:
The KGB’s Poison Factory – Boris Volodarsky – Frontline books, 2009
https://medium. com/matter/how-radioactive-poison-became-the-assassins-weapon-of-choice-6cfeae2f4b53
Note:
For another mention of SP-17, there is the book by Markus Wolf, who had headed East German intelligence. He wrote this:
“One KGB man was dispatched to buyers throughout the Eastern bloc bearing wares such as untraceable nerve toxins and skin contact poisons to smear on doorknobs. The only thing I ever accepted from him was a sachet of ‘truth drugs’, which he touted as ‘unbeatable’ with the enthusiasm of a door-to-door salesman. For years they lay in my personal safe. One day, in a fit of curiosity, I asked our carefully vetted doctor to have them analysed for me. He came back shaking his head in horror. ‘Use them without constant medical supervision and there is every chance that the fellow from whom you want the truth will be dead as a dodo in seconds,’ he said. We never did use the ‘truth drugs’.”  Volodarsky quotes this, but says that Markus Wolf downplays a program (The KGB poison program) that experts say was effective.

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