Stay up to date with notifications from The Independent

Notifications can be managed in browser preferences.

The long history of Russian deaths in the UK under mysterious circumstances

From poisoned umbrellas to radioactive substances, Moscow has repeatedly been linked with deaths on British soil 

Lucy Pasha-Robinson
Tuesday 06 March 2018 15:24 GMT
Alexander Litvinenko at the Intensive Care Unit of University College Hospital
Alexander Litvinenko at the Intensive Care Unit of University College Hospital (Getty)

The case of a former Russian colonel and former spy for Britain who remains in critical condition after being exposed to an unknown substance, has drawn comparisons with other suspicious events involving former Kremlin operatives in the UK.

Sergei Skripal was given refuge in Britain after being jailed in his home country for treason. He was later pardoned for passing the identities of Russian secret agents in Europe to the UK's MI6 spy agency and in 2010 he was one of four prisoners Moscow swapped for spies in the US in 2010.

After settling in the Wiltshire town of Salisbury, he led a quiet life until he hit the headlines when he was found unconscious on a bench alongside his daughter Yulia at a local shopping centre on Sunday. The pair remain in a critical condition in intensive care after being exposed to an "unknown substance" that triggered an alert over hazardous material.

The story has drawn comparisons with that of Alexander Litvinenko, a former officer with Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB) who suddenly fell ill on 6 November 2006.

His illness and death weeks later attributed to poisoning with the rare and highly toxic polonium-210. The Health Protection Agency found significant amounts of the radioactive substance in his body.

It is believed that it was administered in a cup of tea.

Before his death Litvinenko, had repeatedly criticised Russian President Vladimir Putin and made numerous allegations of corruption against the country's security services.

He claimed he met two KGB agents, Mitry Kovtun and Andrei Lugovoy in the Millenium hotel bar in Mayfair on the day he was fatally poisoned. Both have denied any wrongdoing.

But a leaked US diplomatic cable revealed that Mr Kovtun had left polonium traces in the house and car he had used in Hamburg.

A 2015 British court hearing found “the evidence suggests that the only credible explanation is in one way or another the Russian state is involved in Litvinenko’s murder”.

Although the cause of Mr Skripal’s illness remains unclear, investigators are understood to be reviewing the Litvinenko case to see if there are any similarities.

His was one of a long list of cases in the UK, which have the seen the Russian state linked to murders on British soil.

Perhaps the most famous case is that of Bulgarian dissident Georgi Markov, who was poisoned with an umbrella while waiting for a bus on Waterloo Bridge in 1978.

The 49-year-old said he felt a sharp sting on the back of his thigh. After developing a fever, he died four days later.

An autopsy found a deadly 1.7mm-wide pellet of poisonous ricin in his skin.

More recently, in March 2012, exiled Russian banker German Gorbuntsov survived an assassination attempt as he stepped out of a taxi in East London.

A hitman shot him with a silenced pistol, but he survived the attack and now lives under a 24-hour security detail.

Later that year, he told The Independent that he believed his former business partners were behind the attack. The men he named claimed to be friends of Mr Putin, which, Mr Gorbuntsov claimed had slowed an investigation by Russian authorities.

No one was ever caught for the shooting.

Later that year, Alexander Perepilichnyy, who was helping Swiss prosecutors uncover a multi-million pound money laundering scheme used by corrupt Russian officials, died in mysterious circumstances outside his home in Weybridge, Surrey.

The businessman collapsed while out running and it was intially believed he had suffered a heart attack.

However, traces of a poison that can be found in the gelsemium plant were later found in his stomach.

The British government was accused of turning a blind eye to evidence that he was assassinated on Vladimir Putin’s direct order.

"We strongly believe that Perepilichnyy was assassinated on direct orders from Putin or people close to him," a senior US intelligence official said at the time.

Chris Phillips, the former head of Britain’s National Counter Terrorism Security Office also said: “There’s no way it wasn’t a hit. It’s ridiculous."

The following year, oligarch Boris Berezovsky, a vocal critic of Mr Putin’s regime, was found hanged in March 2013 in an apparent suicide.

But the pathologist who conducted his postmortem said he was unable to rule out murder and a coroner recorded an open verdict on his death.

Then in December 2014, one of his associates Scot Young, was found impaled on railings in Marylebone after allegedly falling from his flat.

He told his partner he was planning on jumping moments before he was found, but a coroner ruled there was insufficient evidence to rule his death was a suicide.

Elsewhere in the world, nine high-profile Russians have died in mysterious circumstances since the US presidential election on 8 November 2016.

Six Russian diplomats have died since Donald Trump’s victory, although many of their deaths have been ruled “natural” or not suspicious.

In January, Russia's ambassador to India, Alexander Kadakin, died after a short illness. A spokesperson for the Russian embassy in New Delhi said there was nothing ”special or extraordinary” about the circumstances that led to his death.

Senior diplomat at the Russian embassy in Greece ​Andrey Malanin was found dead the same month.

Russia’s ambassador to the United Nations (UN), Vitaly Churkin, also died suddenly last February from an apparent heart attack. He was “in his office fulfilling his duties” when he died, according to a statement from the Russian mission at the UN.

In March 2017, Denis Voronenkov, a Russian politician who fled to Ukraine, was shot outside a hotel in the country's capital Kiev. Ukraine’s president called the shooting a “Russian state terrorist act” – although authorities in Moscow have denied the country player a role in his death.

In August, Russia’s ambassador to Sudan Migayas Shirinskiy died of an acute heart attack while swimming in his pool in the Khartoum.

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in