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Pyotr Verzilov: who could be behind his apparent poisoning?

The Pussy Riot activist made little secret of his opposition to the Kremlin – but was that really enough to provoke a reaction? 

Oliver Carroll
Moscow
Thursday 20 September 2018 20:47 BST
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Pyotr Verzilov, a member of the feminist protest group Pussy Riot, in a court in Moscow in July
Pyotr Verzilov, a member of the feminist protest group Pussy Riot, in a court in Moscow in July (AP)

As Russian activist Pyotr Verzilov continues his recovery in a Berlin hospital bed – starting, on Thursday, to freely communicate with friends and family – new information is emerging about possible motives for his apparent poisoning.

Speaking to Russian media, Mr Verzilov’s former wife and fellow Pussy Riot activist, Nadya Tolokonnikova, revealed he had been investigating the deaths of three journalists killed in the Central African Republic in July. Moscow says the journalists were killed in a robbery, but colleagues suggest they were targeted after digging into the activity of Kremlin-linked private armies in the resource-rich state.

Mr Verzilov, who planned to travel to Africa together with the fated group, pledged to get to the bottom of their murders. He ordered an investigation, and that arrived the day before he fell ill, Ms Tolokonnikova told Dozhd TV, an independent Russian station.

He talked about “sensational” new revelations, she said: “He was very happy and excited about this report, writing in caps lock that he’d uncovered some kind of James Bond material.”

Mr Verzilov fell seriously ill in Moscow last Tuesday, losing, over the course of a few hours, functions of vision, speech and movement. He was treated in a toxicology department in the city’s leading A&E department, before being transferred by plane to a private hospital in Berlin.

On Tuesday, German doctors confirmed that Mr Verzilov had likely been poisoned. Their conclusions, which ruled out food poisoning and drug overdoses, fell broadly in line with the private diagnosis of Russian doctors.

Mr Verzilov’s girlfriend Veronika Nikulshina told The Independent that Russian doctors suspected a toxic dose of anti-cholinergic drugs, which affect the central and peripheral nervous system.

Neither set of doctors have been able to provide a positive identification of the poison supposedly at work.

Almost immediately after Mr Verzilov fell ill, focus turned to the nature of his work and activism, in search of possible motives.

It is fair to say it is not a short list. Over recent years, Mr Verzilov has made little secret of his opposition to the Kremlin – or his delight in irritating Russia’s most conservative constituencies.

He was a member of the Voina art group, famous, among other things, for drawing a large phallus on a retractable bridge facing the St Petersburg headquarters of Russia’s security agency. Another “performance” saw him take part in an orgy at the Moscow State Biology Museum.

He was a self-styled “producer” of Pussy Riot. The “punk collective” made international headlines in 2012, when three of its members were imprisoned for staging a protest against President Putin in a Moscow cathedral. Mr Verzilov has also occasionally participated in their actions. In July this year, for example, he took part in a pitch invasion of the World Cup final – dressed as a police officer. Pussy Riot explained the stunt as an attempt to “bring attention to illegal arrests” and heavy-handed sanctions in Russia’s courts.

Pitch invaders interrupt play in World Cup final clash between France and Croatia

It didn’t go down well with arresting officers, however, who openly lamented that their options were more limited than they had been during the height of the Stalinist terror.

Less well known is Mr Verzilov’s work as publisher of Mediazona, an investigative platform launched together with other members of Pussy Riot. Focused on law, order and rights, the publication has distinguished itself as a source of biting investigations and reliable news.

MediaZona’s editor-in-chief, Sergei Smirnov, told The Independent that it was difficult to understand exactly why his publisher had been attacked. He had been aware of Mr Verzilov’s investigations in the Central African Republic, he said. It was a sensitive area, but there had been no obvious warning.

“In truth, it could be any one of Pussy Riot, CAR or the World Cup. We have no idea which of the three to regard as more likely. That’s the problem”

Opposition newspapers have speculated about the role of businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin, widely nicknamed “Putin’s Chef” on account of his close relations and government catering contracts. Had he become irked at interest in his activities?

Mr Prigozhin is understood to be involved in several of the Kremlin’s more controversial arms-length operations: from troll farms in St Petersburg, to heading Wagner, a private army linked to the Ministry of Defence. Wagner’s presence in Syria and CAR is an open secret and was the subject of the journalists’ doomed investigation. Mr Prigozhin has denied involvement.

A direct state hit seems unlikely, says Mark Galeotti, fellow at the Institute of International Relations Prague. That said, it was “not impossible” that sub-state actors like Mr Prigozhin would consider Mr Verzilov a threat, and act.

“What Verzilov was doing was essentially a political act — at least that’s how it will have been understood by some around the Kremlin,” he told The Independent.

The key was understanding Mr Verzilov as a journalist rather than activist, he added: “If this really was all about Wagner, that is exactly how he will have been viewed.”

And it would not be the first time a journalist has been targetted in this way.

In 2012, Alexander Bastrykin, head of “Russia’s FBI,” drove an opposition newspaper’s deputy editor to a forest and allegedly threatened to kill him. Mr Bastrykin was eventually forced to apologise.

There are several unproven, but persuasive stories of journalists being poisoned.

In 2003, the investigative journalist Yuri Shchekochikhin died an agonising death with sixteen days of illness and strange skin lesions. The official explanation of his death was Lyell’s syndrome, a very rare allergic reaction. But his medical file was classified, and friends and colleagues suspected the state was at work.

In 2004, the critical and campaigning journalist Anna Politkovskaya collapsed on a plane – she was on her way to cover the school siege in Beslan in 2004. Again, poisoning was suspected. Two years later, she was dead at the hands of gunmen, who opened fire at her home.

Mr Galeotti suggested there were certain parallels between Mr Verzilov’s story and the surreal YouTube video released last week by Putin’s security chief Viktor Zolotov. That seven-minute clip, delivered in eery monotone, threatened to make “mincemeat” out of opposition politician Alexei Navalny.

“Something is happening within a subset of the elite – not the oligarchs, but the strongmen, people whose position depends on Putin and continued patronage,” he says. “They are getting jumpy, nervous about their reputation, perhaps because they understand they are dispensable in the way that other members of the elite are not.”

Leonid Gozman, psychologist, liberal politician and prominent commentator, told The Independent he had little doubt Mr Verzilov had been poisoned by government – and that it spoke a “radicalisation” of the Kremlin strongmen.

“Two years ago I wouldn’t have believed it,” he said. “But now, post Skripal, post Crimea, you start to see they are capable of the craziest and most criminal of things.”

He suggested the July World Cup pitch invasion offered a likely motive.

The Kremlin had been very angry about it, he says: “It was supposed to be the leader’s party, but Pyotr and his friends ruined the big day”

Even if the sender was opaque, the message was clear. Over time, people would recalibrate the risks of doing politics, he said.

“The consequence is not fear as much as an understanding that the government will not stop at anything. People will modify their actions. Some will stop going to protests. Others will go the other way, and radicalise into violence.”

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