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Poison as a Weapon in Putin’s Russia

Russia’s tumultuous history is replete with backstabbing — sometimes literal — where the powerful would seek their vengeance with a host of toxins. Poisoning could be used as a way of getting rid of rivals, as punishment, or simply to “let you know whose country you are in.” It was not limited to just political opponents but, on occasion, could even be used to sicken American diplomats. 

Such methods have been on the upswing in recent years in Putin’s Russia. Anna Politkovskaya, a human rights activist known for her opposition to Putin and the war in Chechnya, survived a poisoning attempt in 2004, but was shot and killed in 2006. In 2004, Viktor Yushchenko, who led the Orange Revolution in Ukraine and who was viewed as a threat to the Kremlin’s interests, was severely poisoned with dioxin, apparently at a dinner with a group of senior Ukrainian officials. Alexander Litvinenko, a former Russian secret service official, openly accused Putin of crimes such as the assassination of Politkovskaya; he was poisoned with polonium and died in 2006. A Britsh judge in January 2016 concluded that Putin most probably ordered the hit. Most recently, Boris Nemtsov, an outspoken critic of Putin, was assassinated right outside the Kremlin, one of the most secure places in Russia.

These excerpts take a look back at some earlier examples of Moscow’s tactics. Vladimir I. Toumanoff gives an account of how one anti-Soviet group leader was almost poisoned at a banquet that Toumanoff also attended. Robert Martens and William Morgan describe how U.S. Embassy officials were often made severely ill through poisoned food. Toumanoff was interviewed by William Morgan in June of 1999. Martens was interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy in September of 1991. Morgan was interviewed by Lester Elliot Sadlow in June of 1995.

You can also read about the KGB’s surveillance techniques and other Moments stories dealing with Russia and the USSR.


Dinner and an Assassination Attempt

Vladimir Toumanoff,  Consulate Frankfurt, 1957-1958, Embassy Moscow 1958-1960

TOUMANOFF:  Headquartered in Frankfurt was a Soviet émigré organization called the Natsionalnyy Trudovoi Soyuz, the NTS [the National Labor Union]. It was bitterly anti-Soviet, as you can imagine, and it conducted all kinds of hostile activities against the USSR — infiltration of persons, smuggling in anti-Soviet materials, contacting and soliciting defection from Soviet officials and delegations in the West, organizing anti-Soviet demonstrations, publishing hostile literature — all sorts of activities designed to make life difficult for, and undermine the Soviet regime.

As a consequence, it was a target, and a high-priority target for the Soviet intelligence agencies, and as it turned out, was in fact infiltrated. The NTS, this organization, held an international congress or conference of members and invited delegations of sympathizers from all over the world while I was in Frankfurt. I was assigned by the Department to attend this conference and report on it.

Two things happened at the conference. One was that the NTS leadership announced and initiated the launching of a very ambitious program of international recruitment designed to expand the organization and its activities to a truly global scale. That looked to me serious enough to warrant U.S. Government attention. Whatever their chances of success, the leadership meant business.

So I reported the conference, and collected and shipped back to the Department all of the literature that had been distributed to the attending members, delegations and the press. The result, I learned quickly, was quite a firestorm in Washington. One consequence was that support for the organization which was coming, I assume, from the U.S. intelligence community in one fashion or another, was sharply curtailed, and the global ambitions and expansion program was scotched.

As I understand it, there were those in Washington who were much in favor of the program, and others who were much opposed to it, so there was a good deal of argument and heat in Washington before the final decisions were made and implemented. I was the fellow who was blamed for having started it all with my report, and some people held it against me later and told me I never should have reported as I did. But there were no adverse effects I could see on my subsequent career.

The NTS surely was getting funding from private sources — from its membership and other solicitations. But it was common talk that a large part of its support came from the United States Government.

So presumably they could shut it off. But I was told later by former NTS people that they didn’t shut it down completely, they just refused to support the ambitious expansion program and reduced funding. So far as I can tell, that was the end of that. I never heard again of a global NTS program.

On the last day of the conference there was a small dinner party given by the president or director of the organization for a group of maybe 15 or 20 high-level members, and myself….

It was an evening dinner party in the offices of the Union. At the end of the dinner party, the president addressed the company. It was a closing speech reiterating the plans and ambitions for global operation, and bidding the guests to forward it in every way.

The next day, I went back to that office, which was in a different, separate building, to pick up some more of the literature, and what I found was armed guards blocking admission to the building by anyone. To the best of my recollection, I got past the first armed guards with my State Department pass, and then I met a steel door, shut, with more armed guards, and was told to turn around and leave. Which I did with some relief.

What had happened, I found out later that day, was that the president had been poisoned at that dinner, and poisoned to the point where he very, very nearly died. He was rushed to emergency, hospitalized, remained hospitalized for some considerable period of time, had all sorts of strange symptoms, and my recollection is that he was comatose and his life hung in the balance for a week or more, and for some time after lost his capacity for speech. I believe he also lost his hair. There was a good deal of press coverage of the incident. 

[He was] Russian, as were most of the members. It was an émigré organization recruited from Russian émigrés for the most part, as well as others from the USSR and Eastern Europe….

They concluded that it was in the after-dinner coffee, that in some fashion Soviet agents managed to get this poison into his coffee cup, and no one else’s. The rest of us felt that somehow we had escaped with our lives because another way of poisoning would have been simply to poison one of the dishes, which we all ate.

Indeed there was some suspicion that one or more at the table were infiltrated Soviet agents and we were spared general poisoning because the Soviet KGB did not wish to sacrifice its own.

I don’t know how they did it, and I decided I really didn’t want to know particularly, and I wasn’t going to press the issue. Having completed my assignment to report on the conference, I didn’t want to have anything more to do with the organization. I assume the Soviet intelligence services had infiltrated the organization, or had bribed somebody on the kitchen staff, or a waiter. Who knows?

And this could not have been a sudden, last-minute operation. My guess is that the organization had been infiltrated thoroughly for some time, its leader had been targeted earlier, and that knowing its ambitious expansion program the Soviets decided that at the conclusion of this conference they shake the cage brutally to cut it short.

It is not as though the Soviet Government did not have many sworn enemies spread around the world. The NTS expansion program probably had some promise, although perhaps less than the Soviets feared. My hunch is that the NTS continued to receive some support but under a much tighter rein. I think it ultimately dissolved or disintegrated and lost its function in life. 

I was poisoned and got violently ill”

Robert J. Martens, Embassy Moscow, 1956-1958 

MARTENS: This was the height of the Cold War. This was a period when there was almost no contact between East and West. The Iron Curtain atmosphere of that period was something that is unimaginable nowadays, or would have been unimaginable in 1965 or even 1960. There were no tourists going to the Soviet Union. There were no outsiders of any kind. The only people there were the embassy, which was very small, and a few correspondents who were–a great many of whom were married to Russians, and had been stuck there since the beginning of World War II.”….

One had no contacts of any real depth with the Soviet population. People were scared to death. You also didn’t want to have any second meetings with anybody because they very likely would be in serious trouble as a result….

I began to travel, and you had to apply… two weeks in advance… to go anywhere outside the 25-mile, or 40-kilometer limit, around Moscow. You had to ask permission and wait for about two weeks to see whether you got permission or not. Frequently you would be denied, but at other times, perhaps with changes in the schedule, you would get an itinerary approved. It got so I was applying for travel all the time — as soon as I got back from one trip, I would put in for another one. So I ended up with a tremendous amount of travel.….

We went to [Kurgan, on the Trans-Siberian Railway line], there was a young, quite good-looking woman seemingly always in the act of undressing with the door open in the room across the hall whenever we came in or out. Nothing was ever said or done but there is little doubt that the KGB was laying a rather transparent trap if one were foolish enough to make an advance.

In the next town, Ufa, I was poisoned and got violently ill — more ill, I think, than any time in my life. I had to literally creep across the floor; I couldn’t even get up on my elbows because of my weakness. I was then thrown out of town by the KGB the next day under accusations that I’d overstayed my authorized itinerary time for nefarious purposes. 

Poisoning as Tactic

William D. Morgan 1962-1964 Moscow

Q: Was anyone in the Embassy, to the best of your knowledge, ever roughed up?

MORGAN: Yes, or poisoned, which was one of the principal ways of doing it. 

Say you are on a trip. You have dinner. You always travel in pairs — like nuns. Someone slips something into your food. When I say “poison,” it can be anything. You wake up in the middle of the night and wish you were dead — in pain and so forth. It never happened to me, but to several of those with me at the time….

I would say that almost every U. S. military officer, who traveled all the time, has had an experience with poisoning or drugging. And often the whole party of who were together, sometimes other NATO attachés They were traveling in areas that were very “questionable.” Their Soviet counterparts wanted to discourage them from such trips, or just simple harassment.

Q: How can they be sure that it was “poisoning”?

MORGAN: You often can’t be sure, which is why they the Soviets did it they way they did….You don’t know, nor did we always know. You often can’t prove anything. By the time they get to our own doctor, so that the contents of their stomach can be analyzed, they’re “clean” — they’re purged. I don’t know of anybody that died in one of these drugging episodes.

But the object is to intimidate and/or ultimately to “get through” to you. They try to find out your weaknesses — whether sexual, or you can’t stand to be around mice, or whatever. They do their best to “turn” you psychologically.

Then, at the right time, they make the right offer to you, or simple blackmail….In most cases the harassment, including drugging, is intended to keep you on edge and to let you know who’s in control, the boss — let you know whose country you’re in.