Maxim Zmeyev / Reuters Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during his annual end-of-year news conference in Moscow, Russia, December 2015.

License to Kill

The Kremlin's Long History of Assassinating Opponents

The Kremlin has never been afraid to assassinate its political opponents. In 1940, a Soviet agent murdered Leon Trotsky with an ice pick in Mexico City. In the 1950s, KGB agents poisoned the Ukrainian nationalist leaders Stepan Bandera and Lev Rebet in Munich. In 1978, Georgi Markov, a Bulgarian émigré broadcaster, was killed, supposedly by a poisoned pellet fired from an umbrella, on Waterloo Bridge in central London. New archival research suggests that the Soviet KGB ordered his murder.

Under President Vladimir Putin, the Russian state has continued in the same vein. Putin’s time in office began with a bloodbath. In 1999, a wave of apartment-block bombings killed more than 300 people in three Russian cities. The government blamed the attacks on Chechen terrorists, providing a pretext for a war in the breakaway republic and boosting Putin’s reputation as a tough leader. But from the start, critics poked holes in the official version of events.

The most prominent among those critics have paid a heavy price. In 2003, the investigative journalist Yuri Shchekochikhin died of a mysterious illness and the liberal politician Sergei Yushenkov was shot dead. They had both been investigating allegations that the Russian state security service, the FSB, had orchestrated the bombings to increase support for Putin and the war. 

Meanwhile, many St. Petersburg liberals, who knew that Putin, while working in the city’s municipal administration, had been deeply involved in corrupt import-export, property, and licensing deals, also had unusually poor life expectancies. The liberal lawmaker Galina Starovoitova was shot in November 1998. Anatoly Sobchak, the city’s former mayor, died unexpectedly just after his onetime subordinate became president.

Living abroad offers little protection. The Chechen émigré leader Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev was blown up in Qatar in 2004. The perpetrators—two Russian military intelligence officers—were caught, released after some diplomatic arm-twisting, and returned to Russia, where they received heroes’ welcomes. Russian law explicitly permits the assassination of “extremists”—and the definition of an extremist is whatever the Kremlin wishes it to be.

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