In the midst of the Cold War — October 12, 1957, to be precise — a Ukrainian dissident named Lev Rebet made the mistake of opening his door to a Soviet agent. The agent looked harmless. But concealed in a rolled up newspaper was a weapon, designed by KGB laboratories: a modified, double-barreled “gun” that sprayed a mist of hydrogen cyanide into his face.
When Rebet’s body was discovered slumped on the staircase, doctors diagnosed his death and said it was due to a heart attack. Almost exactly two years later — on October 15, 1959 — another Ukrainian nationalist, Stepan Bandera, dropped dead of another mysterious heart attack. Or so it was believed.
The fact that both were really calculated assassinations by poison gun was only learned when the killer defected in 1961. Once he was safely tucked away in West Germany, KGB agent Bogdan Stashinsky provided all the details of Moscow’s murderous response to those who would publicly challenge its power. The killings, he said, had been approved by the USSR’s ruling Council of Ministers.
Stashinsky also insisted that he had been persuaded to defect and confess by his German-born wife. He served a brief sentence before being given a new identify and, reportedly, disappearing in Africa.
But for all the furious denials issued by his former employers, one can suspect (certainly I do) that his revelations weren’t entirely a disservice to them. After all, they turned what at first seemed merely tragic deaths into a clear threat from the eastern bloc: a warning that dissidents and critics of the regime would choose to protest at their own peril.
And that message, that lethal warning, would not end there.
In fact, the KGB murders of Rebet and Bandera are not even the best known of such dissident deaths. That honor goes to two killings that followed decades after — both, as it turns out, in London — the 1978 killing of Georgi Markov and the 2006 death of Alexander Litvinenko, the latter the subject of a tale of treachery and poison that I edited for MATTER called Bad Blood. But more about that later.
Markov was a Bulgarian dissident, a fervent anti-Communist novelist and playwright who moved to London to — he thought — continue his campaign of public criticism against the Bulgarian government from a safe remove.
On September 11, 1978 he was waiting for a bus when a fellow pedestrian jabbed an umbrella against his leg and then hurried on. Markov noticed a small red welt on his leg; he reportedly showed it to some of his colleagues at the BBC, where he was then working. That night he developed a fever: three days later he was dead. The umbrella, it later transpired, was another KGB-designed weapon, one that shot a pellet containing the lethal poison ricin into Markov’s leg.
And there were other ways to poison a dissident, perhaps even more devious ones.
The latest case, as detailed by Will Storr in “Bad Blood”, involved Alexander Litvinenko, a former enforcer for the Russian government turned public critic, who was sharing a drink with former colleagues in an upscale London bar.
The lethal dose in this case was a tiny amount of radioactive element, polonium-210, slipped into his tea. It was an interesting choice for a killing: the element is tasteless and odorless, but it doesn’t drop a victim on the spot like cyanide does. It was hours later that Litvinenko fell ill, days before he died, and weeks before doctors had a clue as to what was killing him. But once identified, investigators discovered radioactive smudges across London’s restaurants and hotels, and even on the airplanes that had brought the assassins to England.
A warning or a poor choice of poison?
The Litvinenko killing put the Russian expatriate community on edge. As Storr points out, there have been other shadows, other mysterious dissident deaths, hints that new and even subtler poisons are now in play. That mystery is still unfolding.
But there’s no doubt that it’s a link in a long chain of evidence that should remind us both of the courage of dissidents who stand up to famously vengeful governments — and of the risk. There are still, it seems, doors that should not be opened to strangers carrying newspapers and cups of tea too dangerous to drink.