Sudden Russian Death Syndrome
It’s not a great time to be an oligarch who’s unenthusiastic about Putin’s war in Ukraine.
Here is a list of people you should not currently want to be: a Russian sausage tycoon, a Russian gas-industry executive, the editor in chief of a Russian tabloid, a Russian shipyard director, the head of a Russian ski resort, a Russian aviation official, or a Russian rail magnate. Anyone answering to such a description probably ought not stand near open windows, in almost any country, on almost every continent.
Over the weekend, Pavel Antov, the aforementioned sausage executive, a man who had reportedly expressed a dangerous lack of enthusiasm for Vladimir Putin’s war against Ukraine, was found dead at a hotel in India, just two days after one of his Russian travel companions died at the same hotel. Antov was reported to have fallen to his death from a hotel window. The meat millionaire and his also-deceased friend are the most recent additions to a macabre list of people who have succumbed to Sudden Russian Death Syndrome, a phenomenon that has claimed the lives of a flabbergastingly large number of businessmen, bureaucrats, oligarchs, and journalists. The catalog of these deaths—which includes alleged defenestrations, suspected poisonings, suspicious heart attacks, and supposed suicides—is remarkable for the variety of unnatural deaths contained within as well as its Russian-novel length.
Some two dozen notable Russians have died in 2022 in mysterious ways, some gruesomely. The bodies of the gas-industry leaders Leonid Shulman and Alexander Tyulakov were found with suicide notes at the beginning of the year. Then, in the span of one month, three more Russian executives—Vasily Melnikov, Vladislav Avayev, and Sergey Protosenya—were found dead, in apparent murder-suicides, with their wives and children. In May, Russian authorities found the body of the Sochi resort owner Andrei Krukovsky at the bottom of a cliff; a week later, Aleksandr Subbotin, a manager of a Russian gas company, died in a home belonging to a Moscow shaman, after he was allegedly poisoned with toad venom.
The list goes on. In July, the energy executive Yuri Voronov was found floating in his suburban St. Petersburg swimming pool with a bullet wound in his head. Think Gatsby by the Neva. In August, the Latvia-born Putin critic Dan Rapoport apparently fell from the window of his Washington, D.C., apartment, a mile from the White House—right before Ravil Maganov, the chairman of a Russian oil company, fell six stories from a window in Moscow. Earlier this month, the IT-company director Grigory Kochenov toppled off a balcony. Ten days ago, in the French Riviera, a Russian real-estate tycoon took a fatal tumble down a flight of stairs.
To reiterate: All of these deaths occurred this year.
One could argue that, given Russia’s exceptionally low life expectancy and unchecked rate of alcoholism, at least some of these fatalities were natural or accidental. Just because you’re Russian doesn’t mean you can’t accidentally fall out of an upper-story window. Sometimes, people kill themselves—and the suicide rate among Russian men is one of the highest recorded in the world. For Edward Luttwak, a historian and military-strategy expert, that’s at least part of what’s happening: an outbreak of mass despair among Russia’s connected and privileged elite. “Imagine what happens to a globalized country when sanctions kick in,” he told me. “Some of them will commit suicide.” But the sheer proliferation of these untimely deaths warrants a closer look.
After all, this is what the Kremlin does. There is precedent for this phenomenon. In 2020, Russian agents poisoned—but failed to kill—the Putin critic Alexei Navalny with a nerve agent; a decade earlier, they succeeded in a similar attempt on the Russian-security-services defector Alexander Litvinenko. In 2004, when Viktor Yushchenko ran against a Kremlin-backed opponent for Ukraine’s presidency, he was poisoned with dioxin and left disfigured. Thirty years earlier, the Bulgarian secret service, reportedly with the help of the Soviet KGB, killed the dissident Georgi Markov by stabbing him on the Waterloo Bridge in London with a ricin-laced umbrella tip. Russian agents often “turn to the most exotic,” Luttwak told me. “People who do assassinations for commercial purposes look at [their methods] and laugh.”
Suicides are more difficult to decipher. For oligarchs who have failed to show sufficient loyalty to Putin, coaxed suicide is not an implausible scenario. “It is not uncommon to be told, ‘We can come to you or you can do the manly thing and commit suicide, take yourself off the chess board. At least you’ll have the agency of your own undoing,’” Michael Weiss, a journalist and the author of a forthcoming book on the GRU, the Russian military-intelligence agency, told me. Did Antov really fall out his window in India? Was he pushed by a Kremlin agent? Or did he get a call that threatened his family and made him feel he had no option but to leap? “All of these things are possible,” Weiss told me.
In the Kremlin’s Gothic murderverse, imagination is key.
Defenestration has been a favorite method of removing political opponents since the early days of multistory buildings, but in the modern era, Russia has monopolized the practice. Like Tosca’s climactic exit from the battlements of Castel Sant’Angelo, death by falling from a great height has a performative, even moral aspect.
In Russian, this business of assassination is known as mokroye delo, or “wet work.” Sometimes, the main purpose is to send a message to others: We’ll kill you and your family if you’re disloyal. Sometimes, the goal is to simply remove a troublesome individual.
A few years after the Russian whistleblower Alexander Perepilichny died while jogging outside London in 2012, at least one autopsy detected chemical residue in his stomach linked to the rare—and highly toxic—flowering plant gelsemium. “These are the clues of evidence that the Russians are fond of using,” Weiss told me. A calling card, if you will. “They want us to know that it was murder, but they don’t want us to be able to definitely conclude it was murder.”
Poisoning has that ambiguity. It is literally covert, concealed, sometimes hard to detect. Defenestration is a bit less ambiguous. Yes, it could be an accident. But it’s a lot easier to conclude it was murder—an overt assassination.
“Things that mimic natural causes of death like a heart attack or a stroke, the Russians can be quite good at doing that,” Weiss said. The deaths range in their showiness, but they’re all part of the same overarching scheme: to perpetuate the idea that the Russian state is a deadly, all-powerful octopus, whose slimy tentacles can search out and seize any dissident, anywhere. As the Bond franchise had it, the world is not enough.
The war in Ukraine is not universally popular among Russia’s ruling elite. Since the conflict began, sanctions on oligarchs and businessmen have constrained their profligate and peripatetic lifestyles. Some are, understandably, said to be unhappy about this. High-level Russian elites feel as if Putin “has essentially wound the clock backwards,” Weiss said, to the bad old days of Cold War isolation.
This year’s spate of deaths—so brazen in their number and method as to suggest a lack of concern about plausible, or even implausible, deniability—is quite possibly Putin’s way of warning Russia’s elites that he is that deadly octopus. The point of eliminating critics, after all, isn’t necessarily to eliminate criticism. It is to remind the critics—with as much flair as possible—what the price of voicing that criticism can be.