The Poison Chronicles: A History of Russian Poisonings

Eleanor Herman, author of The Royal Art of Poison, discusses the history of poison as a political tool used over centuries. In Part 1 of this bonus miniseries, Herman explores the use of poison in recent Russian history.

Eleanor Herman
5-minute read
Episode #50

Revenge, it is said, is a dish best served cold, and Russia’s revenge on traitors is one of the coldest, most poisonous dishes on the planet. On March 4, 2018, 66-year-old Sergei Srkipal and his 33-year-old daughter Yulia, visiting from Moscow, were found critically ill, slumped on a park bench in the English city of Salisbury. The British government stated that the pair had been poisoned by a nerve agent called Novichok, manufactured only in Russia, which causes respiratory and cardiac arrest. The poison had been smeared on Sergei’s front door knob and absorbed through the palms of their hands.

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Sergei Skripal was a former Russian military intelligence officer who had started spying for Britain’s MI6 intelligence agency in the 1990s, passing on Russian state secrets and the names of hundreds of Russian agents. In 2004, he was arrested in Russia for spying and two years later, sentenced to 13 years in prison. In 2010, as part of a spy swap, Skripal found himself a free man and settled into the medieval town of Salisbury. There are rumors that he continued to work with MI6, which may be the real reason for the assassination attempt.

Their goal was to develop odorless, tasteless, and colorless poisons.

Vladimir Putin’s government has denied involvement in the Skripal poisoning and accused Britain of planting the nerve agent on the door knob to besmirch Russia’s reputation. Surprisingly, the victims have been released in good health from the hospital after many weeks of care. Unsurprisingly, they have refused to meet with Russian representatives. The Russian government accused the UK of holding the two Russian nationals against their will.

Russian state-sponsored poisoning is almost 100 years old. In 1921, the Soviets established their first laboratory — the Kamera — for the manufacture of poisons. Their goal was to develop odorless, tasteless, and colorless poisons that victims could not detect when ingested and which would leave no trace, resulting in a coroner’s verdict of death by natural or undetermined causes. Whenever a poison was detected in the corpse of a political activist, it would not be used again. For this reason, the Kamera constantly developed new poisons.

One of the most notorious Russian poison assassinations was that of Georgi Markov, an anti-communist Bulgarian writer. On the morning of September 7, 1978, the forty-nine-year-old was waiting for a bus on London’s Waterloo Bridge when someone poked him in the back of his right thigh with an umbrella. The heavily built man mumbled an apology and stepped into a cab.