No language has the words to describe what it’s like to speak with someone who may have tried to kill you. This month, after a groundbreaking investigation by Bellingcat, theInsider and Der Spiegel identified operatives of Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) who were likely responsible for two poisoning attempts on my life, I called one of them on the phone. He hung up as soon as he heard my name, but for a few seconds, I listened to the voice of the man whose job, it appears, is to physically eliminate people like myself, opponents of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
It’s one thing to know, in a general way, that someone has tried to murder you — and it’s quite another to be shown the names and photographs of these people. They have ordinary faces, the same kind that I see every day on the streets of Moscow. What do these men discuss at the family dinner table? How many people they’ve poisoned today?
Bellingcat is a group of independent investigative journalists and researchers that scrutinizes publicly available data — in this case, travel information and phone records obtained from data brokers on the black market. According to the findings, four FSB officers — Roman Mezentsev, Alexander Samofal, Konstantin Kudryavtsev and Valery Sukharev — were following me on trips around Russia’s regions in the months leading up to my two near-fatal poisonings. The two latter names previously surfaced in connection with the poisoning of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny with a prohibited chemical agent in August 2020.
The first onset of symptoms, in May 2015, began soon after I returned to Moscow from a trip to Kazan (where, as we now know from Bellingcat, I was accompanied by two FSB officers). During a meeting I became violently ill, and soon ended up in the hospital in a coma with multiple organ failure. I was saved by the heroic efforts of my Russian doctors, though for the next year I could walk only with the help of a cane. In February 2017, I experienced exactly the same symptoms again — and once again barely managed to survive.
Both times doctors told my wife I had a five percent chance to live. The diagnosis given by doctor Denis Protsenko — who saved my life twice — was “toxic action by an undefined substance.” After the second attack, my wife passed on blood samples to the FBI for analysis to determine what toxins had been used. The agency chose to classify its findings, and continues to keep the most important ones secret today.
Poisoning has been a favored method of silencing dissenters by Soviet and Russian security services for decades. Its main advantage is plausible deniability. Every time another political opponent, independent journalist, anti-corruption activist or defector falls mysteriously ill, the authorities deny responsibility and offer alternative “diagnoses.” Navalny allegedly suffered from “low blood sugar” and problems with his digestion. In my case, they claimed I took the wrong medicine and drank too much alcohol.
Of course, poisoning leaves a small chance that the victim will survive, as both Navalny and I managed to do. (There are many others who were less fortunate.) The Putin regime does sometimes resort to more obvious methods. When opposition leader Boris Nemtsov was gunned down near the Kremlin in February 2015, it didn’t take long to figure out that the convicted gunman (a serving Interior Ministry officer) had a direct link to Putin’s entourage, as was detailed in a recent report by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
Bellingcat found that the FSB officers who tailed me before both poisonings belonged to two units. The first appears to have the job of organizing the extrajudicial murders of Kremlin opponents; the second uses internationally prohibited chemical weapons to carry out the hits. It’s worth pausing for a moment to think just how extraordinary that is: a European government in the 21st century is operating a professional squad of assassins tasked with killing its opponents.
Last week I officially filed charges against the four FSB officers for attempted murder. (My previous two complaints, in 2015 and 2017, received no response.) Once the law enforcement authorities issue their rejection of the charges (as is almost certain), I will be taking the case to the European Court of Human Rights. One day, in a different Russia, these perpetrators of state-sponsored crimes — along with many others — will be held responsible before the law. In the meantime, there is one tool the international community can use to impose a degree of accountability: the Magnitsky mechanism, which gives Western governments the right to impose targeted sanctions on human rights abusers.
For years, world leaders turned a blind eye to Kremlin officials and oligarchs who used Western institutions to launder money looted from the Russian people. It’s time to put a stop to this. Navalny recently urged the European Union to take action, a call repeated last week by a group of respected political leaders and experts. No one is asking the West to interfere in Russian politics. But the least it can do is stop enabling a regime that represses, murders and steals from its own people.
Vladimir Kara-Murza is a Russian democracy activist, author, and filmmaker. He is the chairman of the Boris Nemtsov Foundation for Freedom and vice president of the Free Russia Foundation. He is a contributing writer at The Post, writing regularly for Global Opinions with a focus on Russia.