New Delhi: Floating in a swimming pool with a gunshot wound to the head, in the bathroom with wrists slashed, or on the terrace of an obscure hotel in another country — these are the circumstances in which the bodies of men branded critics of Russian President Vladimir Putin were discovered in different parts of the world this year.
Questions surrounding their deaths resurfaced after two Russian nationals, one of whom was among the richest politicians in his country, were found dead under mysterious circumstances in Odisha last week.
A legislator from Russia’s Vladimir oblast, a ‘critic’ of the war in Ukraine and founder of a lucrative meat processing plant, Pavel Antov (65), was found dead on the terrace of a building adjoining Hotel Sai International in Rayagada district on 24 December. A preliminary investigation has led police to believe that he may have fallen to his death from the third floor of the hotel where he had been staying since the 21st of this month.
Antov died two days after another Russian member of his travelling party, Vladimir Bidenov, was found dead on the morning of 22 December in the hotel room he shared with the Russian millionaire. Investigators suspect that Bidenov died of a cardiac arrest.
While the autopsy report showed that Antov’s internal injuries further the police’s claim that he fell from the terrace of the hotel, his death, and that of Bidenov — seen in the context of Antov’s purported criticism of the Russian invasion of Ukraine — has fuelled speculation of foul play.
ThePrint looks at the deaths of other Russian dissidents under mysterious circumstances this year, where the causes varied from clear-cut to murky, especially in the months following Russia’s “special military operation” in Ukraine.
‘8 deaths in 6 months’
According to reporting by CNN and EuroNews dating back to September, eight Russian businessmen linked to key industries died under suspicious circumstances in a six-month period in 2022, besides some going as far back as January and related to Gazprom, the energy conglomerate of which the Russian government owns a majority share.
On 30 January, for instance, Gazprom Invest’s Head of Transport Leonid Schulman was reportedly found dead in the bathroom of a cottage in Russia’s Vyborgsky district with his wrists slashed, and a suicide note beside his body.
Another Gazprom executive, Alexander Tulyakov, was found dead in an apparent suicide on 25 February, while two other senior employees from Gazprom-owned companies were accused of murdering their families before dying by suicide in April.
The Polish think tank Warsaw Institute suspected these cases to be linked to a broader corruption or misappropriation of funds case, citing direct involvement of Gazprom’s security personnel working hand in hand with Russian authorities to probe such claims.
The mysterious deaths continued into the summer months, with Andrei Krukovsky, owner of a Gazprom-owned luxury ski resort in Krasnaya Polyana, dying from a suspected fall while trekking in May.
In July, Yuri Voronov, a businessman who owned a logistics firm “that held lucrative contracts with Gazprom”, was found dead in the swimming pool of his mansion in a posh Saint Petersburg suburb, with a gunshot wound to his head.
Pattern of mysterious deaths
The string of high-profile Russian business executives dying under mysterious circumstances in 2022 brought attention to previous cases of Russian oligarchs and dissidents being targeted.
Among the most infamous examples from the past decade is perhaps that of Boris Berezovsky, a former government scientist who profited off the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s and went on to control the assets of major state-owned companies, while helping fund the political campaigns of Boris Yeltsin and Putin.
However, following his highly-publicised disagreements with Putin on the latter’s policy and style of governance, Berezovsky divested his company holdings and was granted asylum in the United Kingdom in 2003, where he continued to criticise Putin’s regime and even filed a blackmail case against fellow oligarch, former Chelsea FC owner and longtime Putin ally Roman Abramovich.
In the wake of two alleged assassination attempts on him (in 2003 and 2007), the poisoning of his associate Alexander Litvinenko, and the death of his long-time Georgian business partner Badri Patarkatsishvili, Berezovsky was found dead on his bathroom floor in Berkshire “with a ligature around his neck” in 2013.
While the investigation into Berezovsky’s death resulted in an open verdict, the death of his associate Litvinenko in 2006 was found to be a clear case of radioactive poisoning using Polonium-210. Litvinenko was a Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) officer-turned defector to the UK who had accused his superiors of ordering a hit on Berezovsky, while alleging that fellow former FSB officer Putin’s rise to power was fuelled by ‘terrorist activities’.
(Edited by Amrtansh Arora)