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KGB Poisons

by Anna Zechenter1

"Putin's people have more refined means at their disposal than the assassins of the day sent by Stalin, Khrushchev or Brezhnev".

Political enemies of Colonel Vladimir Vladimirovitsch Putin are falling ill with mysterious illnesses. It usually happens to them after they escape from their homeland, hoping that nothing bad can happen to them in the West.

The Russian secret service is using various poisons to get rid of inconvenient people, just like during the Soviet times, with the exception that Putin's people have more refined means at their disposal than the assassins of the day sent by Stalin, Khrushchev or Brezhnev. This happens to journalists in broad daylight, so that there is no doubt that anyone can get away scot-free with writing the truth about the atrocities of the Chechen War, or about any score-settling between the people in power. Political enemies are becoming ill - for years, like Victor Yushchenko, the candidate for president of Ukraine in 2004, who was poisoned with dioxin - or for months, like Alexander Litvinenko, the officer of the Federal Security Service, who escaped to the West and died in 2006 after he was exposed to the deadly effect of polonium radiation.

During the Soviet period, the KGB murdered whoever they wanted, silently, avoiding unnecessary publicity and without leaving any traces. The Secret Service reached for refined methods of assassination.

Infecting Josip Broz Tito

When Josip Broz Tito, the leader of the Communist Party of Yugoslavia, announced in 1948, that his country will build "national socialism" and will go "its own way", he negated the Moscow rule in the eastern camp. To add insult to injury, he decided to create his own Balkan federation. Infuriated, Stalin ordered his assassination so that the vulnerable Soviet hegemony remained unscathed. The most famous assassination attempt on Tito was organized by Josif Grigulevich - the same man, who led the first unsuccessful attempt on another Communist heretic, Leon Trotsky, in 1940 in Mexico.

Agent Grigulevich attended many spy missions to Yugoslavia and had good connections with Tito's people. He was even promised a private audience with the leader of Yugoslavia in 1952. In early 1953, he proposed several variants of assassination during the consultation with emissaries of the Soviet Ministry of National Security in Vienna. One of the variants stipulated, that Grigulevich would spray a dose of plague bacteria while visiting the leader of the Communist Party of Yugoslavia. The silent atomizer would be hidden under his clothes, and Grigulevich would immunize himself against the plague prior to the attempt. Another idea that was contemplated was a boxed jewelry gift to Tito, which would release a deadly gas when opened. The information that the attempt has not worked out reached Stalin unexpectedly on the 1st of March 1953. Several hours later, he suffered a stroke and died on the 2nd of March, in the early hours of the morning. Tito's issue has solved itself.

Brezhnev prefers cyanide

In later years, immigrants became the subject of attacks by the Soviet services in the West. Gyeorgy Okolovich, one of the leaders of a Russian émigré association – the National Labor Union (NTS - Narodno-Trudovoy Alliance) in West Germany - was to be assassinated by Nikolai Khokhlov. Khokhlov was trained by the USSR judo master, Michail Rubak, and by lieutenant Colonel Godlevsky, a five-time winner of Soviet shooting competitions.

The NTS was formed in 1930 by Russian immigrants in Yugoslavia, with the intention of starting armed resistance against the Soviets. The NTS collaborated with the Germans during the WWII, among other things, by issuing newspapers on Russian territory, which was occupied by the Third Reich.

After 1945, the NTS started an era of working alongside Great Britain’s and the United States of America's special task forces, at a time when there were survivors from the so-called second wave of Russian emigration to the West, i.e., people who survived German captivity, and later survived operation "Keelhaul". During operation "Keelhaul", the alliance handed over hundreds of thousands of Russian prisoners to Stalin. Those prisoners, captured by the Germans, were citizens of USSR, who were taken away to the Third Reich for forced labor. They were also members of formations that were fighting on Hitler's side. NTS agents were sneaked into the Soviet Union until the middle of the fifties. There, they collected information and recruited new agents.

Even then there were first suspicions that the group’s inner circle has been infiltrated by the KGB. Accidents were happening one after another, despite the fact that the organization was working in deep conspiracy, keeping centralized structures. Soviet intelligence penetrated the leaders' inner circle and used the NTS to deal with Russian dissidents. The intelligence used various forms of instigation. For example, there was a "secret" courier getting through to Moscow and offering the opposition that he would blow up Lenin’s Mausoleum, or to start "5-man assault squads", which would put up an armed stand against the system.

In 1968, during the court hearings of Alexander Ginzburg and Yuri Galanskov, who were the publishers of independent underground journals, the so-called "samizdat", the authorities accused the defendants of "contacts with the NTS", although the defendants had no connection with this organization whatsoever. There were attempts to treat Vladimir Bukovsky, who currently lives in Great Britain, in similar fashion. The NTS acknowledged Bukovsky so eagerly, that there was no doubt whatsoever, about their provocative, agent role.

The murder device planned for Gyeorgy Okolovich was constructed in the KGB’s gunsmith workshop. It was an electrically fired self-igniting firearm hidden in a box of cigarettes. This firearm shot the victim with potassium cyanide. Khokhlov appeared in Frankfurt-on-Main on the 18th of February 1945. Instead of killing Okolovich, he told the would-be victim the whole truth and gave himself up to the CIA, but at the beginning they didn't believe his story. During the press conference, he showed the unusual type of firearm to journalists. In retaliation, there was an attempt to poison Khokhlov for treason in September 1957. The attempt took place in the German Palmengarten Hotel, near the German- French border, during an international conference of anti-communist activists from Europe and America. Before giving his speech, Khokhlov drank coffee given to him by one of the participants of the meeting. When he lost consciousness, he was taken to the hospital by his would-be victim, Gyeorgy Okolovich. At the hospital he was diagnosed with poisoning by a very strong, unknown poison. Khoklov's whole body was covered in black spots, and his face was deformed by severe swelling. Okolovich requested help from American military doctors. They identified the poison as radioactive thallium. Khoklov's body, however, was strong, so he survived.

In order to eliminate the "human psychological factor" in the future, which may prove a let down at the very last, critical moment, the Soviets turned to professional assassins. This choice had another advantage as it allowed covering tracks leading to Moscow.

A German named Wolfgang Wilprett was hired to eliminate Vladimir Poremsky, chairman of the NTS. It came as a big surprise in Lubyanka that even Wilprett changed his mind, and reported his mission to West German police in December 1955.

Gas atomizers and ricin

It finally was the turn for the elimination of Lev Rebet and Stepan Bandera. These two were leading representatives of Ukranian émigrés. Rebet was one of the main theoreticians of the Ukrainian national movement, and Bandera was a leader of Ukranian nationalists. The first one died in 1957, the second in 1959. Bohdan Stashynsky, a KGB officer, was the executor of the sentences. The weapon used in the assassination was an atomizer, which shot a thin jet of gas after an ampoule filled with cyanide was crushed.

Stashynsky's base of operations was located in a secret KGB center in Karlshorst, near Berlin. In 1960, he met a German woman from the then German Democratic Republic (GDR), who was prejudiced against the Soviets. Stashynsky realized that he not only fell from grace, but also would never be at peace as he knew too much. In August 1961, a few days before closing the border between East and West Berlin, he escaped to the other side. In October 1962, he stood up in a court of law in Karlsruhe. During the court hearing, he revealed the details of assassinations ordered by Kremlin authorities. For the first time, facts were revealed and Moscow could not deny any knowledge of them. He even confessed that for the assassination of Bandera, he received a Medal of The Red Flag from Khrushchev. The judge ruled that the main culprit was the government of the Soviet Union, and he sentenced Stashynsky to eight years in prison.

"The Bulgarian umbrella"

In the evening of the 7th of September 1978, 49-year-old Gyorgy Markov was waiting at a bus stop close to London’s Waterloo Bridge. He was unaware that a death sentence ordered by Comrade Todor Zhivkov, the leader of the Bulgarian Communist Party, had already been executed. Markov's death started several seconds earlier, at the exact moment when Markov was being passed by a random pedestrian. A man with a clearly foreign accent addressed Markov and at the same time, unwittingly as it seemed, he dropped an umbrella. Picking it up in a swift manner, he smacked Markov's calf with the tip of his umbrella. Hurriedly, he got into a taxi and took off.

In 1969, when Gyorgy Markov was already a well-known playwright, essayist and novelist, he escaped from Communist Bulgaria. In London, he worked for the BBC Broadcasting, was a correspondent for Munich’s Radio Free Europe, and the German station, Deutsche Welle.

He mocked the overly sensitive Zhivkov, by talking about the boorishness of a "village policeman", and the "distastefully mediocre sense of humor" of the First Secretary. He was an avid enemy of Communism, who could not be turned or bribed. The authorities decided to eliminate him, using the KGB's help.

He started writing in sanatoriums, where he used to go as a retired teacher of chemistry, and was constantly suffering from tuberculosis. His first novel, "Questionnaire", was published in 1961. Also, at the same time, his collection of stories, “Between Day and Night", was published. Soon, his next book, "Men", was recognized as novel of the year. In the sixties, he became one of the most popular authors in his country; he published a few novels and theatre productions and also worked on film scripts.

At the end of the 1960’s, the censorship authorities stopped his novel, "The Roof", from being published, and two plays based on his scripts were taken off posters. In 1969, when he was granted permission to travel to Italy to meet with his brother, he decided not to return. He settled in England and kept writing and was successful. In 1974, his play "The Archangel Michael", received first prize at the Edinburgh theatre festival.

In the same year, Boris Arsov suddenly disappeared from his Danish apartment. He was an editor and publisher of the Bulgarian émigré journal. He was found after two months - under arrest in Sophia's prison. He was sentenced to fifteen years in prison. The authorities didn't hide that he was kidnapped by KDS officers (Drzavna Sigurnost Committee), or otherwise the secret police. After a year in prison, he was found dead in his cell.

In the mid-1980s, Bulgarian Communists started to get rid of enemies. Arsov's death coincided with the shooting of three Bulgarian immigrants in Vienna. They were helping to organize escapes to the West, and their names were: Veselin Stoyov, Peter Niezamov and Ivan Kolev. Austrian police immediately identified the killer, a KDS agent, but he managed to hide under Zhivkov’s protective wings.

A birthday present for the Secretary

Dymitry Stoyanov was a Communist politician who died in 1999. In early 1978, while he was the Minister of Internal Affairs and head of the KDS, he asked the KGB for help in silencing a defiant emigrant.

Yuri Andropov, head of the KGB, attended the meeting. At first, Andropov was against any Soviet involvement, but he was convinced that a public mockery of Comrade Zhivkov is having a negative influence on common communist concerns.

"Don't plan any direct involvement on our part. Give the Bulgarians what they need, show them how to use it, and send someone to Sophia to train their people. But that's where it ends", was Andropov's order, quotes Vasili Mitrokhin, a former KGB archivist. Mitrokhin copied a vast amount of Soviet secret service documents and escaped with them to the West at the beginning of 1990’s.

Sergei Mikhailovich Golubev, a toxicologist serving the secret service, was ordered to prepare suitable agents for the Bulgarians. He decided that a lethal ricin injection would be the best. A device placed in the pointed tip of an umbrella was to be used in the undertaking.

The Soviets chose umbrellas made in the USA, while the Bulgarians, the assassination date: Comrade Zhivkov's birthday.

Markov felt vulnerable, because someone rang him with a warning that he could be poisoned in the near future. He ate and drank only in the company of his closest friends.

On the 7th of September 1978, several hours after the incident at the bus stop, Markov started feeling ill and was taken to the hospital. He recalled that he felt a sting in his leg while talking to the foreigner. At the time, he didn't pay any attention to it. He died three days later, on the 11th of September. During his autopsy, a 1.5 mm in diameter platinum ball was found in the injection spot. The ball contained a lethal dose of ricin. There were two small holes on the surface of the ball.

After Markov's death, another Bulgarian immigrant called immediately the hospital. His name was Vladimir Kostov, and he was deeply disturbed with the circumstances of Markov's death, as he himself was pierced with an umbrella on the 26th of August 1978 in Paris. A month after he was attacked, surgeons removed a ball from his back. It was similar to the one found in Markov's body. On this occasion, the bullet didn't penetrate the victim's body deep enough, and the ball was intact, which meant that the poison didn't seep into his bloodstream. Later, Kostov published a book, "The Bulgarian Umbrella", where he described the method used by the KDS.

The details concerning Markov's assassination and his death remain unknown to this day. Someone from the hospital, where Markov spent the last 5 days of his life, destroyed all the documents. Apparently, no information was found in the archives of the KDS security service. It is only known that Francesco Gullino, a Danish citizen of Italian origin, carried out the assassination. He was a secret agent for Sophia's regime. His name is also spelled "Giullino".

Christo Christov from the "Dnevnik" journal has been conducting investigations for years now. In 2008, on the thirtieth anniversary of Markov's assassination, Christov published documents, which indicated that Francesco Gullino, born in Bari in 1946, alias "Piccadilly", was recruited by the KDS in 1970. He was trained that same year. He spent a few years traveling around Europe and posing as an antique dealer and visited Soviet Union three times. The day after Markov was attacked in 1978, he escaped to Italy. As a reward for assassinating the writer, he received thirty thousand dollars. He opened a shop in Denmark with that reward money.

In 1993, he was interrogated on several occasions by the Danish and British service and his fingerprints were collected; a sample of his signature was submitted for graphology testing. "Piccadilly" decidedly denied any connection to Markov's case. Without any grounds to charge him with, the Danes had to release him.

On the 18th of April 1993, Gullino left Denmark. Two months later, his house and shop in Copenhagen were sold and after that, no one heard any more about him.

"Service 7"

Oleg Gordyevsky, a very important American and British spy, who managed to escape the Soviets in 1986, confirmed that the assassination was planned and executed by the KGB. Bulgaria is not in a hurry to reveal any detailed circumstances. The investigation started only in 1990, but several months earlier, in December 1989, shortly after the collapse of Todor Zhivkov's regime, security services destroyed tens of file volumes on Markov. There was even a scandal in 2007, whereby Andrey Cvetanov, the head of the investigation team, publicly announced that British doctors were responsible for the immigrant's death, because they failed to recognize signs of poisoning and they treated the victim for the flu.

A year later, Scotland Yard re-opened their investigation. According to the British newspaper "The Times", five Scotland Yard detectives went to Bulgaria, because new information surfaced. Cvetanov told "Dnevnik" newspaper, that British investigators asked him to look into the documents concerning Markov's death, and that they also tried to obtain permission to interrogate forty witnesses, including two former policemen.

In 2008, Boyko Naydenov, the head of the Bulgarian National Investigation Service, informed that the work, to explain what is already clear, would include the services of "young lawyers who are not burdened by the past". His statement was a reaction to allegations by Markov's family, that Cvetanov is deliberately blocking the investigation.

In 2010, Bulgaria de-classified Communist security service documents concerning activities of the "Service 7" cell. The group was created in the 1960’s and consisted of professional assassins. They acted on the orders from the secret police and often collaborated with the KGB in order to kidnap and murder Bulgarian immigrants abroad. They were led by Colonel Petko Kovachev.

They started only four strong in 1963 and a year later Kovachev started insisting on growing "their little division", as he wrote. With time, he had nearly forty assassins under his command. A note from the 1st of July 1970 was preserved: "We have to carry out death sentences”, wrote Angel Solakov, then Minister of Internal Affairs. “I know it looks like a dirty job, but for us this work is an honor". The group was apparently formally disbanded in 1972. Despite that, Markov's assassination is attributed to them. The reason for this is that the alias "Piccadilly" appears in the documents amongst other aliases.

This story vividly resembles attempts at explaining political assassinations in different countries within the Soviet bloc. The files go missing, witnesses go missing, the authorities are reassuring that justice is served.

In the meantime, a new phrase appeared in the special services' dictionary: "the Bulgarian umbrella".

Putin and heavy metals

Years went by, the fall of USSR was proclaimed, the Russian Federation has emerged, and authorities at the Kremlin are still reaching for poisons. In 2006, the whole world could watch the long agony of Alexander Litvinenko on TV. He was a Lieutenant Colonel of a special unit, which tackled organized crime, later poisoned with polonium in Great Britain.

Before Litvinenko secretly escaped through Georgia in 2000, he managed - by risking his life - to collect evidence that the bloody assassinations were carried out by the Federal Security Service. Those assassinations were used as an excuse to start the second Chechen war. In the West, he was working on a publication entitled "To Blow Up Russia" together with Yuri Felshtinsky - an immigrant Russian historian. The publication was to reveal facts and names no one was ever supposed to hear.

The book was published in 2007, shortly after Litvinenko's death. In the preface, Felshtinsky wrote: "In August 2001, several chapters from our forthcoming book were published in Russian by Moscow’s "Novaya Gazyeta". Since then, several people who were helping us died. Vladimir Golovlov and Sergiei Yushenkov, Duma deputies, were transporting tapes with the banned documentary "Murder of Russia", based on extracts of our book. Both were shot. Yuri Shchekochikhin, also a deputy and deputy editor-in-chief of the "Novaya Gazyeta" journal followed in their steps….

Russia refused to turn Andrey Lugovoy in, who is the main murder suspect, according to the British service.

In January 2011, Berlin's prosecution discontinued the investigation into the poisoning of the Kalashnikov couple with mercury, both Russian dissidents. The Germans concluded that there was not enough evidence to assume that they were intentionally given the lethal element. The fact of poisoning is not denied by anyone; the levels of mercury in the blood of the former KGB Colonel and his wife, Marina, exceeded the norm by twenty five times. This was discovered during an examination in a Berlin hospital at the beginning of November 2010. Since 1991, Viktor Kalashnikov worked as a specialist on German affairs in Yeltsin's headquarters, and was considered one of the most influential people in Russia. When Putin rose to power, Kalashnikov involved himself with journalism and he fell from grace for criticizing Kremlin's politics. It is known, that he had several death threats after his escape.

"Russia is returning to the path of external expansion”, wrote Kalashnikov in May 2009. “The whole world celebrates the 20th anniversary of the fall of communism. It was imposed on different countries by the Soviet Union. Moscow pretends that all of this doesn't concern them. The Cold War cost fifty million victims and the USSR was crushed by it, but not entirely. It is being decided today, which way this operation will advance".

An excerpt from the book "KGB Poisons", Arcana Publishing, 2012

Written by Anna Zechenter

1 Anna Zechenter works at IPN Department of Public Education in Kraków, publishes in "Dziennik Polski", "Nasz Dziennik", "Arcana", IPN Publishing, 1990 - 1997 editor and journalist at "Krakow Times". Author of the following books: "KGB Plays a Game of Chess", "Memorized" - extended interview with Adam Macedoński.

Translated by Anna Zatorska-Bat
Proofing by Jan Czarniecki

This excerpt is published herewith in accordance with the Greater Public Good Doctrine.



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