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The Russian taste for poison

As international tensions rise after the nerve agent attack on former spy Sergei Skripol and his daughter in Salisbury this week, Colin Shindler traces the history of Russian poison plots

    Military personnel investigate the nerve agent attack in Salisbury this week
    Military personnel investigate the nerve agent attack in Salisbury this week (Photo: Getty Images)

    The nerve agent attack in Salisbury — synthesised at the Skhikany Institute in the city of Volsk, by the river Volga, in 1973 — continues a century long tradition.

    Last June, Vladimir Putin gave an address to mark the founding of the illegal intelligence service in 1922. He read out a roll-call of legendary Soviet and Russian agents. The first name on Putin’s list was Yakov Isakovich Serebryansky, an agent who infiltrated the early Zionist immigration to Palestine and lived there for several years. In 1926 he moved to Paris where he led a secret group of Communist sympathisers — not known Party members — to carry out assassinations and kidnappings of enemies of the Revolution. “Uncle Yasha’s group” possessed its own laboratory and utilised chemical weapons in its struggle against the anti-Soviet opposition in Europe.

    In the decade between the fall of the USSR in 1991 and the ascent of Putin, archives were open, memoirs written and secrets revealed by Soviet scientists after a lifetime of subservience. Indeed, in 1993 Russia signed the Chemical Weapons Convention which banned the use of such tools. Even so, it is believed that the chemical weapons that President Assad has been using in Syria probably originated in Russia.

    Many Jewish scientists left Russia for Israel or the United States. The history of Soviet chemical and biological warfare was documented by the Jewish academic, Vadim Birstein, in a highly informative book, The Perversion of Knowledge (Basic Books) . In it he points out that all Soviet scientific institutes possessed “a first department” with a retired KGB officer exerting political control and maintaining secrecy.

    Serebryansky was arrested in 1938, at the height of the Great Terror, and accused of using his chemical weapons to kill Soviet leaders rather than “the enemies of the people”. During the show trials, the spectre of “doctor-killers” emerged — often Jews. Stalin’s opponents — real and imaginary — began to die suddenly. The writer Maxim Gorky expired from a sudden bout of pneumonia, Abram Slutsky, the head of the NKVD (KGB) Foreign Department had an apparent heart attack and there was even speculation that Lenin’s widow did not die of old age.

    On 20 February 1939, a toxicology laboratory was set up, run by a Georgian Jew, a former Bundist, the biochemist Grigory Mairanovsky. He was responsible to the head of the NKVD (KGB), Lavrentiy Beria and his immediate superiors were Pavel Sudaplatov and Leonid Alexandrovich — originally Naum Isakovich — Eitingon. The task of this trio was simply to eliminate Stalin’s political opponents. Indeed they contemplated poisoning Trotsky before settling on an ice-pick as the weapon of choice.

    Poisons were delivered to unsuspecting victims through firing pens and fake cigarettes. Between 1942 and 1946, Mairanovsky tested his chemical weapons on “disposable” Gulag prisoners as well as captured Gestapo members. He was particularly interested in the effects of mustard gas and his NKVD supervisors urged him to discover an efficient “truth drug” which could be used in interrogations.

    A Polish Jewish engineer named Samet who wished to leave for Britain was killed in the city of Ulyanovsk. The American Jewish Communist, Isai Oggins, from Massachusetts, who wished to return to the USA, was killed by a Curare injection in 1946. The cellmate of Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat who saved multitudes of Jews in wartime Hungary, Willy Roedel, suddenly died — for no apparent reason. Sudaplatov survived to publish his memoirs in 1994. Although many regard them as unreliable, there are hints that Wallenberg himself may have been killed by a lethal injection, manufactured by Mairanovsky.

    During the Black Years of Soviet Jewry 1948-1953 when Stalin’s paranoia about Jews reached its zenith, Jewish generals in the KGB were arrested and lower ranks dismissed. Mairanovsky himself was arrested, sentenced to ten years and testified that “by my hand, many dozens of sworn enemies including nationalists of all types (including Jewish) were destroyed”. Naum Eitingon was arrested as a Zionist agent.

    Vadim Birstein comments in his book that Mairanovsky served “as an inspiration to Stalin” as a “doctor-killer” — a stereotype deployed during the infamous Doctors Plot when Stalin accused many Jewish physicians of poisoning Soviet leaders.

    Even after Stalin’s death in 1953, Soviet agents eliminated opponents in Europe using cyanide tipped bullets and radioactive thallium. Yuri Andropov led the KGB when the nerve agent, Novichok, was first manufactured. He was also responsible for containing the flood of applications of Soviet Jews to leave for Israel and clamping down on human rights demands by figures such as Andrei Sakharov. The KGB often incarcerated dissidents and refuseniks in Soviet mental institutions as a method of silencing them — and injected them with drugs such as Sulphazine. Iosif Khansis was kept for months in the Serbsky Institute for Forensic Psychiatry in Moscow and Yan Krilsky was sent to a special psychiatric hospital. Both had demanded to go to Israel. Such practices caused uproar within the World Psychiatry Association in the 1970s and 1980s.

    Serebryansky died in prison in 1956, and Mairanovsky died in 1964, in a small town, remote from Moscow. Eitingon served six years and Sudoplatov ten — both were eventually rehabilitated and died in the comfort of their beds. Such people, who carried out fatal experiments on living human beings, are today honoured in Russia as patriots and protectors, dedicated to the cause of their people and its leaders.

    In 1969 Alexander Solzhenitsyn was expelled from the Soviet Writers’ Union. In an angry response, he wrote:

    “What would you do without enemies? You could not live without ‘enemies’; a hatred, a hatred no better than racial hatred, has become your sterile atmosphere. But in this way a sense of our single common humanity is lost and its doom accelerated.”

    Fifty years on, Solzhenitsyn’s words have lost neither their power nor their relevance.

     

    Colin Shindler is an emeritus professor at SOAS. From 1966-75 he was active in the British campaign for Soviet Jewry.

     

     

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