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A brief history of the times enemies of Russia have mysteriously died

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Mike Rampton
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A partial list of the times enemies of Russia have mysteriously died

If you’ve heard it once, you’ve heard it a thousand times: the single worst group of people to ever annoy are mysterious all-powerful Russian forces who will stop at nothing to see your doom.

Like, not accusing anyone of anything, it just seem like shortly after annoying such people, a lot of individuals tend to be found dead in bathrooms, or turn up cut to bits in the woods. The ongoing events in Salisbury, in which Russian exile Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia have been poisoned with nerve agent and remain in critical condition, are just the latest in an ongoing series of unexplained grisly fates to befall people who’ve pissed off Russia. Skripal was a double agent for several years, passing Russian state secrets to MI6, something he was subsequently arrested for before being freed to the UK as part of a prisoner exchange. 

Either everyone who annoys Russian authorities happens to have really bad luck, or some pretty horrible score-settling is going on, has been going on for a while, and shows no sign of stopping.

Warning: there’s some grisly death stuff in here.

The curious case of the sports bag in the bathtub

Mathematician Gareth Williams was employed by Government Communication Headquarters but seconded to MI6 for a while. Not a fan of what he saw as a off-puttingly competitive environment of drinking and one-upmanship, he kept himself to himself outside of work hours. When he didn’t show up for work for a few days in August 2010, his colleagues got worried. Unable to contact him, they notified the police, who upon visiting Williams’ flat found his naked body padlocked inside a North Face sports bag in the bathtub of his en-suite. He was 31.

Despite none of Williams’ DNA being found on the rim of the bath, the zip or the padlock, the padlock being on the outside of the bag and it being manifestly impossible for a person inside the bag to lock it in the way it was locked, the Metropolitan Police concluded his death was ‘probably an accident’.

There were claims in the press that it as a solo sex game gone wrong. Williams was shown to have occasionally visited bondage websites, although nothing that had suggested he was into claustrophilia (a fetish for being enclosed in tight spaces). An incident from a few years before, when his old landlady had had to untie him from his bed when he was ‘seeing if he could get out’, and suspected predilection for dressing in women’s clothes, were cited as evidence, even though neither included the supernatural ability to lock a bag from the outside.

An inquest eventually led to the coroner concluding that Williams’ death was “unnatural and likely to have been criminally mediated”, and that they were satisfied that “that on the balance of probabilities Gareth was killed unlawfully”. This led to the re-opening of the police investigation, which again concluded that Williams had locked himself inside the bag and died there.

At the time of his death, Williams had been working with the NSA and FBI. The exact details of his work were not made public under request from the foreign secretary, but according to some sources, he had been investigating money-laundering routes used by the Russian mafia.

Five years after his death, a former KGB agent who defected said that Williams had been killed for knowing the identity of a Russian double agent within the GCHQ. After being approached about working for the Russians and turning them down, said the defector, they’d been left with no choice but “to exterminate him in order to protect their agent inside GCHQ”.

No arrests have been made.

The radioactive topping on the otherwise delicious sushi

The poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko made headlines all around the world. The former Russian secret service agent had fled to Britain in 2000 and made a series of public accusations against the Russian government, accusing them of planning assassinations, staging terrorist events in order to help get Vladimir Putin into power, and supporting terrorism all over the world.

In November 2006 Litvinenko fell ill. On a visit to a branch of Itsu with a friend, he had been poisoned with polonium-210, an incredibly harmful radioactive substance that is all but undetectable by most methods (it emits only alpha radiation while most radioactive substances emit gamma radiation).

Polonium-210 isn’t easily come by - it’s only producible in minuscule amounts by nuclear reactors, and is only legally made in Russia, for research purposes. In fact, the stuff used to poison Litvinenko (which was only detected due to a massive stroke of luck - someone familiar with it overheard a conversation in hospital) was traced to the Avangard nuclear facility in Sarv, Russia.

After endless bouts of diarrhoea and vomiting, hair loss and constant drifts in and out of consciousness, Litvinenko died. His final statement firmly pointed the finger at Putin’s government, stating: “You may succeed in silencing one man but the howl of protest from around the world will reverberate, Mr Putin, in your ears for the rest of your life.”

The suspected poisoner, Andrey Lugovoy, was named by Litvinenko on his deathbed, later admitted himself to a Moscow hospital with some radiation-related illnesses, and has since said that, if he were in charge, he’d absolutely have had Litvinenko killed. Russia doesn’t extradite citizens, and he hasn’t left Russia since.

No arrests have been made. 

The peculiar death of the disillusioned scientist

Dr Matthew Puncher was  radiation scientist based in Oxford, and the man who determined how much polonium was inside Litvinenko’s body. Following a visit to Russia, he returned home behaving entirely differently. Supposedly depressed about an error he had made in a computer program, he was found dead in his home, having haemorrhaged from multiple stab wounds from two kitchen knives. 

Puncher had, according to the official line, done quite the job, with a detective on the case telling the Oxford Mail: “His injuries were so extensive, I didn’t know how he could have inflicted them on himself without becoming unconscious.” Nevertheless, no signs of a struggle were found, and the death was ruled a suicide.

No arrests have been made.

The unusual bruising on the outspoken billionaire

Boris Berezovsky made a fortune when Russia’s state property was privatised in the 1990s. Through TV stations, oil and car companies, he amassed somewhere in the region of $3 billion worth of assets. Together with some equally wealthy and powerful associates (including Roman Abramovich) he was instrumental in getting first Boris Yeltsin then serial election-winner Vladimir Putin elected.

He later fell out with Putin and defected to the UK in 2002, stating repeatedly that he wanted to bring Putin’s government down entirely. He alleged that he survived assassination attempts in 2003 and 2007.

Berezovsky’s corpse was found by a bodyguard on 23 March, 2013. Locked in a bathroom, he had apparently hanged himself from the shower curtain rail. However, an investigation suggested some inconsistencies with hanging - rather than the pale face that accompanies most hanging deaths, Berezovsky’s face was purple, and the shape of the bruising around his neck was more consistent with strangulation than hanging, spread evenly around the neck rather than concentrated in a v-shaped section as tends to happen when gravity is doing the dirty work. He had a fractured rib and a wound on the back of his head, both of which authorities claimed happened when his body fell from the curtain rail. The shower curtain rail also had an unidentified fingerprint on it…

After an inquest, the coroner reported an open verdict, stating: “I am not saying Mr Berezovsky took his own life, I am not saying Mr Berezovsky was unlawfully killed. What I am saying is that the burden of proof sets such a high standard it is impossible for me to say.”

No arrests have been made.

The suspicious marks outside the undisturbed windowsill

Scottish property developer Scot Young was infamous in certain circles - during a lengthy divorce from his first wife, discrepancies between what he said he was worth (nothing) and what she said he was worth (up to “a couple of billion”) ended up in papers all over the world.

In 2014 he was found dead, impaled on the railings below the window of his fourth-floor flat in what was ruled a suicide. He had been upset before his death, phoning his ex-girlfriend and telling her he was going to jump out of the window.

But some of the details of the scene left behind seemed unusual. The window only opened wide enough for a grown man to get through by wriggling extremely carefully, yet Young’s body had travelled forward far enough to land on the spikes, and a cigarette lighter, soft drink and packet of cigarettes stood undisturbed on the windowsill. Scratch marks were seen on the ledge outside the window, as though someone were gripping onto it fighting for their life.

A few years before, Young had worked with Boris Berezovsky (see above) and a group of other Russian oligarchs, exiles and incredibly wealthy enemies of the state. He’d helped them broker deals between themselves, funnel money through semi-legit investments and act as a front for investments they weren’t allowed to make. Living a lavish lifestyle even while being declared bankrupt, Young lost a fortune through them. 

After the deaths of Berezovsky and seven other men involved in the shadowy dealings, Young was living in fear, adamant that he was being followed and that Russian forces were out to kill him. 

The coroner ruled his death was ‘not suspicious’ yet also ‘couldn’t be ruled a suicide’.

No arrests have been made.

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Mike Rampton

Mike Rampton will be a ghost one day. A really big one.

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