A Trail of Bodies
While the uberwealthy Khodorkovsky may have been Putin's highest-profile target, he was by no means atypical. Vasily Aleksanyan, at one time Yukos's general counsel and executive vice president, was arrested in 2006 on the by then familiar charges of tax evasion and money laundering.
As Putin was working to dismember Yukos, Aleksanyan had stepped up during the bankruptcy proceedings to try to preserve what was left of the company. He was repeatedly threatened and harassed and then arrested. During his incarceration, although known to be HIV-positive, he was denied medical treatment.
Or rather, treatment for his condition was offered as a bribe for giving false testimony against Khodorkovsky and Lebedev. He refused. Eventually, in January 2009, he was released on bond. By then it was too late. In 2011, he died of lymphatic cancer brought on by AIDS.
And what became of Boris Berezovsky, the former mathematician who helped Abramovich buy Sibneft? The prominent billionaire was yet another of Putin's victims. In a stunning progression, Berezovsky had turned from one of Putin's biggest boosters to his critic, and then to a high-class political refugee.
Berezovsky was a media magnate, with an empire anchored by ORT-TV. He also had interests in Aeroflot, the largest Russian airline. He'd been a member of President Yeltsin's inner circle and was elected to the Duma as part of Putin's slate. When Yeltsin tapped Putin to be prime minister, Berezovsky used his Russian television empire to turn the relative unknown into a household name in a matter of months.
But Berezovsky soured on the new president early in Putin's first term and began using ORT-TV as a platform for criticizing the Kremlin.
Opposing Putin through his television network wasn't Berezovsky's only offense. As a member of the Duma, he attacked the constitutional changes Putin was planning and announced that he would lead a fight against them. Berezovsky had become a major headache for Putin, a man who might block his plans for himself and the motherland. He had to be disposed of.
One transgression Putin could capitalize on was that Berezovsky, also Jewish, had accepted an Israeli passport, even though it was illegal for a Russian official to have a second citizenship. Another avenue of attack was to revive an old investigation of Aeroflot. When the prosecutor general demanded that Berezovsky appear for questioning, he could read the writing on the wall. The prospect of martyrdom did not appeal to him.
So, since he was abroad at the time, Berezovsky simply exiled himself to London.
The Russian government seized his media assets, tried him in absentia, and convicted him of embezzlement and fraud. Although Putin sought his extradition, the courts in the United Kingdom refused and granted Berezovsky permanent political asylum.
Despite narrowly escaping a fate similar to Khodorkovsky's, Berezovsky still met a bad end. He was found dead in his Berkshire home in March 2013, at the customer service end of a hangman's rope. Although his death appears to have been a suicide and police found no signs of violent struggle, assassination theories persist.
Daring to Notice
Berezovsky's death should have come as no surprise, since enemies of Vladimir Putin who don't wind up either in prison or in exile tend to wind up dead.
Journalists, for instance. Some 20 of them have been murdered since Putin ascended to the presidency. Yet only two of those cases have been solved, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Three of the most notorious were Yuri Shchekochikhin, Paul Klebnikov, and Anna Politkovskaya.
Shchekochikhin died in July 2003 from an undisclosed illness, just a few days before his scheduled departure to the United States to meet with FBI investigators. His medical documents ended up "classified" by the Russian authorities. His symptoms, however, fit the pattern of poisoning by radioactive materials used as an assassination technique by the KGB and its successor, the FSB.
In April 2004, Klebnikov, the American editor of Forbes—Russia, was shot to death in Moscow. Prosecutors accused a Chechen of being the shooter. You've probably noticed that Chechens, all but universally despised among Russians, make for very convenient fall guys, as do old foes: Also prominently mentioned as one of the masterminds behind the operation was none other than Boris Berezovsky. Where the truth lies we will never know. But the Chechen was acquitted in a jury trial closed to press and public. He fled the country.
Then there is Anna Politkovskaya, a writer for Novaya Gazeta. In October 2006, she was found shot dead in the elevator of her apartment block in central Moscow. Politkovskaya was known for her opposition to Putin in general and to his Chechen campaign in particular. She made her reputation reporting from Chechnya and had raised questions about who was really behind the apartment building bombings that supposedly provoked Putin's attack on Chechnya in 1999.
Politkovskaya had already survived a poisoning attempt in 2004. Shortly before her death, she was warned by Alexander Litvinenko— a former FSB security officer turned critic in exile—that her life was in imminent danger and that she should leave Russia immediately. He stated that the contract had been placed by Putin himself, who was reported to have said he would take her head, "literally, not figuratively," if she didn't shut her mouth about the bombings.
The identity(ies) of the murderer(s) remained a mystery for nearly eight years. The suspects weren't limited to Putin and his henchmen. Politkovskaya had made enemies not only in Moscow but also in Chechnya, where she had gathered evidence that President Kadyrov's subordinates were involved in kidnapping and murder. The FSB was also on the suspect list, and, yes, Berezovsky's name surfaced yet again. In 2009, three accused conspirators were tried and acquitted.
In June 2014, a Russian court convicted two Chechen professional hit men and their three Chechen accomplices of the murder. The identity of the person who sent them remains unknown.
And Litvinenko, who had tried to warn the soon-to-be-murdered journalist? Just three weeks after Politkovskaya's death, he met with two Russians in a London hotel, where he drank tea dosed with polonium-210.
The substance is colorless and odorless and doesn't set off ordinary radiation sensors; it is extremely difficult to detect in the body. Scientists identified it in Litvinenko only hours before his death three weeks later. Litvinenko was a fitness enthusiast. Doctors say it was only because he was in such good shape that he lingered so long. Had he died sooner, the actual cause wouldn't have been discovered.
Other Putin opponents have suffered similar fates.
Vladimir Gusinsky, a media tycoon and a skeptic about the Chechen bombings, used his television station, NTV, to back a candidate against Putin's Unity Party in the 1999 Duma elections. He also aired a program highly critical of Putin just days before the 2000 presidential election. After being arrested and threatened with prosecution for fraud, Gusinsky jumped bail and took exile in Spain.
Arkady Patarkatsishvili, an oligarch and business associate of Berezovsky, was another Putin supporter who changed sides. He went into exile after Putin's election. In December 2007, he told the London Sunday Times he was the target of an assassination plot. He died little more than a month later at his Surrey mansion of what is listed as a "heart attack."
Finally, there was Alexander Perepilichny, a wealthy businessman who sought refuge in Britain after supplying evidence against an alleged Russian crime syndicate. He collapsed while jogging outside his home in Weybridge, England, right after returning from a trip to Paris. Toxicology tests on the 44-year-old's body failed to reveal a cause of death, although poisoning is suspected.