If one searches the internet for a definitive list of people who have died allegedly at the hands of Vladimir Putin — strongman and president of Russia — one won't find a simple answer. Sure, there are collections of suspicious deaths involving Putin critics and all sorts of speculation about people Putin might have killed, or ordered to be killed, but nothing has ever been definitively proven. To some, this is evidence of Putin’s innocence and the exaggeration of his deadly reputation. To others, it’s further proof that Putin is a dangerous man who can take out his enemies with little fear of consequence.
The most infamous alleged murder tied to Putin is also one of the first — the 2006 death of Alexander Litvinenko caused by drinking “polonium tea.” Since that agonizing demise, anti-Putin individuals have been dying at a suspiciously consistent rate, and that trend has continued into the present day — with heavy coverage given to the brazen attempted assassination of Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Britain in March of 2018. Given Putin’s current iron grip on power in Russia it’s also a trend that doesn’t seem likely to end anytime soon, though it must be noted that definitive cause-and-effect links are hard to prove.
Although the Litvinenko assassination may be the most infamous death of which Vladimir Putin has been indirectly accused, the death of Sergei Magnitsky on November 16, 2009, may be the most important. Magnitsky was an anti-corruption lawyer who was arrested in 2008 after accusing several government officials of stealing from the Russian state. Magnitsky turned up dead just seven days before the maximum 365 he could be legally held without trial, and his official cause of death was chalked up to illness. A subsequent investigation revealed that Magnitsky had been severely beaten and had received inadequate medical care, leading to an outcry from the international community.
Magnitsky’s friend and business associate Bill Browder successfully lobbied the American Congress to pass the “Magnitsky Act,” which punished Russian human rights abuses with sanctions, among other measures, and was signed into law by President Barack Obama. This Act has become particularly contentious under the presidency of Donald Trump, and is the reported impetus for the infamous meeting between Trump’s campaign and a high-profile Russian lawyer.
The most infamous assassination that is potentially attributable to Vladimir Putin is undoubtedly the 2006 poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko in London. A former KGB and FSB agent, Litvinenko sought asylum in Britain after he had, ironically, raised questions about FSB assassinations. Litvinenko remained in Britain for six years and remained a vocal critic of Putin, accusing him of the murder of Anna Politkovskaya and the supposed “false flag” bombing of an apartment block that precipitated military action in Chechnya.
Litvinenko’s murder was like something out of a James Bond movie — someone slipped polonium-210 into his drink, giving him a lethal case of radiation poisoning and coining the phrase “polonium tea.” Litvinenko took three agonizing weeks to die, and this time, a British inquiry found Putin “probably approved” the assassination and specifically called for the extradition of FSB agent Andrei Lugovoy. Russia declined the request, offered to take the investigation over themselves, and pointed the finger at Putin’s political opponents.
- Photo: Blaues Sofa / Wikimedia Commons
Anna Politkovskaya was a Russian journalist and the kind of Putin critic that came out swinging. She released a book entitled Putin’s Russia that accused the president of corruption and didn't shy away from phrases like “police state.”
She often faced threats for this and her coverage of human rights abuses in Chechnya, but she remained dedicated to reporting the truth. Politkovskaya was shot to death in the elevator of her apartment building on October 7, 2006. Five Chechen men were convicted of the murder in 2014, although the judge concluded that some unknown source paid $150,000 for the hit. That person has never been identified.
Paul Klebnikov was the chief editor of Forbes-Russia. Under his leadership the magazine uncovered corruption within the country, much of it through Klebnikov’s own journalistic talents, and pried into the lives of powerful Russian oligarchs. Klebnikov, an American of Russian descent, died in a drive-by assassination on July 9, 2004, that had all the markings of a professional contract killing.
Klebnikov was one of more than a dozen journalists who have been killed under murky circumstances in Russia since 2000. Klebnikov, specifically, had published a list of Russia's wealthiest citizens, which some think may have attracted unwanted attention.
An inquiry was launched and two Chechen rebels were accused, although none have been convicted to date and the investigation remains “open,” despite pleas from multiple US presidents for action. Klebnikov’s writing specifically targeted Putin’s “mentor” and former ally, Boris Berezovsky, and this, combined with the lack of a serious investigation, has led many to speculate about Putin’s involvement in the assassination.
Vladimir Putin took over as President of Russia at the turn of the millennium and, perhaps predictably given his KGB past and swift rise to power, it wasn’t long before the questionable deaths began. One of the first prominent Putin opponents to meet with an early demise was Sergei Yushenkov, the leader of the Liberal Russia Party. An outspoken critic of Putin, Yushenkov was shot to death near his home on April 16, 2003, just hours after he had announced that his party would be taking part in the upcoming parliamentary elections.
In a bit of dark irony, Yushenkov had previously spoken out about other suspicious killings, claiming that the Putin government had something to do with them. The investigation into his murder resulted in a few controversial convictions, but no concrete ties to the government.
Natalia Estemirova was a colleague of journalist Anna Politkovskaya, who was murdered under suspicious circumstances in 2006. Like her fallen comrade, Estemirova specialized in reporting on human rights atrocities committed by the Russian government in Chechnya, and became a figurehead of the Russian human rights campaign in general. This attracted plenty of attention, and Estemirova subsequently received threats allegedly directed at her by Putin ally and President of the Chechen Republic Ramzan Kadyrov.
On July 15, 2009, Estemirova was kidnapped from her home, shot in the head, and dumped in the woods. The murder remains “unsolved” and has been categorized as a robbery, despite the fact the killers left her wallet intact. Her friends and allies have drawn the obvious connections between the threats against her and her eventual fate.