The Kremlin’s security services have often been suspected of assassination attempts from Alexei Navalny’s unusual underpants poisoning in Russia to the Novichok attack on Sergei Skripal in England - accusations Russia denies.
Moscow has a long history with the dark arts, however. A KGB-era unit known as The 13th Department was tasked with ‘executive actions’ aimed at eliminating Soviet threats, according to declassified CIA documents and other reports. Before The 13th Department, Moscow had the ‘Directorate of Special Tasks’, formed in 1936, and later Spets Byuro #1.
The 13th Department had about 60 staff at its Moscow HQ and operated satellite units at various times in East Germany, China, and Austria, according to the CIA. It targeted USSR citizens, Soviet emigrés, and foreign nationals with weapons - some seemingly taken straight from the pages of an espionage thriller - including chemical spray guns and strychnine-laced chocolates.
Here are nine of the suspected plots, although in some cases there have been no arrests:
US President John F. Kennedy
There are dozens of conspiracy theories around US President John F. Kennedy’s shooting on November 22, 1963, including at least one involving the Soviet Union. Lee Harvey Oswald, a former US Marine charged with Kennedy’s assassination, had ties to the Soviets. Oswald defected to the USSR, married his Soviet wife Marina, and returned to the US in 1961. Declassified documents show Oswald visited the Soviet Embassy in Mexico City on September 28, 1963, and spoke to Valeriy Kostikov, identified as a member of the KGB ‘assassination department’. Kostikov was a case officer in an operation sponsored by The 13th Department.
America’s favorite cowboy John Wayne’s anti-communist comments apparently rattled Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, according to the book John Wayne: The Man Behind the Myth. Stalin allegedly ordered The Duke’s murder in the 1950s but the news leaked to Hollywood director Orson Welles who warned Wayne. Author Michael Munn said he did not know what transpired, but heard the two men sent to harm Wayne stayed in the US, working for the FBI rather than follow their orders. Wayne, meanwhile, moved to a house with tighter security.
Josip Broz Tito
Fed up with Soviet assassination attempts, Yugoslavia’s former leader Josip Broz Tito wrote to Joseph Stalin in the late 1940s: “Stop sending people to kill me. We’ve already captured five of them, one of them with a bomb and another with a rifle… If you don’t stop sending killers I’ll send one to Moscow, and I won’t have to send another.” Stalin kept the letter in his desk for the rest of his life but the assassination attempts carried on: 22 different plots, by some accounts. Tito died in 1980, just days short of his 88th birthday. Foul play was not suspected.
Georgi Markov was a Bulgarian BBC journalist and dissident who defected to the West. He died after being jabbed in the thigh with a poison-tipped umbrella on a London street in 1978. Markov told a colleague that a man with a foreign accent had pushed the point of his umbrella into his leg, said ‘I’m sorry’ then disappeared into a taxi. Markov died three days later. A tiny metal pellet containing ricin was removed from Markov’s leg. The KGB or Bulgarian secret services are suspected of using an agent code-named Piccadilly but no one was ever charged.
Lisa Stein, an interviewer with an American radio station in West Germany, survived a Cold War attack. Stein - whose department had close ties to US military counterintelligence - was offered candy containing the poison scopolamine during lunch with a contact. Her attacker expected Stein to fall ill while walking back to her residence and she’d be ‘helped’ into a waiting car that would appear to pass by chance. Stein did not feel the effects until she was near her apartment, however, at which point her neighbors came to her aid and she was hospitalized. An antidote was found after 48 hours and Stein recovered.
Georgi Okolovich led an emigré organization known as the People's Labor League and, in 1954, he was an MGB assassination target. Captain Nikolai Khokhlov was supposed to direct the murder but instead tipped off Okolovich in Frankfurt and defected. He brought with him two king-size leather cigarette cases which operated as cyanide guns, and a pistol - about four inches long and four inches tall - that fired three types of bullets. The lead ammunition disabled a target, the poisoned bullets were for use at close range, and the steel bullets could finish the job. All three devices were virtually silent.
Former Ukrainian government leader Lev Rebet was an anti-communist émigré living in Munich who apparently died of a heart attack in 1957. The truth was revealed four years later when KGB assassin Bogdan Stashinsky defected.
Stashinsky, then 19, said he was forced to kill for the KGB or risk the arrest of his family. Stashinsky said he’d ambushed Rebet in an office building and killed him with a top-secret spray gun that fired cyanide. S
tashinsky traveled to Berlin to see his wife following the death of their young son and convinced her to defect before the funeral.
Assassin Bogdan Stashinsky used the same type of spray gun to kill Ukrainian emigré and resistance leader Stepan Bandera (right) in 1959. Bandera collapsed on a Munich street. The cause of death was poisoning by cyanide gas. Stashinsky was sentenced to eight years in prison.
Under questioning, Stashinsky described two laboratories associated with The 13th Department - one produced special weapons and explosives; the other developed poisons and drugs for ‘special tasks’.
Former USSR state security officer Ignace Reiss was shot to death in 1937 near Lausanne, Switzerland. A few weeks earlier, he’d declared his defection in a letter addressed to Stalin. Reiss's body was found on a road, riddled with 15 bullets from a Soviet PPD-34 submachine gun. The suspected assassins were Soviet OGPU agent Gertrude Schildbach - Reiss was clutching a lock of her hair - and Roland Abbiate, an officer of the People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs (NKVD) and later KGB. The pair fled their hotel without their luggage, leaving behind a box of chocolates laced with strychnine poison.
Has much changed since the Cold War? The late Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko was poisoned with radioactive polonium placed in his tea cup at a London hotel in 2006. A UK public inquiry concluded in 2016 that the operation was ‘probably’ approved by Nikolai Patrushev, then head of the Russian Federal Security Service, and Russian President Putin. The Kremlin, meanwhile, has described allegations of Russian involvement as nonsense used to damage the country’s image.