Published On: Sun, Jan 6th, 2019

Poison plotters …..past and present

vladimir putin

Vladimir Putin’s victims usually have ‘something in their food and drink’ (Image: EPA)

Usually, those who oppose Putin are felled by something in their food or drink. In 2004, Ukrainian presidential candidate Viktor Yushchenko barely survived a soup tainted with TCCD, an ingredient in Agent Orange 170,000 times more poisonous than cyanide, which left him horribly disfigured. In 2012, Alexander Perepilichny, an anti-Putin Russian national living in Surrey, dropped dead while jogging. He seems to have consumed gelsemium, a plant found only in remote parts of China and loaded with toxins related to strychnine.

In 2006 in London, Putin critic Alexander Litvinenko drank tea brimming with polonium-210, leaving such high radiation levels that doctors waited a week before performing the autopsy in hazmat suits.

But Putin is merely carrying on a practice with ancient roots. As the world’s Poisoner-in-Chief he has similarities with the Medicis, the ruling family of Renaissance Tuscany with a reputation for slaying enemies.

Research into the Medici Archives’ four million documents in Florence shows their reputation well-deserved. Correspondence from 1548 details Duke Cosimo I’s plot to assassinate a political enemy. 

“Piero Strozzi usually stops to drink a few times during his journey,” wrote an agent in cipher, asking for “something that could poison his water or wine, with instructions on how to mix it.”


Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were targeted with novichok (Image: EAST2WEST NEWS)

In 1590, Cosimo’s son, Grand Duke Ferdinando, thought to have poisoned his brother Francesco with arsenic three years earlier to gain the throne, wrote to his agent in Milan, “You are being sent a bit of poison, and the messenger will tell you how to use it.

“The quantity being sent is enough to poison an entire pitcher of wine, has neither odour nor taste, and works very powerfully.”

Duke Cosimo I established the fonder – laboratories – in Florence’s Palazzo Vecchio to create poisons and antidotes, and test them on criminals. 

Putin continues the tradition in the Kamera, a lab set up in 1921 that reportedly tests toxins on dissidents. Ex-intelligence agent Boris Volodarsky says scientists calculate height, weight and eating habits to select a poison. 

The optimal dose is one that kills but leaves no trace, resulting in a verdict of death by natural causes.

Putin critic Vladimir Kara-Murza survived poisoning twice, in 2015 and 2017, from a substance tests have never been able to identify. 

On a 2004 Aeroflot flight, journalist Anna Politkovskaya fell unconscious and died after drinking toxic tea; her poison was never determined as her Moscow hospital destroyed all blood and urine samples. 

Nothing unusual was found in Alexander Litvinenko’s blood until a physician who had worked in Britain’s atomic bomb programme noticed the telltale spike of polonium-210.

The Medicis were not burdened by toxicology tests. Nor could physicians distinguish between poison and natural illness. 

Many English royal deaths were inaccurately blamed on poison (Edward VI, 15, who died in 1553 from tuberculosis; Henry, Prince of Wales, 18, who died in 1612 from typhoid fever; and Henrietta, duchess d’Orléans, sister of Charles II, who died of a ruptured gastric ulcer at 26, for a start).

The only method of determining poison as cause of death was to scrape out stomach contents and feed them to a dog. 

If it howled and died, poison was involved. 

anna politkovskaya

Anna Politkovskaya died from drinking toxic tea (Image: getty)

Research on exhumed remains has confirmed several poisonings. In 1958, Swedish investigators substantiated the rumour that insane, deposed King Erik XIV had been murdered in 1577 by arsenic in his pea soup. 

In 2013, Italian scientists studying the remains of 14th-century warlord Cangrande della Scala found large amounts of the poisonous plant digitalis. 

In 2008, researchers found that Agnes Sorel, 28, mistress of Charles VII of France, died from ingesting up to 100,000 times the normal amount of mercury.

Renaiisance royals, with good reason, imagined poison lurking everywhere. 

They used tasters and waved what they thought were unicorn horns (actually narwhal tusks) over their food, which were supposed to sweat and tremble in the presence of poison. These days, a Geiger counter would be advised.

It is unlikely that Renaissance royals feared poisoned door knobs – they never opened doors themselves – but they feared everything else. 

Henry VIII’s servants kissed all the sheets and pillows they put on his bed to prove they had not added poison. 

Elizabeth I’s ladies-in-waiting tested “all manner of things that shall touch any part of her majesty’s body bare”, which must mean that they tried the royal underpants. Edward VI’s servants sat on his chamber pot.


Alexander Litvinenko’s tea was even more deadly than Anna’s (Image: getty)

Renaissance royals also feared toxic fumes, although it is unlikely that poison of the era could have retained the strength to kill. 

Moscow, however, has it sorted. Anatoly Sobchak, a former St Petersburg mayor who embarrassed Putin in his first presidential election, died in 2000, seemingly due to fumes from a bedside lamp. 

In 2002, Russian forces intercepted a letter to Saudi-born Chechen terrorist Emir Khattab from his mother and drenched it with sarin. 

When he opened it, he died within half an hour.

A dagger thrust or a hail of bullets attracts attention. Poison is silent and the culprits are often far away before the fall-out. 

The same day the Skripals were poisoned, their two would-be assassins were back in Russia.

Critics, and the public, will likely continue to sicken from door knobs, letters, tea and perfume – toxic proof that Putin, like the Medicis before him, will go to any lengths to silence his enemies.

Eleanor Herman is author of The Royal Art Of Poison: Filthy Palaces, Fatal Cosmetics, Deadly Medicine And Murder Most Foul (Duckworth, £14.99).

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