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Pure Poison: Putin’s Links to Espionage, Terrorism and Organised Crime

Zarina Zabrisky talks to Artyom Kruglov, an independent investigative journalist and Putin biographer, about the Russian President’s background

Russian President Vladimir Putin, 25 August 2020. Photo: PA Images

Pure PoisonPutin’s Links to Espionage, Terrorism and Organised Crime

Zarina Zabrisky talks to Artyom Kruglov, an independent investigative journalist and Putin biographer, about the Russian President’s background

According to Berlin’s Charité hospital, Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny was poisoned “with a substance from the group of cholinesterase inhibitors” after multiple tests in independent laboratories.

Navalny, who is currently in an induced coma, was transferred to Berlin from a Siberian hospital where doctors first confirmed an unknown toxin in blood, then denied it. Navalny fell violently ill on 20 August after drinking a cup of tea in Tomsk airport.

The Kremlin denies poisoning Navalny, but he would be one of many in a long list of poisoning allegations. Soviet security services, the KGB, transformed into the FSB in Putin’s Russia, has a long record of using poison as its weapon of choice against its adversaries. A brief overview of the KGB/FSB poisoning history includes the Cold War period, and infamous episodes from more modern times. 

In 1957, Nikolai Khokhlov, a KGB defector, survived a cup of poisoned coffee. In 2004, an investigative journalist and Putin’s foe Anna Politkovskaya also got acutely ill drinking a cup of tea on the plane. The same year, Roman Tzepov, a criminal boss from St. Petersburg circles close to Putin died, allegedly after drinking tea poisoned by radioactive polonium-210, a substance that is only produced in Russia at a factory controlled by the Government. Politkovskaya survived only to be murdered on Putin’s birthday, 7 October, 2006. 

A month later, on 23 November, 2006, in London, Alexander Litvinenko, a former FSB officer and critic of Putin, drank a lethal cup of tea with radioactive polonium-210. This was a Russian security services operation, most probably ordered by Putin, concluded a 2016 public inquiry in London. 

Every country has a mafia but only in Russia does the mafia have a country.

Apart from beverages, there are many ways of using poisons. In 1978, a KGB agent killed Georgi Markov, a Bulgarian dissident, by pricking him with an umbrella tip dipped in ricin.

The tradition has continued in Putin’s Russia: an opposition leader, Vladimir Kara-Murza, survived two poisoning attempts, in 2015 and 2017; toxins in his blood were confirmed by a lab in France. In 2018, a former KGB officer Sergey Skripal and his daughter almost died in the UK after poisoning with the nerve agent Novichok, developed in the Soviet Union. The poison was transported in a French perfume bottle. Also in 2018, Petr Verzilov, a member of Pussy Riot and a journalist, was poisoned and recovered from an induced coma in a hospital in Berlin. 

I spoke to Artyom about his thoughts on the latest incident

Interview with Artyom Kruglov

Putinism As It Is

What do you think about Navalny’s alleged poisoning?

I think that it was caused by Navalny’s active promotion of strikes in Belarus as the most efficient way of protesting. Putin’s regime is afraid of strikes. As for the poison itself, it appears to be the nerve agent because Navalny was screaming from pain on the plane.

Navalny has been incarcerated on a regular basis by Putin’s government. You are doing a similar type of work and your blog is very popular. Can you tell us about your investigative journalism projects?

Putinism As It Is explores Putin’s biography, Russian organized crime, and Russian mafia state, three tightly connected subjects. This project started in 2015 as an anonymous blog and, after being banned in Russia in May 2019, articles were converted to documentaries shared on a YouTube channel that by now has over 20 million views. 

I have some sensitive sources: Russian investigative journalists and people with Russian underworld connections. However, in 99% cases you simply cannot publish what they say because their identity will be disclosed. It is too dangerous, as you can see. So it is mostly OSINT – open source intelligence. I get a lot of information from mass media, social media, and books.

Who banned your blog and why?

A mafia-controlled Moscow court banned it after I wrote an article Pavlik’s Birthday Party, giving a detailed account of a seedy episode from the life of the mafia, in Russian “bratva,” literally translated as “brotherhood.” 

In November 2017, the boss of a powerful organised crime group Izmaylovo, celebrated his fiftieth birthday in downtown Moscow. It was a lush affair, with Canadian Cirque de Soleil entertaining about 250 guests—prominent gangsters, politicians, Duma deputies, businessmen, and celebrities. The party culminated in a shooting between the bodyguards of the host and another mafia boss and one fatality, five wounded, and thirty arrested. Two of the birthday boy’s bodyguards turned out to be Special Forces (‘Spetsnaz’) policemen. One of them suffered grave injuries that led to a lifelong disability. This is the sad story of Putin’s Russia: a police officer gets disabled defending a crime boss. 

Are you in danger because of your work?

Of course. The  Mafia is not a joke. And especially Putin’s mafia-state.

Early Life

Despite the threat to your life, you research Putin’s biography, Russian organized crime, and the Russian mafia state. Why is it important to verify Putin’s official biography and what did you find out?

Putin’s official biography sounds more or less like this: a boy from a really poor working family worked hard in school, studied martial arts, made it to the most prestigious Leningrad University, heroically served his motherland working for the KGB for fifteen years, became a Deputy Mayor of St. Petersburg and did such a great job that he got invited to the Kremlin to work for Boris Yeltsin’s administration.

This is a myth. I investigated every step of his career, starting from early childhood. The atmosphere of violence and cruelty of post-war Leningrad deeply influenced Putin. In his interview with a Russian journalist Oleg Blotsky, Putin said that his childhood was similar to a harsh life of a gang of criminal youth in Brazil, depicted in a movie Sandpit Generals (1971). In October 2015, commenting on the Russian intervention in Syria, Putin said: “Fifty years ago Leningrad streets taught me a lesson: if a fight is inevitable, strike first.”

The world would have never heard about Putin if not for a Leningrad crime boss

However, tough as it was, Putin had a chance to attend a free sports club available to all kids regardless of family income and study at a university for free. 

You have to take everything with a grain of salt. In First Person, his official biography, Putin talks about his career in sports and mentions his judo coach with great respect without ever mentioning his last name. I researched personal blogs of Putin’s judo club members and Leningrad underworld figures in the 1960-70s and established that his coach, Leonid Ionovich Usvyatsov, a.k.a ‘Leo the Sportsman,’ led a double life in Leningrad. He worked as the chief coach of a youth judo team and moonlighted as the boss of the gang of robbers and racketeers. Overall, he spent twenty years in jail for various crimes and was killed in 1994 in a mafia turf war. His gravestone features an epitaph: “I am dead but mafia is immortal.” I found his tombstone at a St. Petersburg cemetery in 2015 and the photos went viral on the Russian internet and opposition media. 

Leonid Ionovich Usvyatsov Tombstone. Photo: Artyom Kruglov

In his autobiography, Putin hints that Usvyatsov played a role in his admittance to the Law Faculty of Leningrad State University, the equivalent of Oxford or Princeton. Putin never excelled academically and Usvyatsov helped Putin to be admitted on ‘sports merit,’ an unofficial Soviet practice of admitting a small number of athletes avoiding the entrance exams to build up university teams. The world would have never heard about Putin if not for a Leningrad crime boss.

KGB Career

At the beginning of this interview, we mentioned the KGB and FSB in connection with Navalny’s alleged poisoning. Putin worked for the KGB and he is allegedly connected to the criminal world. Can you explain the connection?

In fact, Putin’s KGB career was a decisive factor in the development of the mafia state. In the USSR, the KGB was a framework of the Soviet totalitarian regime, tool to suppress free voices and support the international crime, including terrorism sponsorship. By the late 90s, the KGB (renamed to the FSB) became a highly corrupt organization. Putin, the KGB operative, was a part of this framework. Later, the FSB practically merged with the mafia. Putin’s former colleagues from the 8th sub-division and other departments openly worked for and with the mafia—especially the Izmaylovo Organised Crime Group. 

Aleksander Litivinenko, a former high-ranking FSB officer, who was, as you have mentioned, poisoned by Polonium-210 in London in 2006, in his excellent book The Lubyanka Criminal Group (2002), wrote that in the 1990s, the FSB and Izmaylovo joined forces to form a death squad. This unit, similar to Murder Inc of Cosa-Nostra circa the 1930-40s, consisted of the former special security soldiers. They targeted criminals from other crime families. Having this unit helped Izmaylovo to get rid of competition and dominate the mafia scene.

In 2000, Putin moved on to become the President of the Russian Federation, and the Izmaylovo crime family became untouchable. Putin’s era is the Golden Age of Izmaylovo gangsters. Izmaylovo industrial assets were legalized and divided into a number of holdings. Each holding had its own oligarch at the helm. All oligarchs were the former managers from the Izmailovo ‘business division’. The true ownership structure was hidden behind shell companies—the signature move of Putin’s mafia state. 

It is really important to understand the influence of the KGB career on Putin. Can you give us some more details? 

Putin wasn’t a great spy: by the end of his KGB career, at the age of 38, he was just a senior aide at a small KGB branch in Dresden. To compare, at 38, Oleg Gordievski, the most famous KGB defector of 1980s, was appointed a resident in Denmark. General Shebarshin, the last head of the Soviet intelligence in 1989-1991, was the resident in India. 

Putin worked undercover… Even his wife didn’t know that he worked for the KGB

However, Putin’s KGB experience and training should not be underestimated. Right after Putin came to power, in 2000, the Kremlin published his “official” biography, In First Person, a collection of interviews with Putin. According to him, he joined the KGB in 1975 and first worked at a ‘counterintelligence division’. He doesn’t give any details. In his book The Colleague (2004) Vladimir Usoltsev, Putin’s co-worker in Dresden, writes that in Leningrad Putin initially served at the Fifth Directorate, which wasn’t a counter-intelligence unit. It was designated with “fighting the ideological sabotage,” in other words, Putin worked for political police in charge of a crackdown of dissent in the Soviet society. 

Around 1979, Putin was transferred to the First Main Directorate (Intelligence), the subdivision Directorate RT (Local Intelligence.) This subdivision focused on the recruitment of foreigners visiting the USSR and Soviet citizens going abroad. Putin worked there undercover. The KGB (and currently the FSB) operatives frequently use police identity documents so, officially, he was a policeman, a detective at the city criminal investigations department. Even his wife didn’t know that he worked for the KGB and only realized the truth before his Dresden mission. 

This subdivision recruited criminals – prostitutes, smugglers, illegal icons and antiques traders – for surveillance and recruitment of foreign citizens. In 1984, Putin’s assignment at the RT Department was over and he was sent to Moscow to study at the KGB spy school and after completing his studies he went to East Germany.

Tell us about his KGB job in Dresden.

In his 15 years in the KGB, Putin served at only one ‘external’ location. It was Dresden, where he worked from 1985 to 1989. East Germany was the USSR closest ally; the KGB and Stasi worked closely together. So what kind of illegal activity in East Germany was Putin involved in? What did he mean? I started to dig.

According to Usoltsev, Putin’s coworker at the Dresden KGB branch, Putin’s job was to “look for pearls in a pile of manure” by reading thousands of dossiers of foreigners – students, local residents’ relatives from West Germany coming to Dresden – in order to make a preliminary selection of candidates for recruitment. Usoltsev mentions that Putin had an additional task, also calling it “illegal intelligence,” without specifying any details.

In a short interview given under conditions of anonymity, a former terrorist from West Germany said that his terrorist organization, the Red Army Faction (RAF), got support from East Germany and that his KGB liaison was a Dresden branch officer Vladimir Putin. If Putin served as a RAF–KGB liaison, he definitely worked for the Department ‘S’ responsible for illegal intelligence, specifically for the Eighth Division, known as the “whackers division” in KGB slang, responsible for “the direct actions,” i.e. murders and terrorism abroad. 

So, the Eighth Division was responsible for all the poisoning and murders of the Cold War with the West?

Correct. They were also connected with terrorism.  I identified the anonymous RAF member and he turned out to be a well-known West German left-wing radical and a very talented mole.  He wrote about his work with Putin in East Germany and recalled that Putin, aside from his official duties, was always interested in Western consumer goods, unavailable in Eastern bloc. Terrorists attending training sessions always brought him gifts. Once they stole a car in West Germany, took out a state-of-art stereo and brought it to Putin who installed it in his car in Dresden. In the 90s in Hungary, the mole worked for Simeon Mogilevich, a.k.a. Seva or Brainy Don, another key Solntsevo boss who ran the international branches of this crime family, an important crime figure in Russia, Ukraine and worldwide and a criminal on the FBI most-wanted list since 2003.  

Organised Crime

So it boils down the ties between organized crime and the security services?

The Mogilevich connection is critical to understanding the scale of the merge between the KGB and organized crime. Consider the whole picture: Putin, a KGB officer who loves to speak about “fight against international terrorism,” started his career as an accomplice of terrorists in West Germany. Later, one of his long-term KGB assets, Mogilevich, ran Russian crime groups and now he is successfully hiding from the FBI in Putin’s Russia. 

Tell us more about Putin’s ties with organised crime.

At the time of Putin’s service at St. Petersburg Mayor’s office, all sorts of corruption took place there, with Putin being one of the key players. In 1991, Putin became a Deputy Mayor of St. Petersburg. A big part of his work in the Mayor’s office was big privatisation of the 1990s. Putin was in contact with the Tambov-Malyshev, the leading crime group of North-West Russia, and helped it to take control of St. Petersburg seaport.

This scenario reminds of the Philippines during the time of the Marcos dictatorship. All profitable industry sectors were divided between twenty friends and relatives of Ferdinand Marcos and his wife Imelda. The term “Crony capitalism” originates from the Philippines, and it can be applied to Putin’s Russia.

Thank you for that, for your courage and for doing your work. You consistently show the proof to the old saying: “Every country has a mafia but only in Russia the mafia has a country.

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