By BORIS VOLODARSKY
April 7, 2005
A book on the history of the KGB is:The Sword and the
Shield: The Mitrokhin Archive andthe Secret History of the KGB by Christopher
Andrew, Vasill Mitrohhin, VasiliMitrokhin. Used copies can be bought on
Amazon.com for just over $4.00.
Viktor Yushchenko was intentionally poisoned during Ukraine's presi
dential election campaign last year. By now that fact can hardly be disputed.
Yuri Lutsenko, newly appointed Ukrainian interior minister, publicly announced
in February that he knew precisely "who brought the poison across the Ukrainian
border, which official took it to the scene of the crime, and who personally
put it into Yushchenko's food." Officials also suspect that Mr. Yushchenko,
now the country's president, imbibed the poison during a Sept. 5 dinner
with the then-chairman of Ukraine's security services, Igor Smeshko, and
his deputy Vladimir Satsyuk.
A team of American doctors that secretly flew to Vienna to assist Austrian
colleagues in treating Mr. Yushchenko found a substance in his blood --
a highly toxic dioxin of the type 2,3,7,8-TCDD (Tetrachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin)
that a Russian laboratory had successfully experimented with a few years
earlier. The question now left unanswered is: Who produced this poison
and authorized its use?
Former Soviet spies and intelligence historians like myself, listening
to the debate and taking note of the victim, the timing and the early confusion
surrounding Mr. Yushchenko's symptoms, can speculate about the source with
some authority. Even before the news that the poisonous compound had been
found, we had already noticed uncanny similarities to the past work of
the "Kamera," or as KGB veterans might remember it, "Laboratory No. 12".
This highly innovative research institution began life in 1921 in a
secluded corner of Lenin's Cheka, the first name of the Soviet KGB that
today's Russians know as the FSB, which handles domestic security, and
the SVR, the old First Chief Directorate of the KGB, responsible for foreign
intelligence and "special operations." Kamera -- Russian for chamber --
is the name that it bore under Stalin. But like its parent organization
it has been renamed and even "abolished" in occasional fits of reform.
In 1934, when it was located at No. 11 Varsonofyevsky Lane just meters
away from the main KGB building, Kamera actively developed deadly poisons
and gases. According to Alexander Kouzminov, a former SVR bio-spy handler
who published "Biological Espionage" in New Zealand in February, it is
it is now the main consumer and supplier of Department 12 of Directorate
S of the SVR which handles biological warfare. Russian President Vladimir
Putin is a former FSB chief and junior SVR officer.
Whatever its official name, Kamera's products -- poisonous biological
and chemical agents -- have been constantly refined over the years as advancing
science opens new possibilities and as Kremlin leaders have new requirements.
They are highly specialized, tailored for each recipient to cause the desired
effect -- usually death or incapacity -- in specific ways. But one thing
in their desi gn is constant. They must make the victim's death or illness
appear natural or at least produce symptoms that will baffle doctors and
forensic investigators. To this end the Kamera developed its defining specialty:
combining known poisons into original and untraceable forms.
The Kamera met the demanding standards of Joseph Stalin. He granted
its chief a medical doctorate and the Stalin Prize for his research. Today
this division presumably no longer enjoys access to its Stalin-era test
facility. Grigory M. Mairanovsky, a colonel in the Medical Corps, and State
Security Lieutenant Colonel Okunev, under the orders of the lab's overseer
and Beria's chief executioner General Vasili Blokhin, would try out the
Kamera's products on condemned prisoners before shooting them, unless poison
saved them from the bullet.
President Yushchenko's case produced just the kind of confusing symptoms
that would characterize a poison produc ed by the Kamera. It took weeks
to pinpoint the cause of the Ukrainian democratic leader's ailments, which
started with severe stomach and back pain and later chloracne on his face.
But on Oct. 31, after the first round of the elections, Christopher Holstege,
an expert in chemical terrorism and treatment of poison victims at the
University of Virginia, identified dioxin as the most likely substance
in Mr. Yushchenko's blood. A laboratory in the Netherlands confirmed this
diagnosis in December.
>From the very beginning it was clear that dioxin alone would not cause
these precise symptoms. Two other dioxin-intoxication cases studied by
experts at Vienna University's medical school showed that this poison by
itself wouldn't act so quickly or lead to Mr. Yushchenko's reported ailments.
Now it appears that he was hit not by one known chemical agent but by a
sophisticated compound. As I learned from his physician, N ikolai Korpan,
whoever came up with his poison had produced a veritable bio-bomb, combining
2,3,7,8-TCDD with Alpha-Fetoprotein, a protein that helps the dioxin move
around the body. Before this case, dioxin was considered an inappropriate
poison because it can't be dissolved in water, took effect only 10 to 13
days after contact and wasn't fatal. But when mixed with the fetal protein,
dioxin appears to be soluble and much more toxic, and acts almost immediately.
Such creative combination is usually the claw mark of the Kamera. * * *
I'm reminded of the 1955 attempt on Nikolay Khokhlov, a defector from
the KGB. He drank a cup of coffee at a public reception in Germany in 1957
and fell ill. In his blood the doctors found traces of thallium, a metallic
substance commonly used as rat poison. But the appropriate treatment had
little effect and it was not until weeks later when Khokhlov was close
to death that ima ginative doctors at a U.S. Army hospital in Frankfurt
found the hitherto undreamed-of answer. The thallium had been subjected
to atomic radiation so that the metal would slowly disintegrate in the
system, giving symptoms as common as gastritis as a patient slowly died
of radiation poisoning. By that time, the thallium would have disintegrated
and left no trace even for an autopsy.
Countless others -- literally countless, for who can count poison victims
when no poison is detected? -- suffered this fate. I have identified more
than a dozen examples through the years. The Chechen rebel leader Khattab
was poisoned by the FSB in March 2004. A KGB agent poisoned the food of
the Afghan leader Hafizullah Amin in December 1979. Trotsky's secretary
Wolfgang Salus died mysteriously in 1957. The anti-Soviet emigr? writer
Lev Rebet was thought to have died from a heart attack in October 1957
until the KGB assassin defected four year s later and told how he had sprayed
a Kamera mist containing poisonous gas from a crushed cyanide ampoule into
Rebet's face as he passed him on a stairway.
The Kamera also provided ricin in tiny, specially tooled pellets to
be injected undetected, with hardly the pain of an insect's sting, causing
death without trace. Lent to the Bulgarians, this poison pellet killed
the anti-Communist emigr? radio journalist Georgi Markov in 1978 in London.
His cause of death and the means of its delivery were discovered only long
afterward, and by chance. Oleg Kalugin, former KGB general who now lives
in the U.S. and who was in charge of this operation from the Soviet side,
described it in "Spy Master," published in 1994.
The nature of the poisons themselves sometimes determined the delivery
system: the ricin pellet in a sharp-tipped umbrella, the spray vented from
a tube hidden in a rolled newspaper, a poison-carrying bullet (designe
d for Russian emigr? Georgy Okolovich in 1955) shot from a very short range
pistol concealed in a cigarette packet. The Kamera leaves to other parts
of the Russian services the task of getting its poison to the victim, like
putting the powder into Khokhlov's coffee cup.
If the Kamera is somehow behind Mr. Yushchenko's problems, it did its
work with great skill. Some 20 specialists, from dermatologists to neurologists,
were unable to make an exact diagnosis in his case. "It is an atypical
case," said Dr. Korpan, "One seldom observes complex acute disease combined
with neurological signs."
Russian intelligence veterans will also recognize, as I do, the characteristic
campaign of Soviet-style "active measures" to confuse the issue. Officials
in the government of Leonid Kuchma said that the candidate ate some bad
sushi, or maybe caught a virus, or even disfigured himself on purpose to
win electoral points. And they acc use the doctors and laboratories of
"medically falsified diagnoses." Former KGB Colonel Viktor Cherkashin,
who handled the two notorious American traitors Robert Hanssen and Aldrich
Ames, was recently quoted as saying, "I have my doubts about whether Yushchenko
was poisoned at all. It looks more like a dermatological problem."
Without knowing all the details, it's hard not to agree with Dr. Korpan at the Rudolfinerhaus hospital in Vienna that Mr. Yushchenko was poisoned with the aim to disfigure, weaken and end his threat to the now deposed pro-Kremlin Ukrainian government.
Mr. Volodarsky, a former Soviet GRU (military intelligence) officer
who lives in London and Vienna, is currently co-writing, with Oleg Gordievsky,
a book about Soviet espionage in Europe.