The KGB's poison factory

April 7, 2005

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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.