‘It’s manic depression or he ate a battery’ Russia’s Foreign Ministry endorses conspiracy-theorist initiative that attributes Alexey Navalny’s near-fatal illness to psychiatric drugs, not a chemical weapon
Last December, doctors at the Charité Clinic in Berlin, where Alexey Navalny was treated after falling suddenly and gravely ill, published a research paper in the scientific journal The Lancet about “a 44-year-old man” from Russia who survived exposure to a Novichok-group nerve agent. The article didn’t identify Navalny by name, but the Charité Clinic later confirmed in a press release that the patient in question is Alexey Navalny. In January 2021, a little-known German-language website called “World Economy” (run by the pro-Kremlin Russian journalist Alexander Sosnovsky) released an interview with a Swiss neurologist named Vitaly Kozak who claims to have discovered “contradictions” in the report that appeared in The Lancet. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov later cited Kozak’s remarks, demanding an explanation from European leaders, and Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova has accused the West of evading “uncomfortable questions” about Navalny’s illness. At Meduza’s request, journalists Anna Vilisova and Ilya Shevelev took a closer look at Dr. Vitaly Kozak.
Alexander Sosnovsky first alerted his audience to the existence of an article about Navalny’s test results by “Swiss Doctor Vitaly Kozak” in a broadcast on January 11, 2021, on YouTube, where Sosnovsky hosts a show on pro-Kremlin pundit Vladimir Soloyov’s channel. Sosnovsky himself has also claimed credit for spearheading an entire “investigation” about Navalny’s illness last year, though he appears to be referring to nothing more than a series of media appearances about Kozak’s dubious medical claims. His “group of researchers” also includes Sergey Karnaukhov (a former state official who helped initiate embezzlement charges against Navalny in 2011 that resulted in an unfair trial, according to the European Court of Human Rights) and Dr. Alexander Myasnikov (one of the public faces of Russia’s anti-coronavirus efforts).
A frequent guest on television, radio, and streaming programs, Sosnovsky often presents himself as a doctor, though he has no formal education or training in modern medicine. The recipient of an honorary professorship from a pro-Putin organization, Sosnovsky owns a mysterious clinic called “Medico Mentale” that supposedly exists in Germany, though the entity isn’t registered there in any form. The clinic’s website advertises pseudoscientific services like “aura and biofield correction” and “bioenergetic resonance.”
For decades, Sosnovsky has worked with various media outlets, including foreign publications like Radio Svoboda and Deutsche Welle, which he left after political disagreements over events in Ukraine. He also has a long history of collaboration with Russia’s state media, such as Russia Today and Sputnik.
Since 2014, Sosnovsky has worked as the editor-in-chief of World Economy, a mostly unknown website that is largely indistinguishable from a collective blog and prominently features Sosnovsky’s own social media content.
What do we know about “Swiss Doctor Vitaly Kozak”?
Several pro-Kremlin media outlets have described Vitaly Kozak as a “neurologist” and “a Russian doctor from Switzerland,” though his place of employment and his professional record remain a mystery.
Meduza identified what appears to be his account on the social network VKontakte, learning that he was born in July 1984 and spent most of his life in Moldova, where he graduated from the Nicolae Testemitanu State University of Medicine and Pharmacy in 2009. Two years later, according to the information he’s shared online, Kozak found a job at the “Heel Company,” which specializes in the production of “homeopathic medicines.”
In 2014, Kozak became a graduate student at the University Hospital Basel in Switerzland. He’s apparently been working there since 2017, though spokespeople for the hospital declined to confirm this to Meduza. During his first four years at the university in Basel, Kozak blogged about his travels on LiveJournal, frequently sharing quotes he affectionately attributed to Joseph Stalin.
Compared to the doctors who authored the article published in The Lancet about Navalny’s poisoning, Vitaly Kozak is a relatively obscure specialist. His “h-index” (an author-level metric that measures the productivity and citation impact of scientists’ academic publications) is lower than most of the German experts; the report in The Lancet had 14 co-authors: eight had significantly higher h-index scores than Kozak, while six had lower scores. All three of Kozak’s articles included in the Russian Science Index in 2016 and 2019 appeared in the Korsakov Journalist of Neurology and Psychiatry, a publication notorious for its questionable editorial practices.
What do these “expert researchers” say about Navalny’s poisoning?
Alexander Sosnovsky and his team have repeatedly implied, without evidence, that Navalny’s sudden illness last year was actually the result of complications involving medication for bipolar disorder, citing lithium discovered in Navalny’s blood but not his urine (which wasn’t actually tested for lithium).
Cardiologist Alexander Myasnikov has advocated this theory the most bluntly, pointing out that medications for “manic-depressive syndrome” (an outdated term for bipolar disorder) contain lithium. Sosnovsky also invited onto his YouTube broadcast Maria Butina, the Russian gun-rights activist previously imprisoned in the United States for conspiracy to act as an unregistered foreign agent. Butina told Sosnovsky’s audience that drugs containing lithium are “widespread in the United States,” apparently implying that Washington may have played a role in Navalny’s near-fatal illness. Additionally, Sosnovsky has featured comments from psychiatrist Ivan Meshandin about the “potent drugs and tranquilizers” supposedly detected in Navalny’s test results and chemist Leonid Rink (who helped design the poison Novichok) about Navalny’s alleged use of synthetic opioids.
In fact, the research published in The Lancet doesn’t specify Navalny’s lithium levels — a supplementary appendix merely confirms that lithium was detected in his blood, obviating the need for a urine test. Psychiatrist Dmitry Kutovoi told the independent television network Dozhd that Kozak apparently misunderstood the term “not performed” when claiming that no lithium was detected in Navalny’s urine.
In subsequent appearances on Sosnovsky’s YouTube show, Vitaly Kozak has claimed that test results show the lithium levels in Navalny’s blood were “50 times” above normal, though the article published in The Lancet never specifies Navalny’s lithium levels at all. In fact, in a text Kozak wrote himself that Sosnovsky’s World Economy website published and later deleted without explanation, Kozak complained about an absence of quantitative data on the lithium in Navalny’s blood. In a YouTube broadcast on January 11, Alexander Myasnikov said plainly that Navalny “either swallowed a watch battery or he took medication prescribed by a doctor.”
Enter Russia’s Foreign Ministry
In late January 2021, after The Lancet refused to publish their group’s “findings,” Kozak appealed publicly to Russia’s Foreign Ministry, and Sosnovsky published the letter’s text online in both Russian and English at World Economy and on his Telegram channel. The two documents differ significantly: the English-language version adopts a relatively muted tone, while its Russian-language counterpart screams with the pathos of a manifesto, including attacks against Navalny’s “political and moral pedophilia.”
On February 8, Russia’s Foreign Ministry published an official response from Sergey Lavrov where the foreign minister declined to comment on the medical specifics of Kozak’s claims but endorsed the doctor’s calls for a reassessment of reports that Navalny was poisoned. Lavrov also claimed that the German military’s Pharmacology and Toxicology Institute, not physicians at the Charité Clinic, concluded that Navalny was exposed to a chemical weapon, arguing that civilian doctors in both Russia and Berlin found no evidence of Novichok.
Before hosting a PDF copy of Kozak’s open letter, Russia’s Foreign Ministry cited the text using a hyperlink to Alexander Sosnovsky’s personal Telegram channel, despite claims by the agency’s spokeswoman that Lavrov only decided to respond after multiple inquiries from journalists. The Foreign Ministry later hosted its own copy of Kozak’s letter, but metadata show that it is the same file originally shared on Sosnovsky’s Telegram channel.
Russia’s Foreign Ministry says it’s also shared Kozak’s letter with officials at the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, as well as the state departments of Germany, France, and Sweden. French and German diplomats told Moscow, however, that they lack the expertise to discuss Kozak’s objections, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova told Meduza.
Summary by Kevin Rothrock