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‘The most likely explanation’ At least three Russian journalists and activists appear to have been poisoned abroad since fall 2022
The independent outlet The Insider has published an investigation into a series of poisoning attacks targeting Russian journalists and activists in Europe. In October 2022, Elena Kostyuchenko, a journalist for Novaya Gazeta and Meduza, was poisoned in Munich, and Irina Babloyan, who works for Ekho Moskvy, was poisoned in Tbilisi. In May 2023, Natalia Arno, the president of the Free Russian Foundation, showed symptoms of poisoning. While The Insider doesn’t usually publish materials about poisoning attacks until the perpetrators are identified, its journalists decided to make the information it has public, with the victims’ permission, in order to warn Russian activists who leave the country of the threat they might face abroad.
Elena Kostyuchenko’s poisoning in Munich
At the start of the full-scale war, Novaya Gazeta’s special correspondent Elena Kostyuchenko went to Ukraine, where she wrote four stories in March 2022: one from the border, one from Odesa, one from Mykolaiv, and one from Kherson. On March 30, Kostyuchenko was in Zaporizhzhia and was planning to travel to Mariupol when she received a warning from some colleagues and Ukrainian intelligence sources that Chechen units at Russian checkpoints had been ordered to kill her. She then left Ukraine and went to another European country.
Kostyuchenko found an apartment in Berlin, and in late September, she began working at Meduza. For her first reporting trip, she planned to go to Iran, and after that, she wanted to return to Ukraine. Initially, she planned to apply for a Ukrainian visa in advance, but cyberattacks made it impossible for her to make an appointment at the Ukrainian Embassy in Berlin, so she scheduled an appointment at the Ukrainian Consulate in Munich.
On October 17, Kostyuchenko boarded an overnight train to Munich, and the following day, she met up with a friend. The two ate lunch at a restaurant, sitting at a table outside, and during their meal, acquaintances stopped by twice — first a man, then two women. Kostyuchenko remembers marveling at what a small city Munich must be. She made trips to the bathroom, while her friend was sitting at the table for the entire meal. Kostyuchenko didn’t think the food she ordered at the restaurant was very good and only ate half of it. When her friend drove her back to the train station, she offered Kostyuchenko some deodorant, saying she was giving off an unpleasant smell.
On the train, Kostyuchenko’s head began to hurt and she found herself unable to concentrate on the story she was working on. In Berlin, she experienced fatigue and shortness of breath, which made it difficult for her to get back to her apartment. At the time, she thought she was experiencing lingering symptoms of COVID-19, which she had come down with three weeks earlier. The following morning, she felt an intense pain in her stomach that extended to her spine. She began to experience dizziness, nausea, extreme anxiety, and insomnia.
Ten days passed before Kostyuchenko consulted a doctor. Medical tests showed that the amounts of liver enzymes ALT and AST in her system were five times higher than normal, and blood was detected in her urine. She soon began exhibiting new symptoms, including swelling in her face and fingers, as well as hand-foot syndrome (the sudden reddening of the hands and feet). German doctors ruled out a number of diagnoses (including, viral hepatitis, autoimmune diseases, and kidney infection) before concluding that Kostyuchenko may have been poisoned. They recommended that she get tested for toxins at Berlin’s Charité Hospital, where Alexey Navalny had been treated for Novichok nerve-agent poisoning in 2020.
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This required Kostyuchenko to contact the police. The police opened an investigation, but said that 2.5 months after a poisoning occurs, it’s practically impossible to find traces of the toxin in a person’s body. Kostyuchenko was tested in late December, but the results were never reported.
On May 2, German prosecutors closed the case concerning Kostyuchenko’s suspected poisoning. But in July, the police reported that the case had been reopened so that more samples could be taken.
The Insider spoke with doctors and poison specialists who agreed that exogenous poisoning is the only explanation for the symptoms Kostyuchenko experience.
The clinical findings and the laboratory data showed severe liver damage (a significant increase in ALT and AST [levels]) and kidney damage (hematuria), in addition to a number of neurological abnormalities. The symptoms Elena described, taken together with the test results provided to her, narrows the spectrum of possible toxic substances. The main suspicion of the experts surveyed is that the substance used was an organochlorine compound such as dichloroethane. It’s unlikely that the poison entered her body through respiration as this would have caused lung damage. More likely, the poison either got in through the skin (although with organochlorine compounds, this would require fairly prolonged contact), or through food.
Natalia Arno’s poisoning in Prague
On May 2, 2023, Natalia Arno, the head of the Free Russian Foundation, took part in a private event in Prague. That evening, she returned to Hotel Garden Court, where she was staying, and found that the door to her hotel room was open. Nothing was missing from the room, but she noticed the distinct smell of perfume.
That night, Arno woke up due to numbness and pain in various parts of her body. From what she remembers, the pain in her teeth and tongue was especially severe, and then it spread to her ears, chest, and spine. Her mouth tasted like minerals, her vision became blurry, and her hands and feet were numb.
Later that day, Arno returned to Washington, D.C., where she lives, and consulted a doctor. U.S. law enforcement authorities soon began investigating her case. The results of Arno’s toxicology tests are still unknown, but doctors told her that she was poisoned by a neurotoxic substance.
According to an expert who has experience developing toxic substances, the symptoms described, including the characteristic numbness, indicate that a neuroparalytic substance [was used]. This class of substances includes all Novichok agents, but determining the substance’s exact class based on symptoms alone is impossible.
It’s possible that this wasn’t the first poisoning attempt against Natalia Arno. In July 2021, she noted the smell of perfume in a hotel room where she was staying in Vilnius and experienced a fever, weakness, and a rash shortly thereafter.
The independent outlet Agentstvo reported on Arno’s poisoning in May 2023.
Irina Babloyan’s poisoning in Tbilisi
In October 2022, Ekho Moskvy journalist Irina Babloyan moved from Moscow to Tbilisi, where she stayed in the King Tamar hotel. On the evening of October 25, she began to feel ill, and the following morning she woke up feeling extremely dizzy and weak. The following day, she began exhibiting symptoms of hand-foot syndrome: her palms appeared purple and burned “as if you were holding fire in your hands.”
On the night of October 26, Babloyan traveled to Yerevan by car. During the ride, she experienced brain fog and was unable to concentrate. “You lie down, but the feeling of fatigue doesn’t pass; it’s like you just can’t get any rest. I had the sensation that my body was no longer mine, like it had turned to cotton. I had intense anxiety,” she said.
In her hotel in Yerevan, Babloyan experienced stomach pain, nausea, and insomnia, in addition to a metallic taste in her mouth. These symptoms lasted for two more days, and she continues to experience sudden redness on her skin to this day.
Initially, it didn’t occur to Irina that her symptoms might be the result of poisoning. She got tested for allergies but all of the tests for known allergens came back negative.
After several months, Babloyan moved to Berlin and gave a blood sample for a toxicology test at the Charité Hospital. Later, the doctors told her that her blood samples had “gotten lost.” At the same time, she was thoroughly questioned by police about what had happened. She recently submitted a second blood sample.
According to the experts who spoke to The Insider, the clinical picture described by Irina cannot be convincingly explained by any known disease. As a result, exogenous poisoning appears to be the most likely explanation. The similarity with the symptoms described by Elena Kostyuchenko suggests that the same or a similar poisoning agent could have been used, but determining the exact one is currently difficult.
In May 2023, Russian politician Lyubov Sobol, a lawyer from Alexey Navalny’s team of anti-corruption activists, said that she had noticed somebody following her in Berlin. On July 24, she wrote on Twitter: “The recovery process after that poisoning in Berlin took several weeks. But now I’m fine. I still can’t reveal the details due to a non-disclosure agreement regarding the secrecy of the investigation.
The Insider reported that it analyzed the circumstances of Sobol’s trip and interviewed a number of doctors who shared the view that the symptoms she experienced cannot be explained by poisoning. “At the moment, The Insider has no reason to believe that Lyubov Sobol was poisoned,” wrote the outlet.
In March 2023, the Moscow-based activist Elvira Vikhareva said that she had been poisoned with potassium dichromate. Her first symptoms, she said, appeared in late November and early December and reappeared in early February. According to Vikhareva, she experienced severe stomach pain, heart palpitations, and numbness in her extremities. Later, she experienced muscle spasms, fainting, and hair loss.
Journalists from The Insider have been in contact with Vikhareva regarding her suspected poisoning. She said she discovered mercury on the floor of her home and believes she has been targeted by more recent poisoning attempts.
In July, Vikhareva published a long post online that included the results of a test that identified potassium dichromate in a person’s blood. An expert who spoke to The Insider said that the test results did not belong to Vikhareva and was taken from a 2012 scientific paper titled “Accidental potassium dichromate poisoning” that was published in the journal Forensic Science International and that described the unintentional poisoning of a 58-year-old man in France.
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