Russian businesspeople Continue to Dying, Nobody Understands Why

Three possible explanations for a mystery run of deaths in Putin’s Russia.

It’s been a challenging year for prominent Russians: After nearly eight months of conflict in Ukraine, Russia’s military is reeling and on the defensive; sanctions continue to strain the country’s economy and elite — and at least 15 Russian business people and executives, including several Putin loyalists, have died in apparent accidents or by suicide.

The victims vary from an executive with the state-owned oil business Gazprom to the general director of a state-run development enterprise. Deaths range from the mundane — a stroke, for example — to the macabre, such as death by toad poison in a shaman’s cellar.

The sheer number of deaths, the importance of the deceased, and a lengthy history of strange deaths in Putin’s Russia have sparked suspicions about whether something more than poor luck is to blame.

Russian businesspeople Continue to Dying

It’s a near certainty, according to Stanislav Markus, an associate professor of management at the University of South Carolina and author of Property, Predation, and Protection: Piranha Capitalism in Russia and Ukraine. “We can almost surely rule out suicides or bad health as official explanations for the deaths,” Markus informed me via email. He’s not alone; theories differ — and rarely involve a grand Kremlin conspiracy — but several Russia experts see “more than just randomness” in the deaths, as Syracuse University professor Brian Taylor, an expert in Russian politics and the author of The Code of Putinism, put it to me in an interview.

The inexplicable deaths began in late January with the end of Gazprom Invest transport director Leonid Shulman; a suicide note was purportedly discovered alongside his body, and the case was probed.

Another Gazprom official, Alexander Tyulakov, committed himself in February, as did Ukraine-born billionaire Mikhail Watford, who was discovered dead in his home in the United Kingdom.

Vasily Melnikov, the founder of the medical supplies company MedStom, was discovered dead in March in what appeared to be a murder-suicide involving his wife and two children. Another alleged murder-suicide occurred in April when former Gazprombank executive Vladislav Avayev and his wife and teenage daughter were discovered just one day before former oil and gas executive Sergei Protosenya was found dead with his family in a third possible murder-suicide incident.

According to news sources, Avayev and his family were shot to death, while Protosenya was found hanging, and his wife and daughter were fatally stabbed.

Other following deaths, including many fatal falls — down stairs, out a window, and from a moving boat — have also sparked speculation, though no overt proof of foul play has been found.

Recently, Pavel Pchelnikov, a manager with Russian Railways subsidiary Digital Logistics, committed suicide late last month; shortly before that, on September 21, a former Russian aviation expert, Anatoly Gerashchenko, died after falling “from a great height” and down multiple flights of stairs, according to a Daily Beast report citing Russian media.

A number of the deceased were associated with Gazprom and Novatek, Russia’s two largest natural gas corporations; two others were associated with Lukoil, another significant Russian energy company.

There are reasons to doubt the official stories.

Members of the deceased’s immediate and extended communities have, in at least some instances, questioned or disputed the official findings of suicide.

After Protosenya’s death, for instance, his former employer Novatek released a statement saying that rumors and speculation about the circumstances of his death “have no resemblance to the truth,” an apparent reference to initial stories in Spanish media characterizing it as a murder-suicide. Fedor Protosenya told the Daily Mail that their father “could never do anything to hurt them [his family]. Nothing wrong occurred to them that night, at least not at my dad’s hands.

Ex-Gazprombank executive Igor Volobuev told CNN he doubts Avayev’s death was a murder-suicide.

In other words, he was in command of a lot of cash. Did he, then, take his own life? I don’t think so. According to Volobuev, “he knew something and presented some risk.”

In reality, these allegations may have some basis; political assassinations are not a rarity in Russia. A murder that is later reported to be a suicide almost deserves its category: “for those keeping score at home, 12 ‘threw himself from window/shot himself seven times in the head’ Russian oligarch fatalities this year so far,” tweeted Eurasia Group president Ian Bremmer in September (a number that has since increased).

In a story for Vox published just two years ago, Alex Ward brought attention to a similar pattern in a different sector of Russian society: early deaths in the coronavirus pandemic were attributed to doctors falling from high windows. Even though murder “may not be absolutely out of the question,” as Ward put it, those deaths were also puzzling.

The deaths of Putin’s adversaries have been shrouded in mystery for almost two decades, and this ambiguity is not uncommon in Russia.

According to three specialists I consulted, this is also the case, albeit they all emphasized the high degree of mystery surrounding the deaths.

However, just because “the number of [deaths] looks higher than random chance would suggest” does not mean that “it is all part of the same story,” as Taylor put it. A few of them may be suicides or accidents. Perhaps a few of them are murderers.

So what happened?

The deaths are individually peculiar and highly suspicious when considered a cluster, but the connecting factor, if any, is yet unknown. However, there are other viable explanations.

Two possible causes: suicide and a freak accident

The specialists I consulted told me that many accidental fatalities and suicides suggest that this is not the case in all of these cases. It’s doubtful but not impossible; even the most bizarre accidents and suicides can happen.

Even if the official findings of the deaths don’t confirm this, other indicators lead in that manner. Specifically, in May 2020, Ward mentioned that the World Health Organization ranked Russia as having the third highest suicide rate globally. However, in 2016, the most recent complete set of data, over 122 persons committed suicide every day in Russia, which is more than 44,500 fatalities annually.

Expert on Russia and professor of government at Wesleyan University Peter Rutland says the war has burdened Russia’s institutions and, maybe, its economic community.

“You realize this is a trying moment, don’t you?” As Rutland put it. The value of their stocks, yachts, and even their ability to travel to Europe have all plummeted.

According to what Rutland informed me, such elements might spark a suicide epidemic.

You might imagine that this would drive people to suicide if businesspeople had loans collateralized by those assets or required some form of company income, both of which have vanished due to the sanctions.

The number of deadly accidents and murder-suicides is still unexplained, nevertheless. However, not all of the deaths probably are what they appear to be.

The long arm of the Kremlin

The murders could be actual killings ordered by the Kremlin and Russian President Vladimir Putin, according to one of the more sensational and widely-held hypotheses.

As former Russian businessman turned, Kremlin critic Bill Browder told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) this month, “when people of all the same industry die that way, it seems like what I would call an epidemic of murder.”

Browder “told the ABC News Daily podcast he had little doubt the deaths of the Russian oligarchs — mostly from the oil and gas sector — have come at the direction of the Kremlin,” write Samantha Hawley and Flint Duxfield of ABC.

According to Browder, as he told ABC, Putin is in a financial bind because of sanctions. The assassinations of businesspeople are a particularly harsh approach to renewing money for the battle, especially from Russia’s oil and gas industry.

Browder speculated that the target had initially responded “no,” The only way to secure the cash flow would be to have the target killed and then pose the same question to the target’s replacement.

It’s an attractive theory, especially in light of Putin’s track record of murdering and trying to murder dissidents like Alexei Navalny. He was poisoned with the Russian nerve agent Novichok in 2020 and is now imprisoned in Russia. Also, Browder has experience with this topic. In 2009, his lawyer Sergei Magintsky was executed in Russia for exposing what appears to have been widespread fraud on the part of the Russian government.

Yet Taylor assured me that this is not the most likely reason.

According to Taylor, “it’s a big leap from saying yes, there has been a campaign of repression against internal opposition going back for a long time, and evidence of some high-profile people being targeted by the state,” to claiming that all mysterious deaths can be traced back to people’s criticism of the government or their business dealings with Putin.

A former National Security Council staff member who specializes in Russia, Fiona Hill, concurs. During an interview with Politico Magazine in August, she addressed the apparent suicide of Dan Rapoport, a Kremlin opponent living in Washington, DC, who had done business in Russia. “Not every inexplicable death in Russia is the KGB or the GRU kicking someone off,” she said.

Internal business pressures turned deadly.

What remains is a third option, which is significantly more likely than either a Kremlin-directed assassination campaign or a rash of genuine accidents and suicides, as indicated by both Taylor and Rutland.

More precisely, the recent spate of deaths among Russia’s business elite may be disguised killings. Still, the massacre may be the result of Russia’s convoluted political and economic systems, which are now under pressure due to Russia’s war in Ukraine.

Taylor suggests that “shady business, attempt to cover tracks, attempt to wipe out a competitor, trying maybe to get rid of someone inconvenient at a time when there’s a lot of pressure on state-affiliated companies, especially in the oil and gas sector, but also in the defense sector” could be at the root of the killings.

Mark agrees, writing that “there are competing influential clans” throughout “state institutions and private or state-owned companies” in Russia.

So far, these clans have been faithful to Putin, but Markus assured me that this devotion had done nothing to curb their predatory appetites. From the perspective of the clans, the current situation has resulted in fewer cash flows available for diversion or theft and (2) less assurance that Putin will remain the ultimate leader of Russian kleptocracy. Therefore, clans may kill each other to settle scores and compete more ruthlessly (without the Kremlin’s involvement).

Given the diversity of the Russian corporate elite that has turned up deceased, that explanation makes it more logical than the Kremlin-directed conspiracy scenario. Some analysts, including Mark Galeotti, author of the soon-to-be-released book Putin’s Wars: From Chechnya to Ukraine, have pointed out that coverage of the fatalities can paint with too broad a brush, even though there are some similar threads (links to energy corporations, for example).

When did the untimely passing of a former rector of a technical university mean the (supposed) mysterious end of a “Putin ally?” After Geraschenko’s death in September, Galeotti tweeted, “(Everyone dying in [Russia] now gets promoted to oligarch orally.).”

Both Taylor and Rutland emphasize that many questions remain about the demises. But under the third and, they say, more plausible argument, sustained pressure on Russia’s economy might hasten the trend.

Since the 1990s, violence has been “deeply normalized” as a means of conducting business, according to Rutland. Because of this, “you can think that there’s going to be this — well, it’s not yet a carnage, but you can believe that the group battling will get even more desperate” as the regime enters what could be its death throes or certainly is under great strain.

For the time being, at least, there are no reasonable solutions. Putin has a track record in recent years that suggests he is capable of such killings, but he hasn’t articulated a cohesive purpose for them; as several keen observers of Russia have noted, Russia’s ruthless economic culture is at least as likely to be guilty as a totalitarian Kremlin. There is a lack of evidence in both cases, but it highlights the brutality of both Russian industry and Putin’s dictatorship.

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