Was a Putin mentor poisoned?
Excerpted from The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin by Masha Gessen, by arrangement with Riverhead Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc. Copyright © 2012 by Masha Gessen.
Encouraged by his former deputy’s meteoric rise, former St. Petersburg mayor Anatoly Sobchak decided to end his Paris exile and go back to Russia in the summer of 1999. He returned full of hope and even more full of ambition. As Sobchak was leaving Paris, Arkady Vaksberg, a forensics specialist turned investigative reporter and author with whom Sobchak had become friendly during his years in France, asked him whether he hoped to return to Paris as an ambassador. “Higher than that,” replied Sobchak. Vaksberg was sure the former mayor was aiming for the foreign minister’s seat: the rumor in Moscow’s political circles was that Sobchak would head up the Constitutional Court, the most important court in the country.
With characteristic overconfidence, Sobchak immediately ran for parliament — and suffered an embarrassing loss. But once Putin launched his election campaign, he appointed his former boss his “empowered representative” — a job that basically entitled Sobchak to
campaign for Putin (candidates may have dozens and even hundreds of “empowered representatives”). Campaign Sobchak did, seeming to forget that his political reputation had once rested on his democratic credentials. He called Putin “the new Stalin,” promising potential voters not so much mass murder as an iron hand — “the only way to make the Russian people work,” Sobchak said.
But Sobchak didn’t stop at the rhetoric. He talked too much, as had always been his way. Just as Putin was dictating his new official life story to three journalists, Sobchak was reminiscing, in response to questions asked by other journalists, and recounting key episodes of Putin’s career in ways that contradicted the story told by his old protégé.
On February 17, Putin asked Sobchak to travel to Kaliningrad, a Russian exclave wedged between Poland and Lithuania, to campaign for him. The request was urgent: Sobchak had to fly out that day, frustrating his wife, who did not like to see him travel on his own. She claimed she had to watch that he took his medicine. Most acquaintances believed the squeaky-voiced peroxide blonde simply did not trust her husband out of her sight. It is also possible that she feared for his safety. But she was in parliament in Moscow that day, and could not join her husband on his emergency campaign jaunt. The former mayor traveled with two male assistants who doubled as bodyguards. On February 20, Sobchak died at a private hotel in a resort town outside Kaliningrad.
Local journalists soon picked up on some odd circumstances surrounding Sobchak’s death. Chief among them was the fact that two different autopsies had been performed on the body — one in Kaliningrad and one in St. Petersburg, at the military hospital run by Yuri Shevchenko, the same doctor who had helped engineer Sobchak’s escape to Paris; he was now Russia’s minister of health, but he had not given up his post at the hospital. The official cause of death was a massive but natural heart attack.
Still, ten weeks following Sobchak’s death, the prosecutor’s office in Kaliningrad opened an investigation into a possible case of “premeditated murder with aggravating circumstances.” Three months later, the investigation was closed without a finding.
At Sobchak’s funeral, held in St. Petersburg on February 24, Putin, sitting with the wife and a daughter of the deceased, appeared genuinely bereft. He was as emotional as Russian television viewers would ever see him. In his only public statement that day, Putin said, “Sobchak’s passing is not just a death but a violent death, the result of persecution.”
This was widely understood to mean that Sobchak, unfairly accused of corruption, had succumbed to the stress before his former deputy could fully restore him to the grandeur he deserved.
Back in Paris, Arkady Vaksberg decided to launch his own investigation into his acquaintance’s death. He was never a close friend or even a great fan of the imperious Russian politician, but he was an investigative journalist with actual forensics experience and a great nose for a story. It was Vaksberg who dug up the most puzzling detail of the circumstances of Sobchak’s death: the two bodyguard-assistants, both physically fit young men, had had to be treated for mild symptoms of poisoning following Sobchak’s death. This was a hallmark of contract killings by poisoning: many a secretary or bodyguard had fallen similarly ill when their bosses were killed. In 2007, Vaksberg published a book on the history of political poisonings in the USSR and Russia. In it, he advanced the theory that Sobchak was killed by a poison placed on the electrical bulb of the bedside lamp, so that the substance was heated and vaporized when the lamp was turned on. This was a technique developed in the USSR. A few months after the book was published, Vaksberg’s car was blown up in his Moscow garage; Vaksberg was not in it.