‘They are among us.’ Russia’s terrifyingly effective poisoning operation


Natalia Arno was fully inside the hotel room before she noticed the smell. It was sickly sweet, like a cheap perfume at the drug store, only more nauseating.

It was May 2 2023, and Arno had arrived in Prague the night before, on part of a European tour. The Russian activist and non-profit director had been on the road, meeting with donors and organisers looking for ways to bolster democracy back in Russia. On the previous leg of her trip, Arno had felt a bit tired, like she was coming down with something. But now, after a day of meetings and a business dinner, she was full of her usual energy. She was just going back to her room to change into jeans, before meeting up for drinks with colleagues.

Arno, a petite woman with warm eyes and an open face framed by a straight dark bob, was staying at the Hotel Garden Court, a tastefully renovated building nestled among the baroque architecture and cobbled streets that border the city’s old town. As she’d come down the long white hallway to her room, she realised the door was ajar. Arno tensed. She slowly opened the door, bracing for a potential intruder, but no one was there. She started searching for listening devices — under the table, near the bed, in her suitcase, with her clothes — but found nothing.

The smell was overpowering, especially near the bed. Some awful floral scent worn by the maid, she reasoned. But had housekeeping even been? The wastebasket had been emptied but the bed looked unmade. Arno put the thought aside and went to freshen up, brushing her teeth before heading out again for drinks.

© Elisa Alcalde

On her way, she stopped at the reception desk to tell the young man there what had happened. He seemed alarmed, vowing that the hotel would punish the maid responsible. “What was missing from the room?” he asked.

“I’m not worried about robbery,” the usually cool-headed Arno shot back. “I’m worried about security.”

He promised to look into the matter and Arno stepped into the brisk night to a nearby café where her colleagues, Greg and Alexandra, were waiting. A few hours later, she was saying goodnight to Greg and agreeing to meet the next day. “I know a good sushi place around here,” he told her. She returned to her room, responded to a few emails, called her husband in Washington, DC and watched some YouTube videos before turning off the light.

Three hours later, Arno woke up with an excruciating pain inside her mouth — a burning sensation so unbearable she could barely open it. Arno is no stranger to pain. When she was 13, she dropped a pot of boiling water, burning herself so badly she had to spend a month in a hospital where there were no painkillers. She gave birth to her son without pain relief and treats most illnesses with a cup of hot tea and honey. But this agony surpassed any she had ever experienced.

She realised she was in no position to attend that day’s meetings. Instead, she messaged Greg to say she was in too much pain to continue with the trip. Then she booked the next flight back to DC and packed her suitcase. By the time she had checked in at the airport, she could no longer stand straight. Her vision was blurred; she wobbled. In her mouth, she tasted stone.

On the plane, Arno began hallucinating. Trying to get to her connecting flight in Geneva, she felt like she was going to pass out, barely making it through security. For the next nine and a half hours, every minute brought a new kind of pain. She would feel numbness in one hand, then the other, then in both legs. At one point, she began slowly going numb from her neck all the way down her spine, like frost creeping down a windowpane. The pain coursed through her body. Her armpits. Her ears. Her chest. Her eyes. Her stomach. And yet the terrible pain in her mouth had all but disappeared.

By the time Arno landed at Dulles airport, she was texting Greg and another colleague about her condition. A colleague in Tbilisi was alarmed, noting that two Russian opposition journalists had recently experienced horrifying sicknesses and were believed by some to be the victims of poisonings. They wondered, could Arno be the latest target?

There are many ways to incapacitate an enemy. But, historically, few have proved so attractive to the Soviet and Russian security services as poisoning. Ever since Vladimir Lenin set up his poison factory, known as the “Special Room”, over a century ago, poisonings have become one of the Kremlin’s preferred ways to eliminate, cripple or terrorise enemies and critics. Over the decades, it has built up unrivalled expertise in the field.

During the Soviet period, the Kremlin was said to have one of the biggest biological and chemical weapons programmes in the world. At one point, according to Boris Volodarsky, a former Russian military intelligence officer and author of a book on the KGB’s poison factory, it involved an estimated 25,000 to 32,000 people across more than 20 military and civilian laboratories, plus an additional 10,000 staff at bioweapons laboratories run out of the defence ministry. Early experiments began with sulphur mustards — a blistering agent that was quickly discarded for use in assassinations because of its tendency to be detected on modern autopsies and its lack of effectiveness. Later experiments focused on other toxins such as ricin, digitoxin and curare, which had the benefit of being both fatally effective and mirroring the symptoms of ordinary ailments, while also being effective at very low doses.

Most targeted poisonings are, by design, hard to detect. “It’s very difficult,” said Yuri Felshtinksy, a KGB historian and author of From Red Terror to Terrorist State, a book about Russia’s intelligence services. “I mean, if [someone is] killed with a gun or with a knife, it’s very easy to prove. But if the idea is to eliminate somebody without letting people obviously know that person was eliminated, poisoning is a very useful tool.”

This article is the cover story of the FT Weekend Magazine, February 24/25

The horrific details of Russian poisoning attacks have accumulated over decades: the hiding of a ricin pellet inside the tip of an umbrella said to have been used in 1978 to stab the Bulgarian dissident writer Georgi Markov in the leg, killing him in less than a week. The placing of a radioactive isotope, Polonium-210, in the green tea drunk by the former Russian security services agent and Putin critic Alexander Litvinenko in 2006. The smearing of one novichok variant, a deadly nerve agent, on the British double agent Sergei Skripal’s door in 2018 and another on Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny’s underpants in a Siberian hotel room in 2020. Last week, three and a half years after his suspected poisoning attack, Navalny died suddenly in a maximum-security prison colony in the Arctic Circle, despite seeming to be in stable health days before.

The deaths of individuals like Navalny, Litvinenko and Markov have tended to overshadow less high-profile affairs, sometimes known as “soft poisonings”. On the day after Litvinenko’s death, Yegor Gaidar, the former Russian prime minister turned liberal opposition leader, became violently ill in a suspected poisoning, which some speculated was intended to distract from the Litvinenko affair. In recent months, observers have reasoned that the increasingly authoritarian atmosphere inside Russia has lowered the bar for who is deemed a target.

Arno’s experience in Prague came as word was spreading of a spate of other suspected poisonings. In October 2022, Elena Kostyuchenko, a Russian journalist working for the independent news outlet Meduza, became violently ill on her way back to Berlin from Munich. The same month, Irina Babloyan, a radio journalist with an independent station, got sick on the day she was meant to travel back from Tbilisi to Berlin via Armenia. Kostyuchenko and Babloyan experienced similar symptoms: sharp pain in the upper abdomen, palms that burnt or swelled, severe vertigo and fatigue.

© Elisa Alcalde

Neither woman had any initial suspicion that she might have been poisoned, nor did they seek immediate medical attention. Yet when Kostyuchenko eventually had her blood tested more than a week later, doctors found that she had “elevated liver enzymes Alanine transaminase and Aspartate transaminase”, according to investigative outlets Bellingcat and The Insider, which first reported on the two cases.

A non-fatal attack can serve as a warning — to its target and their circle. Strangely, poisoning can be even harder to prove if the target survives, said Christopher Holstege, a University of Virginia School of Medicine toxicologist who helped to diagnose the 2004 poisoning of the Ukrainian presidential candidate Viktor Yushchenko by dioxin. “It’s one thing if you do an autopsy of lots of tissue. You can do lots of diagnoses,” said Holstege. But a target who lives may not seek clinical testing quickly. Or their physician might not know which substance to test for. Or the poison might have a short elimination half-life and be out of the body quickly, while still producing toxic effects.

Over the past few years, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and the breakdown of its relationship with the US, has posed new worries. Western governments may struggle to keep up with the security threat. The universe of potential toxic chemicals is limitless — and the advance of technology has multiplied the ways in which an enemy might use them. “There are agents we don’t even know exist that are out there [being used] right now . . . That makes it really hard to do analytics,” Holstege said.

Most toxicology labs do not have experience in examining state-sponsored poisonings using unusual toxic agents, said Marc-Michael Blum, a chemical weapons expert in Germany who was head of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) laboratory during the 2018 Skripal investigation. “The problem is toxicology is a pretty rare speciality. If you’re a toxicology department here in Berlin, what do you normally see? People eating the wrong mushroom? A child ingesting [a] household chemical? . . . Even if you are a very good lab, you might miss it if you aren’t looking in the right direction.”

In October last year, I met Arno in person in Berlin, where I live. She had come to attend the Boris Nemtsov forum. It had been five months since the Prague incident and she was already back to her indefatigable travel schedule. The conference had adjourned for a coffee break, so, as people mingled and chattered and clinked cups around us, we pulled two chairs together. Before the meeting, my husband warned me, only half-jokingly, not to have anything to eat or drink. Others felt similarly, Arno said: “They joke: is it fine to hug you? Are you toxic? Are you poisonous?”

Arno had been able to put any lingering paranoia out of her mind, thanks to her work. It reminded her of more than a decade ago, when she first found out agents from Russia’s security service, the FSB, were surveilling her. That first night, she found it hard to sleep she was so nervous; eventually, she just learnt to live with it. “People can get used to anything,” she said. “It’s very bad, but it became a norm.”

Arno was born in Buryatia, on the eastern side of Lake Baikal, close to Mongolia. Her mother was a respected academic who focused on the rare dialects of Russia’s old believers, a sect that split from the Orthodox church in the 17th century. Arno decided to follow the same path, moving to Moscow to pursue a PhD in linguistics in 1999. While studying, she worked on the side for the International Republican Institute, a tax-payer-funded soft-power arm of the US government, and eventually abandoned her PhD programme to work there full time. She rose up the ranks, going from the assistant who ordered toilet paper to country director for Russia.

In 2008, Arno noticed she was being watched. First, she was approached by the FSB, which tried to recruit her by appealing to her patriotism and claiming the Americans were trying to destroy Russia from the inside, she said. Initially, their approaches were sporadic; she would see agents every six months or so.

“I knew they were trying to tap all my phone conversations, my emails were being read and the physical surveillance was probably constant,” she said. She learnt to spot the people following her: bland-looking men with the same haircut, the same boots. Once she started to notice them, she saw them everywhere. If she went to dinner with friends, she might spot an agent at the next table, nursing the same cup of tea for the entire duration of her meal. If she travelled on a work trip within Russia, she might notice agents with her on the plane from Moscow.

Then, the FSB encounters started to become more frequent, more aggressive. Agents began forcing her inside their cars. In December 2012, Arno was assaulted inside her apartment building by two men who strangled and threatened her, holding a gun to the back of her coat. They told her she would become the subject of a state treason case if she did not start co-operating with the security services. Afraid for herself and her son, she left Russia within 48 hours, first for Lithuania, then Poland. Still, the agents were everywhere; these ones seemed even more relaxed than those who had tailed her back home.

While the Baltic states have always been hyper-alert to the Russian security threat, other EU countries have become increasingly conscious of Russia’s ability to meddle outside its own borders. “We had Litvinenko,” one European intelligence officer told me. “We had Skripal. They show us, even in other countries we can do it. They don’t try to hide it.”

In the spring of 2022, in the weeks after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, European governments began to crack down on suspected Russian spies, expelling dozens of diplomats for “engaging in activities contrary to their diplomatic status”. More than 400 Russian spies living in the EU under diplomatic cover have since been expelled, which, ironically, has made counter-surveillance a great deal more difficult. “Before it was so much easier,” the European intelligence official said. “We knew which diplomats were agents, and so we could look [to see] with whom do they meet, whom do they phone. Now it’s more difficult.”

Late last year, I asked Roderich Kiesewetter, a member of the German parliamentary foreign affairs committee and a former colonel, about the threat from Russian agents. “We have to be very careful,” he warned. “They are among us. They are among us.”

When Arno landed back in the US from Prague, her friend Vladimir Kara-Murza was top of her mind. Her husband picked her up at the airport and they debated driving to the hospital but decided to go home for the night. As she fielded texts from concerned colleagues, she thought more about Kara-Murza’s case. In 2015, the Russian opposition leader, then 33, suddenly got sick in Moscow, falling into a coma after a bout of vomiting. Two years later, the same thing happened again, with doctors putting Kara-Murza into a medically induced coma. This time his family decided to send blood, hair and tissue samples to the FBI.

As in a number of other high-profile poisonings, parts of Kara-Murza’s test results didn’t add up. Kyle Parker, a US congressional staffer and friend who was part of a team attempting to help find a diagnosis, recalled showing Kara-Murza’s records to any medical professional he could find after his friend fell ill, and seeing their shock.

“It was a picture that didn’t look natural,” he said. It was almost as if there were two toxic substances at work, one causing the actual breakdown of the body, the other disguising it. He compared the reaction to that caused by the “destroying angel”, one of the most toxic known mushrooms. “The damnedest thing about it is a lot of poisonous mushrooms, if you eat them, they taste awful.” Not the destroying angel. “What if you had a mushroom and it was delicious, then it made you sick, and then 12 to 16 hours [later] you start to get better because the liver is metabolising the poison and there is a lull,” and the symptoms seem to improve, Parker said.

It was almost the same in Kara-Murza’s case, he noted. Initially, doctors located the binary agent “that immediately causes any emergency room doctor to say, this is what’s happened and this is what they’re going to treat more. Meanwhile, the real destroyer is doing its dirty work.”

Holstege, the University of Virginia toxicologist, described known poisoning attacks like this that involve more than one toxic agent, with the first serving as a “kind of a distractor” to put the clinician off the scent while a second does the real damage. This was the case with the Litvinenko poisoning, where doctors initially believed thallium, not polonium, was what the ex-spy was under attack from. In fact, there was thallium in Litvinenko’s system, but that wasn’t what was causing his rapid deterioration. “If I was on the other side of this, poisoning people, I’d look for something with a short elimination half-life, [that] causes a number of symptoms, nondescript clinical patterns, so the clinicians can’t quite narrow the playing field,” Holstege said.

The FBI took Kara-Murza’s samples but initially declined to release his results to him. It was only after he requested documents under the Freedom of Information Act in 2019, and sued the US justice department the following year, that highly redacted documents were released. In them, the FBI stated that its investigation had been “unable to pinpoint the exact cause of Kara-Murza’s illness” but that “the team of doctors that treated Kara-Murza in the United States feel unequivocally that he was the victim of poisoning, either accidental or criminal”. It added: “The sum total of the symptoms and health effects Kara-Murza experienced could not have been brought about without a toxin being introduced to his system.” The Kremlin, meanwhile, blamed Kara-Murza’s medical problems on alcohol.

As soon as she returned to the US, Arno had called the FBI hotline but was unable to get through to anyone. By the next morning, an acquaintance had managed to speak to a contact there. Other contacts began calling government authorities too and Arno was advised indirectly by US officials to go immediately to Inova hospital in Alexandria, Virginia, to rule out natural causes.

The doctors admitted her and offered Arno pain killers. She refused, worried they could ruin the samples. In plodding succession, doctors then began testing her blood and urine for all possible substances — illegal drugs, alcohol — and every possible ailment, using multiple MRIs and X-rays. Fourteen hours went by. All of Arno’s results came back clean. “According to the tests, I could have been accepted on to the astronaut programme,” she told me drily.

Soon, the FBI got involved and Arno signed consent forms to release her medical records to the agency and provide extra samples. The agency and doctors told her she could return home but not to sleep in her bed, as she had spent the night there after getting home, and not to touch anything that had been in her suitcase. Agents from the FBI visited her multiple times over the next few weeks to check for chemical and biological weapons.

Novichok had already been ruled out. A neurologist diagnosed Arno with polyneuropathy, the same condition Kara-Murza developed after his suspected attacks. But that in itself was not an answer. As Holstege pointed out, “There’s a lot of toxins that can cause peripheral neuropathies. There’s a lot of medical conditions that can cause peripheral neuropathies.”

There were other unanswered questions. On May 8, five days after Arno returned from Prague, her husband started to experience some of the same nerve problems that Arno had endured. As for Arno’s symptoms, some got better, others got worse. While the painkillers she had been prescribed eliminated her headache, blurred vision and some of her other symptoms, she soon began experiencing numbness in her face, which would freeze in paralysis. During one visit to her home, investigators told Arno they were nearly ready to wrap up their work and would be back in touch shortly. She never received the results.

Last autumn, I met Irina Babloyan at a restaurant in Berlin. Babloyan, who is 37, showed me the rashes that covered her wrists a year on from her experience. They still itch. But she said she had no hard evidence or way of knowing for certain whether she had actually been poisoned. She’d had doubts about even coming forward with her case, she said, until her sickness was reported by a popular Telegram channel with high-placed sources in the Russian security services.

In December 2022, two months after her own suspected poisoning, Elena Kostyuchenko had filed a criminal report with the Berlin police — a prerequisite for getting the necessary testing done at the city’s Charité university hospital, which had treated Navalny two years before following his poisoning episode. By May 2023, the German prosecutor’s office told Kostyuchenko’s lawyer it was closing the case. Babloyan, meanwhile, was tested by Charité several months after first experiencing symptoms, only to have her tests reported lost by the clinic. She submitted new tests, but never heard anything back.

Christo Grozev, the Bulgarian investigative journalist known for his work at Bellingcat, said it was impossible to have “conclusive evidence” in the Kostyuchenko and Babloyan cases, as so much time had passed between the two women experiencing symptoms and being tested. But, he added, the “accumulation” of circumstantial evidence around both cases — including credible evidence that Bellingcat had seen suggesting Kostyuchenko was being targeted for assassination up to a year before her suspected poisoning, plus her “borderline” medical results — suggested both had been victims of “targeted poisoning”.

But what if the circumstantial evidence was only that — if the episodes weren’t poisonings at all? There are those who are sceptical. “It makes no sense,” said Volodarsky, the former Russian military intelligence officer. A poisoning operation, he noted, is a “very complicated thing that is being prepared for many months” and organised against a specific individual.

Throughout the history of poison development, specific agents have been produced for specific cases, Volodarsky continued. Whether the ricin pellet for Markov, dioxin for Yushchenko or Polonium-210 for Litvinenko, each poison is “tailor-made for a specific person, taking into account his age, his medical condition, the circumstances . . . It’s a difficult operation. It’s not like novichok is lying on the shelf.” In such operations, the execution team has to have a high degree of certainty that the target will be brought to a certain place at a certain date and time, he added, something that does not seem to have been the case in any of these three cases. “They were not worth this expensive and complex operation . . . Arno — she’s nobody. Why should someone bother poisoning her?”

I heard similar arguments from the Berlin police experts who investigated Kostyuchenko and Babloyan’s cases. They said they had relied on a network of federal agencies, specialising in chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear weapons — including the German army, which specialises in military-grade toxins — but that all their tests turned up nothing. (Blum, the former head of the OPCW lab, countered that those agencies would only have been testing for military-grade toxins. “Of course it leaves a lot of possibilities.”) One police expert conceded that the time lag between the women’s first symptoms and the tests could have made identifying a potential toxic agent more difficult. But another was more reluctant to assign too much weight to the cases.

“Put yourself in the place of somebody who is in a very delicate position,” the second expert said. “You’ve possibly been offended via the internet or possibly you overestimate yourself a little bit, and you live in constant fear of being pursued by the Russian government. Suddenly, you go out eating with a friend, having dinner, and the steak is not that well cooked and the next morning you have terrible nausea and you cannot explain why. Then the only logical solution could be: somebody poisoned me.” That kind of confusion is exactly what the Kremlin wants, he added. “They love maskirovka and disinformation and every wrong conclusion we pull is good for them.”

When we spoke over the phone, Grozev was unfazed by the argument that the victims weren’t high-profile-enough targets. “Talking to insiders in the security services, there’s a clear understanding that the concept of a ‘traitor’ is much more easily assigned these days than before,” he said. “Any Russian who opposes the war or criticises Putin now is a potential victim.”

Andrei Soldatov, an expert on the Russian security services, told me that of the three incidents, Arno’s case was the clearest cut. “We have some other cases, but they’re not that clear. And it’s always like that, unfortunately,” he said. “I think that’s why the Russian security service actually uses poison — you can always compromise the victim. You can always pretend that you are dealing with a person who is craving public attention or mentally unstable . . . But I think Natalia has the clearest case. She’s always had a very strong head. She’s not crazy. She treats her situation very . .. ” He paused. “I don’t know, scientifically.”

One of the few parties that could shed light on the truth of Arno’s case is the FBI, but the bureau has a mixed record of sharing test results with victims. And while it declined to share its results with Kara-Murza — and has so far not shown Arno hers — it did share test results with John Herbst, the former US ambassador to Ukraine and vocal Russia critic, when he became sick in a suspected poisoning attack in 2021, according to one person familiar with the matter. Herbst’s results were negative.

The FBI declined to comment on Arno’s case. But Peter Strzok, a former FBI senior counter-intelligence agent who was dismissed from the bureau following the release of his inflammatory text messages about Donald Trump, said there were several reasons it might not want to publicise Arno’s results. Hypothetically, if the FBI hadn’t found anything in Arno’s blood, when in fact there was something there, and that information became public, it might give Russia confirmation that the poison used was unable to be detected by US technology.

There were other possibilities. “If you’re going to say the government of Russia is targeting US citizens or US lawful permanent residents, for assassination, it is an extraordinarily serious charge,” he said. “You want very, very solid evidence.”

In the years since the Kara-Murza and Navalny poisonings, prospects for Russia’s opposition have only darkened. The death of Navalny, the figurehead of the opposition movement, has seemed to underscore a sense of hopelessness. Some, like the former GRU agent Volodarsky, suspect Navalny was the victim of a second poisoning attack in prison, given his seemingly normal appearance in court the day before his death and during a family visit two days before that. But confirming that would require handing over the body for an independent autopsy, something Russian investigators declined to do. For many Navalny supporters, his death has driven home the brazen confidence of the regime. Putin’s re-election looms next month, with another six-year term on the horizon set to extend his 24-year-rule all the way to 2030.

The remaining leaders of the opposition, such as Kara-Murza and Ilya Yashin, face interminable prison sentences under some of the same conditions as Navalny. Others are exiled, trying to fight the regime from afar. The past two years have been dominated by infighting and sideswiping among various opposition factions.

When we spoke last autumn, Arno said she was frustrated that Putin’s domestic critics were no longer getting the same hearing in the west they once had. “We were the first victims of Putin’s regime. We were the first to warn about the dangers, how they [the Kremlin and the Russian security services] do their malign activities, how propaganda doesn’t stop at the Russian borders, how aggression doesn’t stop at the Russian borders,” she said. “It’s really upsetting that we are being judged not on the basis of our values, but on the basis of our citizenship and ethnicity.”

Now, she worries that western governments have begun to see the Russian opposition as another unsolvable problem in an impossible relationship. “We are trying to tell Europe, we are not your headache . . . We are your assets.”

When we spoke on the phone after Navalny’s death, Arno said she was surprised at her own disbelief — no matter that she and so many others had grimly predicted it. “It still feels very surreal,” she said. “The brutality and everything else. You can never get used to it. Each time it shocks you to the core how cold-bloodedly they do it, how brazenly.”

Arno said she hadn’t wanted to publicise her own poisoning at first, but eventually changed her mind. The episodes had been important for the Russian dissident community abroad. It taught them that, as a community, they needed to be more disciplined, not just about digital security, but physical security. “Those who were in the US, in Europe, they thought they were completely safe — we are in democratic countries everything is fine. But no, [Russia’s] tentacles can reach anywhere.”

At the same time, the episodes also appeared to show something else: if the three women had indeed been targeted by the Russian state, perhaps it was a sign that, at a time of little hope for their movement and its leaders, their work may have been meaningful enough to provoke a response from Moscow. And maybe that belief mattered more than a conclusive answer about any individual poisoning.

In 2007, a man I’ll call Andrei, who had been close to Litvinenko up to his poisoning in 2006, suddenly became very ill in Europe while participating in a documentary about the inner workings of Putin’s Kremlin and its security services.

He laughed as he related what the doctor who examined him had said: “You know, I saw cases when [one organ] would stop work, I saw cases where the liver would stop work, but I never saw any cases where every single organ failed at the same moment. This was your case. And now there is not a single sign that something was [wrong].” The FBI investigated his case but found no evidence of radioactive activity or biological weapons were involved, he said.

He hadn’t dared share the story with his now adult children — he didn’t want them to worry. But nor had he shared it with anyone else. “If you are poisoned and survive, you are in a very weak position. It’s a case where people will say, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah, we believe you. Of course. This was done by this terrible FSB. What could we expect?’ And then there will be people who say, ‘Come on this probably never happened’ . . . Unless you bring the body it’s very difficult to build a case.”

I asked him with what certainty he believed he had been poisoned. Fifty per cent? One-hundred per cent? “This is precisely the problem, right?” he sighed. “How do you know that you were poisoned if, in the end, you are alive?”

Courtney Weaver is the FT’s special correspondent for eastern Europe

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