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Silenced by poison, bullets, jail: Navalny, Nemtsov and more Putin critics

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  • Victims include anti-corruption activists and whistleblowers.
  • Alexei Navalny was poisoned and nearly killed, then was arrested.
  • Boris Nemtsov lobbied for an investigation and was later shot and killed.
  • Alexander Litvinenko was poisoned with radioactive polonium-210.

During Vladimir Putin’s rise to power and fortune, he and his associates are suspected of silencing some of those who raised questions about the source of his apparent wealth. 

Potentially dozens of people have been killed or survived poisonings and other assassination attempts or have had their investigations blocked or shut down, according to USA TODAY interviews and a review of documents and reports. Untold numbers of others have long looked the other way for fear of similar retribution.

Now Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has triggered economic sanctions that target Putin, his associates and his adult children.

Special report: The steps that made Putin ‘the richest man in the world’

Special report: U.S. sanctions target Putin’s Russian family

Here are some of the more high-profile victims in the anti-corruption effort, including whistleblowers who tried to figure out how much he is worth and where the Russian leader obtained – and hides – his riches:

Alexei Navalny

A Russian opposition leader and anti-corruption activist, Navalny spent years making increasingly vocal efforts to call attention to Putin-linked wealth, corruption and cronyism, then in 2020 was poisoned and nearly killed. 

Months later, in January 2021, he was arrested after returning to Russia. His non-profit anti-corruption foundation then released a two-hour documentary and 14,000-word report detailing Putin’s rise to power, including his longtime associations with old friends from St. Petersburg who, according to advocates and years of media reports, have become fabulously wealthy in their own right.

Navalny provided extensive detail about “Putin’s Palace,” a billion-dollar villa on the Black Sea. He and other whistleblowers have alleged the palace was built for Putin and paid for by his close allies’ allegedly illegal diversion of funds. The video and accompanying report described how “right now and for the last 15 years the biggest bribe in history has been given and the most expensive palace in the world is being built.” 

More: Where allies have targeted the hundreds of sanctions against Russia

Boris Nemtsov

A Russian opposition leader and activist, Nemtsov was murdered on a bridge near the Kremlin in 2015 after lobbying the U.S. Congress and European Parliament to investigate alleged Putin corruption.

A physicist and liberal politician, Nemtsov served as deputy prime minister – and likely successor – to President Boris Yeltsin in the 1990s before Putin’s sudden rise to power. He later campaigned on exposing corruption and injustice, and denouncing Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea. A recent UK-based investigation found that he was shadowed by an agent linked to a Kremlin political assassination team for almost a year before he was fatally shot. 

More: Mapping and tracking Russia’s invasion of Ukraine

Sergei Magnitsky

A rising-star young Russian tax lawyer, Magnitsky died in 2009 at age 37 in a Russian prison after being beaten and denied medical attention.

Magnitsky had been hired by the American-born William Browder, at the time the biggest Western investor in Russia, to investigate the theft of taxes paid to the Russian government.

As Browder would later testify, Magnitsky helped blow the whistle on what he said was a $230 million fraud scheme implicating Putin. Eleven months later, he was dead. While the Kremlin said he died of a heart attack, Magnitsky’s family and investigators said he was tied to a bed and beaten to death by eight prison guards with rubber batons.

William Browder

Founder and CEO of Hermitage Capital, Browder helped persuade the U.S. government to pass the Magnitsky Act in his former lawyer’s name in 2012. The law allows the U.S. to sanction certain  officials and prevent them from hiding funds in the United States. 

The London-based entrepreneur testified before Congress in 2017 that Putin was the “richest man in the world,” worth $200 billion, and that, “The purpose of the Putin regime has been to commit terrible crimes in order to get that money.” Browder also testified he has “had numerous threats from all up and down the Russian government for my own life” for speaking out against Putin-led corruption and for pushing to “freeze assets and ban visas of the people who killed Sergei Magnitsky and the people who commit other gross human rights abuses” in Russia.

According to Browder’s testimony, “There are seven people who have died either from murder or suspicious circumstances, and there’s a number of other attempted murders” in connection with the Magnitsky Act and related efforts to uncover Kremlin corruption. (One, Magnitsky family lawyer Nikolai Gorokhov, survived a plunge from a fourth-floor balcony right before he was supposed to testify in court about it, a fall he later alleged was no accident.”)

Vladimir Kara-Murza

A staunch supporter of Magnitsky, Kara-Murza was poisoned twice, and nearly died from multiple organ failures, due to what he says were assassination attempts by Russian agents. 

A longtime colleague of Nemtsov’s, Kara-Murza was instrumental in the passage of the original Magnitsky legislation, which imposed targeted sanctions on Russian human rights violators. He was left in a coma after both attempts on his life, in 2015 and 2017, but recovered. Both incidents were widely viewed by Russian opposition figures as the Russian government’s retribution for his work on the Magnitsky sanctions.

Then-Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., advocated for Kara-Murza after the poisoning, writing, “Now those who fear Vladimir’s voice have tried again to quiet it forever. I pray they haven’t, and I ask Americans and righteous people everywhere to be his voice in his absence.”

McCain instructed that Kara-Murza be one of the pallbearers at his (McCain’s) funeral as a final dig at Putin. 

Kara-Murza remained a government critic and was arrested in Russia in early April and charged with spreading false information about the military. 

Alexander Litvinenko

A former spy for the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB), the successor to the KGB, Litvinenko was poisoned in London in 2006 after sipping tea spiked with a lethal radioactive poison known as polonium-210. 

Litvinenko had defected to the UK and became a prominent critic of Putin, coining the phrase “mafia state” to describe rampant Kremlin corruption and kleptocracy. The European Court of Human Rights ruled in 2021 that Russia assassinated Litvinenko and ordered Putin’s government to pay his wife 122,500 Euros. 

Litvinenko had also crossed Putin by writing two highly critical books, “Blowing Up Russia: Terror from Within” and “Lubyanka Criminal Group.” The first accused Russian secret services of staging deadly apartment bombings and other terrorist acts in 1999 in order to bring Putin to power. He also accused Putin of ordering the assassination of Russian anti-corruption journalist Anna Politkovskaya in 2006.

Marina Salye

An outspoken St. Petersburg city official, Salye became one of the earliest critics of Putin’s accumulation of wealth in the early 1990s, after he returned from his undercover KGB mission in East Germany and began working as deputy mayor for international relations.

In one of many documented conspiracies, Salye and others alleged that Putin schemed to give lucrative export licenses for raw materials, including oil products, timber, aluminum and cotton. The deals were intended to raise money to feed hungry residents.

But Salye and another city official, Yuri Gladkov, found that as much as $122 million had gone missing and alleged that the barter scheme was a scam to enrich Putin and his cronies while city residents continued to starve. They also developed suspicions about the disbursement of another $900 million in city funds. In 2000, after campaigning against Putin’s run for president of Russia, she was threatened and went into hiding, re-emerging a decade later to share publicly her alleged documentation of Putin’s corruption.

Salye died in 2012 just weeks after urging that Putin be tried for corruption. Gladkov died in 2007 from what some associates suspected was poisoning by mercury intoxication or other exposure to heavy metals.

Sergei Kolesnikov

A Russian businessman who left Russia for fear of his personal safety, Kolesnikov in 2010 publicly exposed a gargantuan Black Sea palace allegedly commissioned by Putin and built with more than $1 billion in illegally diverted funds.

Kolesnikov provided four pages of detail about what has come to be known as “Putin’s Palace” in a whistleblower letter to then-President Dmitry Medvedev, urging him to investigate the corruption surrounding Putin, who was Prime Minister at the time due to an eight-year term limit on Presidents.

A business associate of a Putin ally, Kolesnikov wrote that the palace in an exclusive part of Gelendzhik Bay was paid for through “corruption, bribery and theft,” including secret contributions by Roman Abramovich and other top oligarchs. “This unpleasant tale of illegal payments, with threats, and with rampant corruption portends poorly for our beloved nation as we continue to struggle to improve the lives of all Russians and be a full partner in the global community of nations that ascribes to the rule of law.”

Andrey Zykov

A lieutenant colonel and organized crime investigator with Russia’s Ministry of Internal Affairs, Zykov was one of the first government officials to focus on Putin and his alleged ties to organized crime figures and criminal racketeering conspiracies in St. Petersburg in the 1990s.

Zykov initially began investigating Putin and his small circle of friends who founded the Ozero (Lake) Dacha Cooperative, an exclusive gated community on Lake Komsomolsk. When Putin became president, Criminal Case #144128, known widely as “Putin’s case,” was shut down and Zykov was forced into retirement. 

He spoke at length in a 2015 Radio Free Europe documentary “Who Is Mr. Putin” about Putin corruption – but no longer wishes to talk publicly, the film’s co-producer Anastasia Kirilenko told USA TODAY.