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The Chamber: Russia’s Assassination Lab (Part 1)

This is the first in a series of blog posts I’ll be publishing, covering Russian-government-backed assassinations using a variety of poisons and radioactive weapons going back more than one hundred years. Spanning the Bolshevik, Soviet, and modern Russian Federation governments, these assassins and their peculiar set of weapons reached across Asia, Europe, and beyond.

There is no risk the Russian government is unwilling to take in order to further their goals, and end the lives of turncoats, defectors, activists, dissidents, journalists, and accused traitors to Mother Russia.

Moscow, 1918

It all started with an assassin’s bullets, more than a century ago.

Fanny Efimovna Kaplan, a zealous young woman of the radical Socialist Revolutionaries group, fired three times at Vladimir Lenin as he was departing a Soviet arms factory in Moscow in August 1918. She struck Lenin twice before she was wrestled to the ground. He survived the assassination attempt, but only barely. Her bullets had been coated with curare resin, a poison derived from a plant that had been brought back to Europe from the Amazon by Sir Walter Raleigh and other explorers as far back as the 16th century. Lenin would eventually pass away after a series of strokes in 1924. It is believed that the curare resin may have contributed to his worsening condition over the ensuing years.

Fanny Kaplan could not have imagined the long-lasting consequences of her choice to use poison-coated bullets on that fateful day. But as Lenin gradually recovered, the poison diagnosis his doctors gave him and his own suffering only served to stir his imagination. If this could be done to him by a splintered revolutionary organization, imagine how he could deploy poison to serve the state, using the full resources available to him?

Since then, poison has become an integral part of the Russian government’s arsenal. In 1921, Lenin established the government’s first laboratory dedicated to researching and creating new weaponized poisons.  Over the years this laboratory has moved in and out of the shadows of history. It’s been known by many names; Lenin originally called it the Special Room, and later Laboratory No. 1, Laboratory No. 12, and Lab X.  Finally under Josef Stalin, it was designated Kamera (“The Chamber”), a moniker which has stuck with it through the current era.

But throughout the tumult that has befallen Russia in the 20th and 21st centuries, one thing has not changed; the willingness to use poison to kill enemies of the Russian government wherever they can be found.  Laws, treaties, and international borders mean nothing to the Russian government when they put someone on their target list.  They have killed dozens, if not hundreds of people with poison over the past century.

To this day it’s not entirely clear where The Chamber is even located. It is believed to be near the infamous Lubyanka Prison in Moscow, but no one knows for sure. KGB agents themselves were never authorized to visit the facility.  Only Chamber employees and a few high-level bureaucrats ever gained access. Instead, when the KGB determined that poison might be useful in a particular operation, they would submit a formal request to the Chamber.  This request included details such as the intended target, their body type, height, weight, anything known about their eating habits, exercise habits, and other patterns of life.

Once this information was submitted, the specialists at The Chamber would select the ideal poison for the target; every deployment of a poison was tailored for maximum effect. The Chamber also worked in concert with the USSR’s Warsaw Pact allies, such as in the infamous 1978 assassination of Georgi Markov in London by alleged members of the Bulgarian Committee for State Security.

London, 1978

Markov was a Bulgarian dissident writer who had defected to London in 1969. Since that time he had been highly critical of Bulgarian President Todor Zhivkov, who he described as “a minor dictator with a second-rate sense of humor.” Markov was sentenced by a Bulgarian court in absentia to six and a half years in prison for the crime of defecting. Zhikov had ordered all of Markov’s previous literary works removed from library shelves, and had even had his name edited out of film credits. Markov frequently appeared on BBC and Radio Free Europe to criticize the Bulgarian regime.

 

Bulgarian dissident Georgi Markov with his family.

Around early 1978, Zhikhov requested that the Soviet government assist him in eliminating Markov in London. Chairman of the KGB Yuri Andropov (who would later lead the Soviet Union after Leonid Brezhnev’s death) approved the operation, and KGB operatives traveled to Bulgaria to discuss options with the Bulgarian Security Service. Three options were offered; a poisoned jelly applied to the skin, poison in Markov’s food or drink, and a poison pellet fired into the skin from short range. The Bulgarians selected the poison pellet option, and the Chamber began testing to determine a suitable poison as well as a delivery system.

Chamber scientists soon honed in on ricin derived from the castor oil plant as the poison of choice. It was incredibly deadly in small doses. One ounce of ricin could render up to 90,000 lethal doses. It also acted slowly enough that the assassin would have time to escape the region before the target developed symptoms. They manufactured a platinum-irridium alloy pellet less than 2mm wide, drilled with two microscopic holes to allow the release of the ricin in the target’s body. The two holes were plugged with a sugary substance designed to slowly dissolve at the temperature of a human body, thereby releasing the ricin. Testing began in Bulgaria by firing a ricin pellet into a horse, which died soon after.

The Bulgarians then moved on to human trials, selecting a prisoner who had already been handed a death sentence as the unwilling test subject.  A Bulgarian agent approached the prisoner with an umbrella that had been converted into a surreptitious firing device, and shot the ricin pellet into the prisoner’s body. The prisoner yelped as he felt the sting, and correctly deduced that his death sentence had just been carried out. He immediately went into hysterics, but ultimately did not pass away from this first test.  It was determined that the ricin had failed to release from it’s pellet container.

 

The next human trial was in the field, against another Bulgarian assassination target. In late August 1978, the Bulgarian Security Service attempted to kill Vladimir Kostov in Paris. Kostov was a Colonel who had defected to France while working undercover operations there several years prior. While riding up an escalator he felt a sting in his back and turned to see a man carrying an umbrella running away from him. Once again, the intended target did not pass away. Kostov was wearing a heavy sweater at the time of the attack, which slowed down the fired pellet enough that the ricin did not enter his bloodstream.  Although he fell gravely ill for approximately 48 hours, Kostov eventually recovered completely.

Ten days later the Bulgarians felt ready to initiate the attack, having mitigated the previous problems discovered with the delivery system. On September 7th, 1978, Markov was walking along a crowded sidewalk on the Waterloo Bridge over the River Thames. Suddenly feeling a sharp pain in his right thigh, he turned to see a man picking up an umbrella off the sidewalk. A taxi pulled up beside the stranger, who entered it and immediately departed the area.

 

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A replica of the umbrella weapon, on display at the German Spy Museum.

Four days later, Markov lay dying in St. George’s Hospital. He described the peculiar incident to his attending physician. Unsurprisingly, the incident was not taken seriously as a continent-spanning conspiracy involving a poison-firing umbrella did not seem realistic at the time. He died later that afternoon. Once the police realized he was an Eastern Bloc defector, they opened a serious post-mortem inquiry.  The press caught the story and soon the case drew international attention as headlines all over the world covered the mysterious death of a dissident.

Initially, the police had little to go on.  There were no witnesses, no specific suspect, and no murder weapon. The pellet had been removed and examined, but whatever unknown poison it had contained had been absorbed into Markov’s body.

Things changed soon, however.  When Vladimir Kostov learned of Markov’s death in the international press, he contacted the French government who in turn contacted Scotland Yard investigators.  The pellet still residing in Kostov’s back was removed, and investigators quickly determined it still contained ricin.

For many years afterwards, the case remained officially unsolved, although there was little doubt as to who had organized and facilitated the assassination. In 2006 a documentary film from Windfall Films revealed that the assassin was Francesco Gullino, a Dane of Italian origin. After recruitment by the Bulgarian Security Service he was set up under the operational cover of an antiques dealer in Copenhagen, Denmark. The murder weapon itself has never been recovered, although it has been reported that a stack of identical umbrella weapons were discovered in the Bulgarian Interior Ministry after the fall of the Zhivkov regime in 1989. Two replica weapons are on display now; one in the International Spy Museum in Washington, DC, and one in the German Spy Museum in Berlin.

As recently as 2017 Scotland Yard was still investigating the case, and there are indications that an umbrella may not have been the actual weapon used. The ricin pellet may in fact have been fired from some sort of pellet pistol. Scotland Yard has not released their official report as of the publication of this post.

Future posts about The Chamber will cover the assassinations of Rebet (1957), Bandera (1959), Litvinenko (2006), the attempted killings of Skripal (2018) and Navalny (2020), as well as numerous others. With an assassination attempt as recently as one month ago (as of the publication of this post), it is clear that the Russian Federation has every intention of continuing it’s campaign of terror and biological warfare against dissidents and adversaries worldwide.

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