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POLITICS

To poison the mockingbird. How the FSB tried to kill Dmitry Bykov

In April 2019, during a trip across the country's regions, the writer Dmitry Bykov was poisoned. He managed to escape death by a miracle. The Insider and Bellingcat found that the same FSB officers from NII-2 and the Second Service who had poisoned Alexei Navalny and Vladimir Kara-Murza had been involved in that assassination attempt as well. The assassination attempt was preceded by a long surveillance (the FSB officers followed Bykov on his plane trips for a year). And, as in Navalny's case, false statements were made after the poisoning about the patient's “non-transportability”. The hotel where, apparently, Bykov was poisoned may be connected to the poisoning of Navalny.

The FSB, Carlson, and a man with binoculars

As in the cases of Navalny and Kara-Murza, the FSB hit squad included chemists from the «Laboratory» (the FSB's NII-2) and officers from the Service for the Protection of the Constitutional System (the FSB's Second Service). They began spying on Bykov at least a year before the poisoning. On May 20, 2018, at 9:35 am, Bykov flew from Moscow to Ufa to give a lecture about a literary character, Carlson, «who lives on the roof» in front of children and their parents. He was accompanied by the brave officers of the FSB's Second Service (tasked with fighting the most dangerous extremists and terrorists) Vladimir Panyaev (flying under his own name) and Valery Sukharev (carrying a passport in the name of Nikolai Gorokhov). Contrary to established practice, they took the same flight with Bykov (subsequently they avoided such behavior and took a different flight the next day – Bykov flew in the evening, and the FSB officers at noon).

Around the same time in May 2018, Dmitry Bykov's wife, Ekaterina Kevkhishvili, noticed a man with binoculars in the house across the street. At first, she thought nothing about it, but in the summer, she began thinking the man was spying on them. “As I waved my hand at him, he always jumped back,” Ekaterina recalls. They did not notice any other surveillance.

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Bykov did not take his next trip until November 17, 2018, when Panyaev and Sukharev followed him to Rostov. Bykov spent an evening there reading poetry, no politics was involved. The next day, everybody returned to Moscow: the FSB officers took a daytime flight, and Bykov an evening flight.

The spying stopped again for several months. The Chekists would not go after the writer until April 2019. Shortly before that trip, on the night of April 5, 2019, all Ekaterina Kevkhishvili's messenger accounts were simultaneously attacked by hackers. Only her Telegram account was successfully hacked (she says it was hardly possible to obtain any valuable information from it other than a list of her contacts). Later that day, on April 5, Panyaev and Sukharev bought tickets to Rostov, where Bykov was supposed to give two lectures – on Harry Potter and on Russian political jokes. As always, the FSB officers flew in on a different flight, but on the same day (April 6), and returned to Moscow in the same manner on April 8.

A perfect crime

Dmitry Bykov's next trip was associated with Total Dictation, an annual public event aimed at promoting literacy, during which famous people read dictation texts. Due to his busy travel schedule, Bykov was reluctant to fly to Novosibirsk on April 13 (on the day of the dictation), however Ekaterina recalls the organizers strongly insisted and even offered to pay for business class tickets. It was the organizers (the Pobeda Culture and Leisure Center, partners of Total Dictation) who chose the hotel for Bykov - the Domina Hotel on Lenin Street (which was only logical, since the hotel is in the immediate vicinity of the Pobeda Theater, where the dictation was being held).

The hotel is in itself very remarkable. It is the hotel Maria Pevchikh was supposed to stay in before Navalny's arrival in August 2020. Maria, who had booked a room in Domina several days in advance, flew to Novosibirsk a day earlier than Navalny; at the airport she noticed she was being watched, and although she managed to throw off the surveillance, upon reaching the hotel, she found her pursuers were already there. During the check-in, she was asked several strange questions (for example, about her occupation), and when she entered her room, she found it shared a balcony with the adjacent room. The manager refused to give her another room, although the hotel was almost empty. Then she quietly packed her things and left the hotel through the back door without telling anyone. Meanwhile, the phone records of Alexey Alexandrov (one of Navalny's poisoners), available to Bellingcat, show he was in the immediate vicinity of the hotel that day.

So, on April 13, at 9 am, Dmitry Bykov and Ekaterina Kevkhishvili landed in Novosibirsk, whereafter they checked into the Domina Hotel on Lenin Street (with no shared balcony in their room however). By that time, the hitmen were already in town - Panyaev from the Second Service and Ivan Osipov from the «Laboratory» had arrived in Novosibirsk the night before (under the names of Vladimir Alekseev and Ivan Spiridonov, respectively). And if Panyaev could be one of those who, according to Putin, “are simply overseers”, then Osipov is a person of a very specific profile. He not only works at the FSB's NII-2 himself; he is also in constant contact with members of staff of the Signal Research Center (in charge of nerve agent development, according to the previous investigations). He is also listed in the registration databases as a recipient of benefits (suggesting he may have military merits); contact information exchange applications list him as a doctor.

Dmitry and Ekaterina spent a couple hours in their hotel room, and then went to the Pobeda Theater, where the total dictation was taking place.

Dmitry Bykov speaks at the Total Dictation
Dmitry Bykov speaks at the Total Dictation

The situation was ideal for the poisoners. They had known since March that Bykov was supposed to travel to Novosibirsk; since March 25 they knew he had booked a room at the Domina Hotel. And most importantly, they knew in advance exactly when Bykov would be away from his hotel room. The only thing they could not be 100% sure of was whether Ekaterina would follow him to the Pobeda auditorium (although it was expected). The poisoners could feel relaxed since the dictation was broadcast live, so it was easy to make sure both Dmitry and Ekaterina were in the auditorium, which meant the hotel room was empty. How could the poisoners get into the room? The Insider correspondent, who visited the hotel, saw that security cameras were installed on all floors in the corridors, and the security guards were closely watching the few guests. It is hard to believe the poisoners could enter the room without the assistance of the hotel staff. The hotel management declined to speak to The Insider.

From left to right: Ekaterina Kevkhishvili and Dmitry Bykov in the Pobeda auditorium on that very day
From left to right: Ekaterina Kevkhishvili and Dmitry Bykov in the Pobeda auditorium on that very day

Dmitry and Ekaterina did not return to their hotel room until about six in the evening, after which they left the room again at about 22:00 for a couple of hours. Immediately after midnight, Panyaev and Osipov booked a flight to Moscow for 10 am.

The poisoning

In the case of Navalny's poisoning, it was established that the poisoners from the «laboratory» applied poison on his underwear. If so, then, apparently, the next morning Dmitry put on different clothes than those poisoned by the chemists from the «Laboratory». The whole of the next day, April 14, he felt great and participated in many events, and on April 15, together with Ekaterina, he flew to Yekaterinburg, where he spent the entire day in a cheerful mood and gave another lecture. But on the morning of April 16, apparently, Dmitry put on the poisoned clothes.

On April 16, Dmitry and Ekaterina woke up at 8:30. At 9:00, Dmitry met with Yevgeny Roizman for breakfast at the hotel, with Ekaterina joining them a little later. Whether or not by chance, she noticed a man at the next table, whom they had already encountered while exiting the lecture auditorium the day before. It seemed to her that the man was eavesdropping on their conversation. At about 9:40 am, they said goodbye to Roizman and went to the elevator. The man followed them. Ekaterina asked Dmitry to slow down to let the suspicious man to leave first. But when they called the elevator, the man was still there. Ekaterina admits he might have simply been too slow with the key, but she found it suspicious.

At 10:06 Dmitry and Ekaterina got into a taxi, at 10:25 they arrived at the airport to fly to Ufa for the next event. Dmitry did not eat anything at the airport. The takeoff was at 11:25, and only when they headed to the gate, Dmitry said he felt sick, he began to feel nauseous. Thus, nearly 2.5 hours had passed from the moment Bykov woke up and got dressed till the first symptoms manifested (about the same amount of time as in the case of Navalny's poisoning; it took a little longer, about three hours, in the case of the first poisoning of Kara-Murza).

The plane was just about to take off when Dmitry started vomiting, he was breathing heavily and was drenched in sweat. He kept «drifting off»: he closed his eyes and lowered his head, but did not completely lose consciousness, and reacted to speech. After a while, he lay down on the floor in the aisle - he said he felt better that way (Navalny had the same reaction). Both Bykov and Navalny do not remember anything from the moment they lay on the floor in the plane, but in fact, both of them did not lose consciousness for a long time. Moreover, in contrast to Navalny who was delirious, Bykov attempted, as far as he was able, to crack jokes until the end of the flight, and invited the doctors to a concert in the evening. After the plane landed, he was unable to get to his feet unassisted; somehow, they dragged him to the ambulance. On the way to the hospital, he got very hot and even took off his shirt. In the ambulance car, he started to have trouble speaking: he kept saying something, but it was just a series of noises, and not a single word could be discerned (although he understood what was said to him).

Interestingly, immediately after the plane with Bykov landed in Ufa, Valery Sukharev, who was at that moment in Sochi, rushed to the local airport and bought tickets for the next flight to Moscow.

Battle for Bykov

Bykov himself claimed his sensations had been very similar to those described by Navalny. But not only were the symptoms similar, so was the behavior of the authorities, who made every effort to stop Bykov from being transported to Moscow. Dmitry Muratov, editor-in-chief of Novaya Gazeta where Bykov works, told The Insider the newspaper had paid out of its medical insurance fund for a plane with two resuscitators on board. But as the Yak-40 took off from Krasnoyarsk, an hour's flight from Ufa, “the Ministry of Health received a command to turn the plane to Moscow”. The pilot contacted the hospital and said he would have to follow orders and turn around in 10 minutes. Then Muratov called a man who, he said, «occupies one of the highest positions», whereafter the pilot said he was allowed to continue the flight.

Interestingly – and simultaneously with the private medical plane - a plane from the Ministry of Health was preparing to pick up Bykov, but the flight was canceled following a «teleconsilium» with the participation of Igor Molchanov, chief resuscitator and anesthesiologist of the Ministry of Health. Molchanov said there was no need to transport Bykov to Moscow: «We've made some adjustments to the treatment plan, but there's no need for any radical changes.» At the same time, Molchanov admitted the patient's condition was «difficult» and spoke of «encephalopathy» (this is a very vague concept, which can be used to describe many different brain pathologies). Then why did the consilium decide not to transport the patient to Moscow, where a more accurate diagnosis and better treatment were possible?

At the time, the media interpreted the doctors' decision as a conclusion that Bykov was not transportable. But Molchanov told The Insider there was no such thing as non-transportable patients (with rare exceptions associated with some lung pathologies, where a pressure drop in the plane can be critical) and stated he never made any diagnoses by teleconference. Be that as it may, that teleconsilium became a formal pretext for leaving Bykov in the Ufa hospital, and had it not been for Muratov's persistence and the private plane, it is unclear whether the writer would have survived.

Novichok?

Bykov had many symptoms in common with Navalny, including hyperhidrosis (unusually profuse sweating) and normocardia against the background of hypovolemia, i.e., a decrease in the volume of circulating blood with the pulse rate remaining the same (Bykov's pulse was higher than Navalny's, 60-65 bpm, but still slower than expected in the event of hypovolemia). Lab tests revealed Bykov had similar changes in the glycemic profile: high glucose, ketones in the urine, slightly increased amylase, narrow pupils. But the doctors said this was due to the barbiturate injections Bykov had received in Ufa, which could also have caused miosis (pupillary constriction). In fact, at the time the doctors did not understand why he was in a coma and treated him only symptomatically. After several days in a coma, Bykov came to his senses but, like Navalny, remained disoriented for some time.

The doctors did not arrive at an unambiguous diagnosis. As in the case of Navalny, they considered a version related to the decompensation of diabetes mellitus against the background of infection. But the diagnosis turned out to be untenable, since Bykov did not have any subsequent bouts of hyperglycemia in the absence of antihyperglycemic therapy, which is not typical for severe forms of diabetes leading to ketoacidosis. All the doctors The Insider spoke to agreed that such a picture could not have arisen through natural causes.

A strange spot

When Dmitry came to his senses in Moscow, a fist-sized crimson spot was found on his back (at the top of his scapula area). How it got there, no one knew. The skin had peeled off, and the spot was covered with crusts and itched terribly. It took nearly a month to heal. In their interviews to The Insider experts argued that Novichok solutions, that are used for applying the nerve agent on the skin, could not cause such type of irritation. However, experts claimed that if a skin-blistering agent were added to such a solution, or if any radicals were present in the molecule of the active substance that could cause skin blistering, the outcome would appear similar. One way or another, the described symptoms, considering how much time elapsed between the contact and the poisoning, and between the poisoning and the recovery, unambiguously point to an organophosphate nerve agent (such as Novichok).

If the spot was indeed a sign of poison, then Dmitry Bykov's taking off his T-shirt in the ambulance car may have saved his life by reducing the time of contact with the poisonous substance.

Panyaev, Sukharev and Osipov did not respond to The Insider's and Bellingcat's requests for comments. Dmitry Bykov told The Insider and Bellingcat he had no clue about the possible motives of the killers.

This text is also available in Russian

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