The spate of mysterious Russian oligarch deaths

Six figures with ties to the Kremlin have died since Vladimir Putin launched Ukraine war

Vladimir Putin has previously deployed ‘extreme measures’ to crush opposition
Vladimir Putin has long used ‘extreme measures’ to crush opposition
(Image credit: Alexandr Demyanchuk/Sputnik/AFP via Getty Images)

Police in Moscow are investigating after a Russian oil executive became the sixth government-linked oligarch to die in mysterious circumstances since Vladimir Putin gave the order for an invasion of Ukraine.

Independent Russian media organisation Mash posted on Telegram that billionaire Alexander Subbotin, a former executive at energy giant Lukoil, died after coming into contact with a “poisonous toad” during an “anti-hangover session” led by a “shaman”.

Subbotin is the latest in “a series of high-profile Russians to die in mysterious circumstances in recent months”, said Fortune, which noted that the Russian president “has long been known to take extreme measures to silence his opponents”.

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Knew ‘too much’?

The death of Subbotin means that at least six high-profile Russian oligarchs have died in unusual or unexplained circumstances since the beginning of 2022. NBC correspondent Ali Velshi has termed it the “curious” case of the dead Russian oligarchs.

According to Mash, Subbotin died after the shaman leading the “anti-hangover” ceremony “dripped the toad’s poison” into an incision in his skin. After first “vomiting” he then “got better”, before falling ill with “heart pains” and dying later that evening.

In late April, Sergey Protosenya, the former top manager of Russia’s energy giant Novatek, and Vladislav Avaev, ex-vice president of Gazprombank, were also found dead in Spain and Moscow respectively along with their wives and daughters.

Police in both countries said the oligarchs appeared to have committed suicide after killing their families, however, the cases have attracted widespread scrutiny.

While the deaths of both Protosenya and Avaev “are believed by police to be cases of murder-suicide”, said Newsweek, “the evidence supporting these theories is muddled by the fact that the events happened so close together”. Both men were found dead within 48 hours of each another.

“Multi-millionaire former gas executive” Protosenya was discovered “hanged in the garden of his luxury Spanish holiday home”, the Daily Mail reported. The bodies of his wife and his 18-year-old daughter were found “hacked to death with an axe inside”.

Spanish authorities have suggested that he “executed the pair before killing himself in an uncharacteristic fit of rage”. But police also said that he “did not leave a suicide note and no fingerprints were found on the weapons – an axe and a knife – used to kill” the two women and “there were no bloodstains on his body”.

His son, Fedor, told the paper that “my father is not a killer”. The 22-year-old university student said: “He loved my mother and especially Maria, my sister. She was his princess. He could never do anything to harm them. I don’t know what happened that night but I know that my dad did not hurt them.”

No evidence has been produced to support the claim that the family were murdered, however.

Avaev, who worked in Putin’s presidential office before joining private-owned bank Gazprombank, was found dead a day earlier in his “multi-million apartment” in Moscow, Newsweek said. A relative discovered the bodies after being “unable to get in contact” with the family for several days.

His “apartment was locked from the inside and a pistol was found in Avaev’s hands, leading investigators to explore the theory” that he “shot his wife and his 13-year-old daughter before killing himself”, according to the magazine.

Russian state news agency Tass reported that a police source had confirmed that “Avaev killed his wife and daughter and committed suicide”.

But this version of events has been questioned by Igor Volobuev, another former vice president of Gazprombank. Volobuev told Russian independent newspaper The Insider that Avaev’s death might have been “staged because he may have known too much”.

Volobuev – who fled Russia in early March and joined the Ukrainian Territorial Defence Force – added that he did not believe that Protosenya’s death was a suicide either.

Similar deaths

The alleged murder-suicides of Protosenya and Avaev come shortly after the deaths of Russian tycoons Vasily Melnikov, Mikhail Watford and Alexander Tyulyakov. All five died after the invasion of Ukraine began on 24 February.

Melnikov, the founder of medical firm MedStom, also died in an alleged murder-suicide. He was found “in his luxury apartment in Nizhny Novgorod”, Russia’s sixth-largest city, on 23 March alongside the bodies of his wife and two young sons, Newsweek reported.

According to Kommersant, a newspaper owned by Putin ally Alisher Usmanov, investigators believe that Melnikov killed his 41-year-old wife and their children, aged ten and four, before killing himself. All died of stab wounds, and knives were found at the scene.

Melnikov’s company was “on the verge of collapse” as a result of the sanctions imposed on Russia following the invasion, Ukrainian news site Glavred reported.

The day before the bodies were discovered, an employee had reportedly “received an unexpected message” from Melnikov “with a request to bury him where his mother was buried”.

“The key is under the rug, don't break the door,” the message said, according to the site.

Ukraine-born oligarch Watford, who made his fortune in oil and gas following the fall of the Soviet Union, was found dead in “unexplained circumstances” at his home in Surrey on 3 March, The Guardian reported.

Police were treating the death of the businessman as “unexplained” but not “suspicious”, the paper continued. There was “no suggestion” that Watford was “the target of British-backed sanctions owing to a proximity to Putin, or of a Russian operation”.

Just three days after Watford was found dead, independent Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta reported that Tyulyakov, a former executive at state-owned energy company Gazprom, had been found hanged in St. Petersburg. Police told the paper that he left a suicide note.

His death came weeks after that of fellow Gazprom executive Leonid Shulman, whose body was found alongside a suicide note at the end of January, according to the paper.

Police investigations

According to Novaya Gazeta, the deaths of Tyulyakov and Shulman are also being probed by Gazprom as well as Russian police. The paper described how “security units” for the energy company investigated the death scene.

The deaths of all seven Russian oligarchs “could be totally unconnected cases” in which “men killed their families and then themselves”, said NBC’s Velshi. But “what are the odds” that Russian oligarchs with links to the Kremlin and the oil industry “decide to kill themselves” in such a short space of time?

In 2017, USA Today published a report detailing how 38 Russian oligarchs had died or gone missing over a three-year span.

The list included “seven diplomats”, “six associates of Kremlin power brokers who had a falling out” and “13 military or political leaders” involved in the long-running conflict in eastern Ukraine.

Twelve were allegedly “shot, stabbed or beaten to death”, “six were blown up”, and “ten died allegedly of natural causes”.

“One died of mysterious head injuries, one reportedly slipped and hit his head in a public bath, one was hanged in his jail cell, and one died after drinking coffee,” the news site added. “The cause of six deaths was reported as unknown.”

As Velshi said on NBC, it is possible that the deaths since the invasion began are “individual” and “unconnected” cases of murder, suicide and unexplained causes.

But “in all cases there are widespread suspicions that the deaths may have been staged as suicides”, Grzegorz Kuczyński, director of the Warsaw Institute’s Eurasia Program, told Fortune. The question that raises is, “who did this and why”?

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