The last fortnight has seen new revelations in two separate cases of suspected Russian state murder. In one of these cases, the alleged hit squad was directly a unit of the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence service. In the other, German authorities recently concluded that there is “sufficient evidence” that the Russian state, or its federated southern republic Chechnya, is responsible for the execution-style killing of an ethnic Chechen asylum-seeker; as a result, two officers of the GRU have been expelled from the Russian embassy in Berlin. According to the newspaper Le Monde, citing French intelligence, the GRU has for several years maintained a rear base of operations in the Haute-Savoie region of the French Alps.
The GRU, also responsible for interfering in the 2016 US presidential election, is now believed to have been liquidating the enemies of President Vladimir Putin throughout Europe, including in NATO countries. The idea of a roving gang of secret-agent assassins gathering at an Alpine retreat to plot the destruction of their sinister leader’s enemies might seem like the premise for Daniel Craig’s latest outing as 007, but this plotline has historical antecedents long predating Ian Fleming.
A fine and timely new book explores the origins of Moscow’s Murder, Inc.— what is euphemistically known in Russian as mokroye delo, or “wet work.” In The Compatriots: The Brutal and Chaotic History of Russia’s Exiles, Émigrés, and Agents Abroad, authors Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan show that what has become the institutional practice of Moscow’s security organs was honed in the early decades of Soviet government, when it perfected its methods against members of the Russian diaspora.
A main focus of The Compatriots is one of the USSR’s most lupine spymasters, in effect one of the founding fathers of the Kremlin’s international assassination policy: Nahum Eitingon. This striking, dark-featured polyglot started out in 1917 as a member of the terrorism-inclined Socialist Revolutionaries party. He joined the Bolsheviks after Lenin’s seizure of power and, in his twenties, earned a reputation for dismantling “counterrevolutionary” networks from the Caucasus to the Far East. In Harbin, China, where he was posted in 1925, he planted a bomb that blew up a local warlord known as the Old Marshal and successfully pinned the blame on the Japanese.
By the late 1930s, Eitingon had become a top operative in Soviet foreign intelligence, and was given a three-year deployment to civil war-torn Spain. But when he returned to Moscow at the height of Purge paranoia in January 1939, he knew that he might have fallen under suspicion. His boss, foreign intelligence head Sergey Spigelglas, had been arrested for his failure to assassinate the one man who, even in remote exile, Stalin feared was a threat to his dictatorship: Leon Trotsky.
Eitingon’s sangfroid in the face of what he suspected was certain death must have impressed his superior, whom he called at the Lubyanka (headquarters of Soviet intelligence). “It’s been ten days since I arrived in Moscow,” he said. “I am sure my phone is tapped… I’m under constant surveillance. Please report to your leadership: if they want to arrest me, let them do it now. They do not need to play children’s games.”
Far from facing his own liquidation, Eitingon was about to get a new assignment—the very task his disgraced chief had failed at: killing Trotsky.
The Soviet regime, Eitingon included, had already spent years hunting down émigrés, dissidents, and other renegade members of a far-flung Russian diaspora, many of them White Army officers who had fought in the civil war against the Red Army that Trotsky had assembled. Stalin’s Great Terror had already liquidated much of the professional officer corps of that army (a culling that would have dire repercussions when Hitler invaded Russia), as well as the cadres of Old Bolsheviks who had helped birth the very system he now ruled uncontested.
Trotsky, however, had been expelled from the Soviet Union more than a decade earlier, rather than devoured by its then-incipient Thermidor. Brilliant, charismatic, and relentless, the Old Man, as he was known to friend and foe, still commanded an enormous international following which included, as Soldatov and Borogan note, officers of the Soviet security services, a fact that contributed to Stalin’s paranoia.
Not wanting to share his predecessor’s fate, Eitingon planned two simultaneous operations with separate squads, one codenamed “The Horse,” the other “The Mother.” The two teams trained first in Paris within blocks of each other, yet neither was aware of the other’s existence. Both planned to infiltrate Trotsky’s retinue in Mexico by seconding agents masquerading as loyalists, and both enlisted veterans of the Spanish Civil War as assassins. After the initial phase, Eitingon moved his operational headquarters to the United States, using an office in Brooklyn rented under cover of an import-export company. He also drafted officials based in a Communist Party-owned building in Union Square, New York, to recruit other agents for the assassination plot, which included a scheme to seduce Trotsky’s personal secretary, Sylvia Ageloff.
Posing as a Belgian businessman named Jacques Mornard, a Spaniard—real name Ramon Mercader—wooed Ageloff and succeeded in insinuating himself into Trotsky’s circle in Mexico. The Horse plot had failed ignominiously when a machine-gun unit, led by the famous Mexican artist David Alfaro Siqueiros, assaulted Trotsky’s fortified compound in Coyoacán but failed to eliminate its target. Eitingon selected Mercader to carry out his second attempt: a more carefully planned killing. After gaining access to Trotsky’s inner sanctum—Mercader shrewdly charmed Trotsky’s grandson Seva, earning the family’s trust—he sought the legendary polemicist’s editorial guidance on a political essay he had written. While Trotsky critiqued Mercader’s unpolished prose, the Stalinist agent plunged an ice-pick into the Old Man’s skull. This political murder was distinguished by its boldness and savagery, not to mention its konspiratsiya, a term that connotes the art and science of clandestine operations. For a generation of anti-Stalinist Marxists, it also constituted the crime of the century.
The Mother was so named because it involved Mercader’s own mother, Caridad. The Cuban-born wife of a wealthy Spanish bourgeois, she was radicalized by opposition to Franco and eventually recruited by Eitingon, who also became her lover. The couple were, in fact, waiting outside Trotsky’s compound in a separate automobile from the Buick that was meant to serve as Ramon’s getaway car. Although her son was captured and imprisoned in Mexico, Caridad drove off with Eitingon and they made their way back to the USSR. They were both awarded the Order of Lenin, Moscow’s highest civilian decoration.
Trotsky’s slaying made front-page headlines around the world, accompanied by the image of the grizzled revolutionary lying lifeless in his hospital bed, his head still bandaged. Eitingon went on to establish a new department for Russian state assassinations. His specialty was poisoning, and he brought under his command Professor Grigory Mairanovsky, who’d run the infamous Laboratory X for the OGPU (the forerunner of the NKVD and later the KGB), cooking up biochemical toxins— many of which were first tested on Soviet political prisoners. Eitingon’s victims subsequently included Ukrainian clergymen and activists, a Polish engineer, and an American Comintern agent imprisoned in the Gulag whom Stalin wanted gone for good because demands for his release were creating an international scandal.
The purge Eitingon had once feared finally came in 1951. As a senior Jew in the party apparatus, he fell prey to the episode of Stalin’s anti-Semitic paranoia known as the Doctors’ Plot—an imagined conspiracy of Jewish doctors’ trying to poison the Soviet leadership, including the Party Secretary himself. Eitingon was briefly rehabilitated after the dictator’s death in 1953, only to be arrested again and this time convicted for the very task he’d been commissioned by Stalin to undertake: poisoning people. Amazingly, for a disgraced security chief, he survived his incarceration and was released in 1965. In his final years, he became a translator of foreign books—easy work for a man fluent in multiple languages and familiar with exotic settings.
But the assassination program that Eitingon had masterminded lived on, surviving his departure and ultimately the cold war itself. Among its most notorious operations were the 1978 murder of the Bulgarian dissident playwright and journalist Georgi Markov, injected with a ricin pellet shot out of the tip of an umbrella in London. The poison was supplied to the Bulgarian secret service from Department K, a counterintelligence unit of the KGB, with the approval of its chairman, Yuri Andropov, who became briefly, a few years later, the USSR’s leader. And in 2006, Alexander Litvinenko, a former officer of the FSB, Russia’s post-Soviet domestic security service, was poisoned with polonium-210, a radioactive isotope slipped into his tea at the Millennium Hotel in London. Litvinenko had worked for exiled Russian oligarch Boris Berezovsky, the former Kremlin insider most responsible for enabling the rise of a little-known KGB case officer, one Vladimir Putin, to the Russian presidency. (Later, Berezovsky became an outspoken and resourceful critic of Putin; he was found dead at his home west of London in 2013, in circumstances a coroner recorded as an “open verdict.”)
“Eitingon’s old tricks,” Soldatov and Borogan dryly observe, were “reliably effective in the right situation.”
They still are. Bellingcat’s open-source investigations identified the would-be killers in 2018 of Sergey Skripal, a former GRU officer turned double agent for Britain. Both assassins had false passports, cover names, and fictitious back stories—konspiratsiyaredolent of The Mother. The plot to poison Skripal in Salisbury, England, using the Russian military nerve agent Novichok has since been attributed by Western governments to a GRU unit known only by its numerical designation 29155. Its purpose, reported The New York Times, is to mount “a coordinated and ongoing campaign to destabilize Europe,” executed by trained operatives “skilled in subversion, sabotage, and assassination.”
Which brings us to last week, when Germany’s federal prosecutor concluded that Zelimkhan Khangosvhili, an ethnic Chechen veteran of the second Chechen War—and, as I discovered on a recent trip to Tbilisi, a long-time spy for the Georgian Interior Ministry’s counterterrorism division—had been fatally shot in Berlin’s Kleiner Tiergarten park in August by a hitman working either for the Russian government or its Chechen proxy. According to his handler, whom I interviewed, Khangosvhili had not only infiltrated and disrupted Islamist cells from among the ethnic Chechen community in Georgia, he’d also flipped agents the FSB had recruited from that community, making him a formidable counterintelligence threat to the Russian security service. At least one person whom Khangoshvili talent-spotted in Georgia ended up being run by the CIA, his former handler told me.
His accused killer, Vadim Krasikov, was a suspect in two prior murders, the most recent of a businessman in the North Caucasus. Moscow had initially issued domestic and international arrest warrants for Krasikov, but, in what is very unlikely to have been mere coincidence, revoked those warrants in 2015. That same year, it granted Krasikov a passport in the name of Vadim Sokolov. This was the identity he was using at the time of his alleged hit on Khangoshvili, who was shot several times at point-blank range with a Glock semi-automatic pistol. Krasikov, who attempted his getaway on a bicycle, was caught by German police and now sits in a prison cell as the German investigation is underway.
Whether Krasikov was connected to the GRU or another organ of Putin’s ever-expanding security state is yet to be determined. The FSB, it’s worth noting, has a history of contracting hitmen from organized crime syndicates, Chechens in particular, to eliminate targets abroad. (Khangoshvili’s position as an agent for a US-allied intelligence service no doubt made him a higher-value target than an ordinary survivor from the separatist wars of the late 1990s and early 2000s.) We also have yet to learn how Krasikov stalked Khangoshvili through a European capital, and chose the time and place of his murder, or who else might have helped him. But the execution echoes the grim tradecraft that Nahum Eitingon pioneered eighty years ago.