×

Mysterious rash of Russian deaths cast suspicion on Vladimir Putin

Russian activist Vladimir Kara-Murza listens to other participants during a hearing of the US Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations and Related Programs on Capitol Hill March 29, 2017 in Washington, DC.
Brendan Smialowski | AFP | Getty Images
Russian activist Vladimir Kara-Murza listens to other participants during a hearing of the US Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations and Related Programs on Capitol Hill March 29, 2017 in Washington, DC.

A former member of the Russian parliament is gunned down in broad daylight in the Ukrainian capital of Kiev. A longtime Russian ambassador to the United Nations drops dead at work. A Russian-backed commander in the breakaway Ukrainian province of Donetsk is blown up in an elevator. A Russian media executive is found dead in his Washington, D.C., hotel room.

What do they have in common? They are among 38 prominent Russians who are victims of unsolved murders or suspicious deaths since the beginning of 2014, according to a list compiled by USA TODAY and British journalist Sarah Hurst, who has done research in Russia.

The list contains 10 high-profile critics of Russian President Vladimir Putin, seven diplomats, six associates of Kremlin power brokers who had a falling out — often over corruption — and 13 military or political leaders involved in the conflict in eastern Ukraine, including commanders of Russian-backed separatist forces. Two are possibly connected to a dossier alleging connections between President Trump's campaign staff and Kremlin officials that was produced by a former British spy and shared with the FBI.

More from USA Today:
Women's brains shrink during pregnancy, but that's probably a good thing
As Congress touts spending deal, Trump calls for shutdown
'It's what you do instead of killing yourself': The cutting storyline in '13 Reasons Why' is scary but true

Twelve were shot, stabbed or beaten to death. Six were blown up. 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 cause of six deaths was reported as unknown.

Putin has long dealt with opponents harshly. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said in March that Putin "has murdered his political opponents and rules like an authoritarian dictator."

Yet the list of fatalities — 36 men and two women — suggests that Putin's alleged attacks on his critics and whistle-blowers are more extensive and lethal than previously known. It also raises new concerns about contacts Putin and his lieutenants had with Trump's campaign staff.

Trump praised Putin in March 2016 as a "strong leader," and in 2015 said "I'd get along great with" the Russian leader. On Feb 6, Trump defended Putin when Bill O'Reilly, then of Fox News, called Putin a killer. "There are a lot of killers," Trump replied. "Do you think our country is so innocent?"

The FBI and Congress are currently investigating contacts between Kremlin officials and Trump's campaign advisers, as part of its investigation into Russia's alleged interference in the 2016 presidential election.

Leahy made his comment about Putin at a congressional hearing that featured Vladimir Kara-Murza, a Russian political activist with personal experience of his government's efforts to silence outspoken critics.

"We've seen political opposition leaders and activists, whistle-blowers, anti-corruption campaigners and independent journalists lose their lives in one way or another," Kara-Murza told USA TODAY. "Sometimes these are suspicious suicides and plane crashes, really rare and horrible diseases. In many others they are straight murders."

Kara-Murza worked with former deputy prime minister and Putin opponent Boris Nemtsov before Nemtsov was gunned down in Moscow in 2015. Kara-Murza worked until recently with Russian anti-corruption lawyer and political candidate Alexei Navalny, who suffered eye injury Thursday after being attacked with a chemical following his release from jail for leading unsanctioned protests against the Putin government across Russia this spring.