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The long list of Putin critics targeted by the Kremlin

Published August 25, 2023last updated March 13, 2024

Navalny ally Leonid Volkov was attacked in what he said was a politically motivated crime. The details remain vague, but it's clear that those who dare to criticize Russian President Vladimir Putin live dangerously.

Yevgeny Prigozhin (left) is seen serving Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin (center) at a dinner in 2011
Yevgeny Prigozhin (left) is seen serving Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin (center) at a dinner in 2011Image: Misha Japaridze/AP/picture alliance

March 2024 — Volkov brutally attacked in Lithuania

Leonid Volkov, 43, the former policy chief of late opposition leader Alexei Navalny, was attacked outside his home in Vilnius late on Tuesday, March 12, 2024. He was beaten with a hammer and sustained heavy injuries to his leg, arm and head. 

It was initially unclear who had ordered the attack, but Volkov and his team said they believed Vladimir Putin to be responsible. The BBC quotes Volkov as saying that the attack was "an obvious, typical, gangster greeting from Putin, from bandit St Petersburg."

Gabrielius Landsbergis, Lithuania's minister of foreign affairs, wrote on social media platform X, formerly known as Twitter, that investigations to find the attacker were underway: "Relevant authorities are at work. Perpetrators will have to answer for their crime."

February 2024  — Navalny dies in Arctic penal colony, authorities say

The Kremlin's most prominent critic, Alexei Navalny, died on February 16 in an Arctic prison, according to the Russian Penitentiary Service. His death comes a month before an election poised to extend Putin's hold on power.

Navalny, 47, led campaigns against corruption in Russia and staged massive anti-Kremlin protests. He was serving a 19-year prison sentence on extremism charges in a remote penal colony. According to the Russian Penitentiary Service, he felt unwell after a walk and lost consciousness, and efforts to revive him were unsuccessful.

Navalny's mother, Lyudmila Navalnaya, was quoted by the Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta as saying on Facebook that she saw her son in prison on February 12 and he was "alive, healthy and happy."

Black-and-white photo of Navalny behind bars
Navalny was sentenced to a 19-year prison termImage: Yulia Morozova/REUTERS

August 2023 — Prigozhin dies in plane crash months after mutiny

Whether or not Yevgeny Prigozhin, the head of the Wagner Group mercenaries, had indeed died when his plane crashed in the Tver region of Russia was initially unclear — though his name appeared on the passenger list for the flight. But Russian authorities said four days after the crash that DNA tests had confirmed that he was one of the 10 passengers who perished.

Two months prior to his death, Prigozhin, once dubbed "Putin's chef" due to his connection with the Russian president, led a portion of his Wagner fighters toward Moscow in an armed mutiny, prompting Putin to denounce him as a traitor. Prigozhin eventually agreed to go into exile in Belarus, but the timing of his death has raised suspicions of a Kremlin-backed hit, which Moscow has denied as a "complete lie."

September 2022 — Ravil Maganov's fatal fall from a hospital window

Ravil Maganov, chairman of Russian oil giant Lukoil, died when he fell from the sixth-floor window of a Moscow hospital. Police suspect he committed suicide, saying that he was diagnosed with depression on top of his heart problems. Lukoil was the first major Russian company to call for an end to the war in Ukraine.

August 2019 — Zelimkhan Khangoshvili shot dead in central Berlin

Zelimkhan Khangoshvili, a Georgian national and ethnic Chechen, who had once fought against Russia in the Second Chechen War, was shot dead in broad daylight with three bullets to the head and back in Berlin's Tiergarten park. The killer, Russian intelligence agent Vadim Krasikov, was arrested at the scene and sentenced to life imprisonment two years later.

September 2018 — Pyotr Verzilov showed symptoms of poisoning

Artist and Pussy Riot activist Pyotr Verzilov reported problems with his vision and speech and was unable to walk after a court appearance in Moscow. He had run onto the football pitch during the 2018 World Cup final in Moscow to draw attention to police brutality. Verzilov was also transferred to Berlin's Charite hospital for treatment. Doctors presumed he had been poisoned.

Opposition politician Verzilov: Navalny's symptoms 'very close to what I have experienced'

March 2018 — Sergei Skripal's poison-smeared door handle

Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were found unconscious on a park bench in the British town of Salisbury, the victims of a Novichok attack. While both survived, British national Dawn Sturgess, who had also come into contact with the nerve agent, died. British police believe the poison was spread on Sergei Skripal's door handle.

February 2015 — Boris Nemtsov shot dead near Kremlin

The former Russian deputy prime minister and prominent Putin critic, Boris Nemtsov, was killed as he was crossing the a bridge over the Moskva River near the Kremlin. He was returning home with his girlfriend when a car stopped behind him; four bullets were fired at his back and head. Just three hours earlier, Nemtsov had lambasted Putin during a radio broadcast. In 2017, three Chechens were sentenced to long prison terms for his killing. To this day, who ordered the assassination and the motive remain unknown.

Floral tributes are seen in honor of murdered Kremlin critic Boris Nemtsov
Floral tributes in honor of murdered Kremlin critic Boris Nemtsov Image: Sergey Satanovskiy/DW

July 2009 — Natalya Estemirova found dead in a ditch

The body of Natalya Estemirova, a historian and board member of Russian human rights organization Memorial, was found in a ditch in Ingushetia hours after she had been kidnapped outside her home in the Chechen capital Grozny. She had been shot in the head and chest. Estemirova had accused Russian security forces and the notorious death squads of Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, a Putin loyalist, of kidnappings and human rights violations. The investigation into the murder proved inconclusive.

November 2006 — Alexander Litvinenko's poisoned tea

Alexander Litvinenko, a former Russian secret service agent who defected and became a Putin critic, died an agonizing death in London after being poisoned with the radioactive substance polonium-210. His tell-all book "Blowing Up Russia” accused the Russian secret service of having organized explosions in apartment buildings in Russia in 1999 and other terrorist attacks in the country to justify the war in Chechnya and bring Vladimir Putin to power. Litvinenko's tea is said to have been laced with polonium-210 at a London hotel bar. Nobody was ever held accountable for the murder.

A picture of Alexander Litvinenko
The European Court of Human Rights says Alexander Litvinenko was murdered on the Kremlin's ordersImage: Alistair Fuller/AP/picture alliance

October 2006 — Anna Politkovskaya murdered in an elevator

Anna Politkovskaya, a dissident and investigative journalist who worked for the Russian Novaya Gazeta newspaper, was shot dead with five bullets to her chest and head in the elevator of her building. The murder took place on Putin's birthday. In 2004, Politkovskaya who had reported on the war in Chechnya and exposed war crimes committed by Russian forces, had survived a suspected poisoning on a domestic flight. Five people suspected of being involved in her murder received long prison sentences, yet those who pulled the strings remain at large.

An elderly woman holds a portrait of Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya
An elderly woman holds a portrait of Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya at a memorial event Image: Peter Kovalev/TASS/dpa/picture alliance

July 2003 — Yuri Shchekochikhin's gruesome death

Novaya Gazeta journalist Yuri Shchekochikhin, who in the late 1990s served as a Russian opposition lawmaker fighting corruption and organized crime, died a gruesome, drawn-out death from a suspected poisoning. His skin peeled off his body and, one by one, his organs gave out. The Russian authorities refused to perform an autopsy on his body, and his medical records disappeared. A skin sample later analyzed in London found traces of thallium, a toxic heavy metal that used to be used by the Soviet secret service, the KGB.

April 2003 — Sergei Yushenkov shot outside his Moscow home

Sergei Yushenkov, a co-chair of the Liberal Russia party and lawmaker in the State Duma , took several fatal shots to the chest outside his Moscow home. The murder was never solved. Yushenkov was a member of the State Duma's Intelligence Committee and one of the harshest critics of the Chechen war and the KGB's successor organization, the FSB. 

This article was translated from German and updated on August 28, 2023 to include the death of Yevgeny Prigozhin and on February 16, 2024, to include reports of Alexei Navalny's death. 

Oliver Pieper | Analysis & Reports
Oliver Pieper Reporter on German politics and society, as well as South American affairs.