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Russian businessmen keep mysteriously dying. Why?

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

This recent headline might sound familiar - Russian oligarch dies after hotel fall. Sausage magnate Pavel Antov fell to his death in India on Christmas Eve. And he has a lot of company. At least a dozen Russian businessmen have died mysteriously in the last year. Some have toppled from windows. Others tumbled downstairs or have been struck with fatal illnesses. In fact, just two days before Antov's death, someone traveling with him died in the same hotel of an apparent heart attack.

Julia Ioffe is a founding partner and Washington correspondent for the news site Puck, and her analysis of Russia has been a must-read ever since Putin invaded Ukraine. Julia, good to have you here.

JULIA IOFFE: Thanks so much for having me, Ari.

SHAPIRO: I don't want to make light of a situation where people are dying, but it seems like a tough time to be an oligarch. The West wants to seize your yachts, and open windows are an existential threat.

IOFFE: Yeah. You know, the West hasn't made it that easy for Russian oligarchs to peel off from Vladimir Putin. If anything, it has become even more dangerous, domestically and abroad, for Russian oligarchs to oppose Vladimir Putin, to speak out against him. And Vladimir Putin seems to be making that very clear with a string of these coincidences. And if you talk to anybody who has ever worked in intelligence or the security services in America or in other countries, they'll tell you that coincidences like this have to be very carefully planned.

SHAPIRO: How big are the air quotes around that word, coincidences?

IOFFE: Pretty big.

SHAPIRO: In the case of Pavel Antov, the man who died in India, earlier this year, he denied posting an anti-war message on WhatsApp. Is criticism of Putin a common thread here?

IOFFE: For some of them, it is. There were two men who were very high-ranking managers in the oil company Lukoil, and it was one of the only Russian companies that, in February of 2022, came out against the war while everybody else was quite silent. And then, you know, one after another, a couple of Lukoil managers turned up dead.

Again, these are things that might be coincidental. These might be natural deaths. Again, we don't know for sure. But we can be absolutely sure that people in the Russian business community are taking note and being extra, extra, extra careful now in terms of what they're saying about the war, about Putin - which they've already been careful before the war, but now I'm sure they're being doubly, triply so.

SHAPIRO: I wondered about that. Whether or not the Kremlin is responsible, is it helpful for Putin to have people believe that if you speak out of turn, you might wind up dead?

IOFFE: Absolutely. You have to understand that this is happening not in a vacuum. This is happening at a time when dissent has been criminalized. People have already received lengthy jail sentences for, quote-unquote, "delegitimizing" the armed forces. People have received jail sentences for protesting the war. And these were regular people. And now, this is what's happening to the kind of business elite. Pavel Antov, the man who died in India, was also a member of the, you know, quote-unquote, "elected officialdom" of Russia.

SHAPIRO: Right, he was a lawmaker.

IOFFE: Exactly. So that also - you know, you need absolute unity in the ranks there. For Putin, that's also very important - presenting an absolutely united front. You don't even have to prove that the Kremlin was behind these deaths. You don't even have to prove that they were not suicides or not murder-suicides. It is enough that the suspicion is there to make people shut their mouths and not criticize the Kremlin.

SHAPIRO: What is the Kremlin line on these deaths? What do they typically say about them?

IOFFE: They say that, you know, these were beloved family men. They were beloved colleagues and coworkers and that is - it is deeply unfortunate that they met, you know, such an untimely death and that they will be greatly missed. And whenever anybody suggests that there may have been foul play involved, they say that this has nothing to do with reality.

It helps them that authorities in other countries, like in India or in Spain, where some of these deaths have taken place, say that, while they're investigating, they've ruled certain things out, like foul play by the Russian mafia in Spain, or that they're investigating these things as a suicide rather than a homicide. It gives the Kremlin plausible deniability. That's all they need.

SHAPIRO: We should say this isn't pure speculation. There have been recent instances of Russia attempting to kill or successfully killing people it considers to be enemies - Alexander Litvinenko, Sergei Skripal and others.

IOFFE: Absolutely. This is - the Russian government has never stopped killing its enemies. Putin has been quite open about the fact that he believes that traitors deserve death. The other thing is that, in the 1990s, when capitalism came to Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the collapse of communism, a lot of people involved in business were turning up dead. Business became a very dangerous profession. And Vladimir Putin constantly harkens back to those times as a warning. So I think it is also very important for Putin to make it look like, you know, these aren't gangland murders, but coincidences - anything other than the wild chaos of the 1990s to which he is supposed to be the stabilizing antithesis.

SHAPIRO: That's Julia Ioffe of the news site Puck. Thank you so much.

IOFFE: Thank you, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Erika Ryan
Erika Ryan is a producer for All Things Considered. She joined NPR after spending 4 years at CNN, where she worked for various shows and CNN.com in Atlanta and Washington, D.C. Ryan began her career in journalism as a print reporter covering arts and culture. She's a graduate of the University of South Carolina, and currently lives in Washington, D.C., with her dog, Millie.
Ashley Brown
Ashley Brown is a senior editor for All Things Considered.
Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.