The popularity of the two part post, Mikhail Lesin, a Kremlin Hit, has been a pleasant surprise. I would have been even happier had such enthusiasm been directed towards the five part series, Address to Davos, with weightier concerns than whether a dubious personage got knocked on the head with an ingenious gadget in D.C. Mikhail Lesin founded RT, for which reason my tears might be of the crocodile variety.
If you’re looking for the gadget, it is not likely to be found. Although high-tech wizbang cannot be ruled out, it might be rather simple, assembled out of common objects, and completely unrecognizable until assembled. It may consist of operator technique as much as device.
The historical root of Soviet assassination as a state tool was the Comintern, which established it as a prerogative of Soviet foreign policy, unconstrained by national boundaries. The Soviet officer in charge, Pavel Sudoplatov, of whose autobiography Special Tasks (co authored with his son Anatoli) I am honored to have an autographed copy, was by all accounts someone you might have wished to have as a friend, who describes himself as badly mislead into thinking that his patriotic acts were also morally correct. Sudoplatov was badly tainted by his use of the products of a lab known variously as “Laboratory 12…,13, 1”, (the numbers kept changing), the Poison laboratory of the Soviet secret services, whose products were tested for efficacy on human subjects.
All this has been long abolished. But what was formerly institutional policy lingers like a bad habit. The peculiar situation by which the Russian elite park their wealth abroad has created a vast pool of sophisticates who could reach for the quasi-official and perhaps all the way to the official when a knife in the ribs is desired. Of all the unknowns that define the “Elite”,or the “Inner Circle”, the nature and extent of this relationship is one of the most pressing. The possible involvement of Russian political leadership, the actual “nomenklatura“, is another.
Assassination is a bad habit. As with other acts of violence, it inspires imitation. Sudoplatov was convicted of crimes, none of which exceeded his actions under direct orders, and served fifteen years in prison. The Soviets themselves were so afraid of him, early release was not contemplated. By Sudoplatov’s account, his latter interrogator was astonished when told that every assassination had been meticulously documented, and was part of the record. It is likely that even members of the Russian government are scared this could get out of hand. You cannot build a civilized nation on extrajudicial slayings. The ghosts move the hands of the living to perpetuate the horror.
Soviet adeptness with domestic propaganda lead to their belief that the image constructed by Western minds of Russia can be managed. With post Soviet Russia these manipulations have had modest success, sometimes causing Western reaction in the desired direction, and sometimes in the reverse. If the “Inner Circle” thinks assassination has a tolerable cost, it is a consequence of the successes.
Russian overconfidence in the management of Western perceptions entails the risk of dangerous miscalculation. It is the best justification of the resources consumed by investigations of possible assassinations. Since Russia remains a partly open society, their understanding that we understand them may be profoundly beneficial to how they understand themselves.