[Editor’s note: “vladimir putin” and “russia” are not capitalized in this article per Ukraine’s official stance to no longer capitalize these words due to the atrocity of putin’s crimes against humanity.]
Since 2000, vladimir putin has managed to retain power in russia, despite the fact that their constitution only allowed presidents to serve two terms when he was first elected. He’s now on his fourth term, and as russia has launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, many have openly wondered how someone as dangerous and awful as putin has remained in power for this long.
One reason is as simple as it is depressing: those who criticize putin tend to die. And while these deaths aren’t linked directly to putin, the circumstances in which these critics die is suspect. Here are 10 putin critics who died under mysterious circumstances.
Anna Politkovskaya was a russian journalist and one of vladimir putin’s harshest critics. In fact, she wrote the 2003 book putin’s russia, which accused putin directly of transforming russia into a modern police state.
In 2006, she was shot dead inside an elevator in the building where she lived. She was 48 years old. Though five men were convicted of the killing, the judge determined that the men were paid $150,000 by an unknown party to complete the hit.
While putin denied it, many assumed he was the unknown party who ordered her assassination.
Alexander Litvinenko was a former KGB agent who defected to the West. He died in 2006 after criticizing putin and accusing him of being behind a series of 1999 apartment bombings in Russia that killed hundreds of people. Litvinenko was poisoned in London by drinking tea that had been laced with the radioactive material polonium-210.
British officials later concluded that he was poisoned by two russian agents, Andrei Lugovoi and Dmitry Kovtun, most likely under orders from putin. Not only did russia refuse to extradite the agents, but putin awarded Andrei Lugovoi a medal in 2015 for his service to his country.
It took Litvinenko three weeks to die after he was poisoned. In a statement made from his deathbed that was released after his death, Litvinenko blamed putin for his poisoning. “You may succeed in silencing one man but the howl of protest from around the world will reverberate, mr. putin, in your ears for the rest of your life,” he said.
He was 43 years old.
Sergei Magnitsky was a Ukrainian-born russian lawyer who was investigating a serious case of tax fraud. He was arrested after discovering that certain police officials were allegedly behind the $230M fraud he was investigating.
Magnitsky died aged 37 in police custody in 2009 after allegedly being beaten and then not provided with proper medical care. His employer, William Browder, lobbied for sanctions against his accused killers and, to this day, The Magnitsky Sanctions bear his name.
Sergei Yushenkov was an army colonel who had political ambitions of his own. Back in 2003, he formed Liberal russia as its own separate political party. Around that time, Yushenkov was pursuing evidence that putin’s government might have bombed apartments back in 1993.
Yushenkov was shot and killed outside of his Moscow home on April 17, 2003, mere hours after registering his political party to participate in the December 2003 parliamentary elections. He was 52 years old.
Back in the 1990s, Boris Nemtsov was a young political firebrand who rose to deputy prime minister and likely had a shot at becoming russia’s president.
When putin won the presidential election in 2000, Nemtsov supported his victory. But Nemtsov became increasingly critical about putin’s restrictions on civil liberties, eventually leading protests against government corruption and rigged elections.
Everything came to a head in February 2015 when Nemtsov told Ekho Moskvy radio that Putin had pushed Russia into an economic crisis through his “mad, aggressive and deadly policy of war against Ukraine” and urged citizens to join a march against the war in Ukraine the following day.
Within hours of his radio message, as he was walking across a Moscow bridge near the Kremlin, Nemtsov was fatally shot four times in the back in a drive-by shooting. He was 55 years old. Afterward, the Kremlin said putin condemned the murder and would take “personal control” of the investigation, but the killer was never discovered.
Stanislav Markelov was a human rights lawyer who was often a thorn in the russian military’s side. He represented groups such as Chechen civilians alleging human rights violations by the military and journalists facing legal woes after they penned critiques of putin.
One of his clients was investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya, also on this list, who was gunned down in Moscow in 2006. Three years later, Markelov himself was shot and killed by a masked gunman near the Kremlin. He was 34 years old.
Anastasia Baburova was a 25-year-old russian journalist who investigated the activities of neo-Nazi groups. She had barely begun freelancing for the anti-putin newspaper Novaya Gazeta when she was killed. She was gunned down with Stanislav Markelov near the Kremlin in 2009, but it’s not clear whether she was intentionally targeted or was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. Baburova had been interviewing Markelov.
Initial reports claimed she was wounded in an attempt to stop Markelov’s killer, but it was later reported Baburova was shot in the back of the head. As of October 2021, six journalists for Novaya Gazeta have been murdered since 2000.
Two members of a neo-Nazi group were convicted of Markelov and Baburova’s murders. However, russian military analyst Pavel Felgenhauer later claimed the details of the murders indicated they were pulled off with the help of russian state security services.
Natalia Estemirova was a human rights activist and journalist investigating murders and civilian abductions allegedly being committed by a police department in chechnya, which had been invaded by russia in 1999.
Estemirova died in 2009 at the age of 51 after being kidnapped outside of her home. She was shot several times and her body was found dumped in the woods. No one has been convicted of her murder.
In 2019, her daughter Lana told Current Time that though she would not speculate on her mother’s direct killer, she blamed putin, his ally ramzan kadyrov (the head of the chechen republic) “and this whole system that they have built over the past 20 years.”
She called it, “A system in which one cannot speak the truth without consequences, a system in which one cannot criticize the actions or inaction of the authorities.”
Yuri Shchekochikhin is yet another journalist and putin critic who died under mysterious circumstances. He had been investigating putin’s potential involvement in the 1999 russian apartment bombings and was planning to move to the United States.
However, he died of a mysterious illness in 2003, at the age of 53, shortly before his planned departure. His symptoms fit those of Alexander Litvinenko, who died of poisoning after his tea was spiked with radioactive material.
To make things even more suspicious, russian authorities classified Shchekochikhin’s medical records, and the public was never able to scrutinize them.
Not all putin critics started out as critics. For example, Boris Berezovsky was a billionaire business tycoon who played an important role in putin’s initial rise to power. Once putin was in power, though, Berezovsky wielded much less influence than he previously did in Yeltsin’s government.
Things eventually got bad enough for Berezovsky that he fled to the United Kingdom in 2000 and swore to bring putin down, all while making allegations about whom the Kremlin had killed. In 2003 and again in 2007, there were two failed alleged assassination attempts on Berezovky in London, for which he blamed putin.
Then, in 2013, Berezovsky was found dead inside the bathroom of his U.K. home at the age of 67. While it initially looked like a suicide, the coroner’s office could not confirm the actual cause of death.