They have fallen out of windows and boats, hanged themselves, been stabbed by a jealous wife and — in two or three separate cases — supposedly slaughtered their families before taking their own lives.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has proven bizarrely fatal for the country’s wealthy business people and their loved ones, although none have been near the front lines when they breathed their last breaths.
Since just days before the war started in February, a string of at least 11 oligarchs and lesser executives with some of Russia’s largest corporations — plus eight of their family members — have died in what were described as accidents, suicides, murder-suicides and illnesses. .
The latest was Ivan Pechorin, who according to local media reports fell overboard from a speeding boat in the Sea of Japan on Saturday. That death came barely a week after Ravil Maganov, vice president of energy giant Lukoil, was said to have tumbled out of the window of a hospital.
Officially, the causes were accidents, health issues and common crimes. Unofficially, the series of untimely fatalities has raised the specter of something more menacing — in a country where political and business-related assassination is not uncommon.
“When people die suddenly in Russia, you usually assume it’s suspicious until you rule it out,” says Bill Browder, once the largest foreign investor in the country.
“It becomes a lot more suspicious when all those people die in strange ways and all are connected in some way to the oil and gas business,” he said in an interview Wednesday
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Browder, now a staunch critic of President Vladimir Putin, suspects that most of the deaths were murders, likely orchestrated by business rivals to obtain assets or other cash flows from figures in the energy industry, the main source of wealth now in a nation subject to sweeping Western sanctions.
He also believes the killings — if that is what they are — would almost certainly have been planned by the FSB, Russia’s main security-intelligence service, with the president getting a cut of the resulting proceeds.
“Putin is behind all of them, because he is the ultimate beneficiary,” charged Browder, whose late employee Sergei Magnitsky died in police custody after revealing a massive Russian tax fraud. “He is like the mafia boss.”
Some kind of re-ordering may be happening within the oil and gas industry, which is crucial to funding the war, echoed Seva Gunitsky, a University of Toronto political science professor.
“It could be security forces muscling into the energy sector,” he said. “(But) these are guesses. We are just making guesses about a situation that is by definition opaque.”
It’s also possible that some of the dead had voiced opposition to the war behind the scenes, suggested Marcus Kolga, a fellow of the Macdonald-Laurier Institute think tank. But he doesn’t rule out more economic motives as well.
“Let’s not forget that Putin does mix money and politics and I think he goes after his enemies in both cases with equal amounts of cruelty and potentially violence.”
That said, all is speculation now, Kolga and other observers stressed.
Nothing has clearly tied Putin or his subordinates to the deaths and a possible motive for political murder was present in only two of the cases. Those victims were executives of a company, Lukoil, that has obliquely criticized the Ukraine war.
Browder, though, says that Lukoil’s statement was so mild as to have offended no one in the Kremlin and is a red herring. It doesn’t explain the deaths of its executives Alexander Subbotin in May or Maganov this month, he said.
“Lukoil is not in any way anti-war.”
Putin has certainly made opposition to the war a risky proposition in general, pushing through a law that punishes criticism of the military with up to 15 years in prison.
And he has been accused of ordering a long list of killings or attempted murders of his critics over the years, accusations the president has repeatedly denied.
Opposition politician Alexei Navalny barely survived after being poisoned with the nerve agent Novichok in 2020, an act he blamed on the FSB.
Boris Nemtsov, another opposition leader, was gunned down within sight of the Kremlin in 2015, while former spy and Putin critic Alexander Litvinenko succumbed to poisoning by radioactive polonium-210 in 2006. Journalist Anna Politkovskaya, who wrote critically about Putin’s wars in Chechnya, was shot dead in her apartment building.
But Browder said the recent deaths are much more likely attempts to pressure figures linked to the oil and gas industry to hand over assets, similar to the Russian “aluminum wars” of the 1990s that saw dozens murdered in the struggle for control of that industry.
The most striking of the recent deaths involved brutal violence against entire families on three occasions less than a month apart, although who perpetrated the bloodshed is a matter of debate.
Billionaire Vasily Melnikov of the medical supply company MedStom was found stabbed to death along with his wife and two young sons on March 24.
Let’s not forget that Putin mixes money and politics and I think he goes after his enemies in both cases
A few weeks later on April 18, Vladislav Avayev, a former vice president of Gazprombank, was discovered dead of a gunshot wound, a pistol in his hand and his wife and 13-year-old daughter also shot dead, state-run TASS reported .
A day after that, Spanish police came across a grisly scene at the luxury Costa Brava villa of Sergei Protosenya, former CEO of energy giant Novatek. His wife and teenage daughter had been stabbed to death; the father was hanging in the garden, a blood-stained ax and knife next to him.
Russian media suggested all were murder-suicides, although family and friends voiced strong doubts.
Then there was telecom millionaire Yevgeny Palant, reportedly stabbed to death along with his wife, with Russian media suggesting she had killed him in a jealous rage, before fatally knifing herself.
And there were other violent deaths, too. Yuri Voronov, whose Astra-Shipping company was tied to the Gazprom gas producer, showed up dead of a gunshot wound in his pool this July, a gun and spent shells nearby.
In January, shortly before Russia invaded Ukraine, Gazprom executive Leonid Shulman was found fatally stabbed in a gated community. Weeks later in the same enclave, police discovered fellow Gazprom executive Alexander Tyulakov hanging in a garage.
A 12th oligarch — oil-and-gas billionaire Mikhail Watford — died in the UK in March, but British police said the death did not appear suspicious.
Despite the speculation about shadowy murder plots, it’s still possible the deaths are just a coincidence, says Gunitsky.
“Strange things happen,” said the U of T professor. “History is not required to make sense.”