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Mysterious health problem affects Russian journalist in exile

Three Russian journalists who fled their country, but continued to write criticism about the war, suddenly suffered from mysterious health problems. German and American doctors suspect poisoning, but there is no hard evidence.

When journalist Yelena Kostyuchenko finally went to the German police after persistent health problems, she got the wind. “We’re crazy about it. You come to us and pretend you’re on vacation, like it’s some kind of paradise here. You don’t even care about your safety. There are political assassinations going on here. Russian services are active in Germany. The negligence of you and your colleagues is without limit”, grumbled the German detective. The journalist waited too long with an urgent blood test to find traces of a possible poison.

Kostyuchenko, a well-known Russian journalist who wrote daring reports from Russian cities in Ukraine, now knows better. Published in New York N+1 magazine he tells his story under the title “How they tried to kill me.” His action is similar to two other colleagues who may have escaped from poison. They all wrote critical pieces about the war in Ukraine and all had already fled abroad for their own safety. But apparently not beyond the power that does not like dissidents and has already given poison business cards to opposition leader Alexei Navalny, among others.


According to research by the Russian research platform The initiate and the investigative journalism network Bellingcat – based in the Latvian capital Riga – is very suspicious. Kostyuchenko was a correspondent for the liberal, independent and now closed Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta and in the same way independent Jellyfish– platform. They say he was poisoned in October 2022 in Munich. Journalist Irina Bablojan of the independent Echoes of Moscow was poisoned a week later in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi, and in May 2023, Natalia Arno, the head of the Free Russia Foundation, was diagnosed with similar symptoms in Prague.

Russian journalist Yelena Kostyuchenko. © rv

Kostyuchenko would have been warned earlier by people with connections in Moscow. They managed to say, he wrote, that there was an order to find and kill him. The Ukrainian intelligence service also warned him. On October 17, Kostyuchenko took the night train to Munich, where he met a friend the next day. On the way back Kostyuchenko developed a headache, followed by dizziness, nausea, intense anxiety and insomnia in the following days. Only ten days later the journalist went to the hospital. Doctors recommended the toxin tests carried out at the Charité clinic, where opposition leader Alexei Navalny was also treated after being poisoned with poison from the Novichok arsenal of nerve agents. The German police launched an investigation, but concluded that it was almost impossible to find traces of toxins after almost two weeks. The case was closed, but reopened last month for additional investigation.

Purple color

Irina Bablojan moved to Georgia last year. At the end of October he felt poor, then weak and dizzy. A day later his palms turned purple. He was also examined later in Berlin, all kinds of allergic complaints were settled, but no trace of the poison was found. Bablojan was questioned by the police about the circumstances of the possible poisoning.

Russian journalist from the independent Ekho Moskvy, Irina Bablojan. © Ekho Moskvy

Natalia Arno saw her hotel room door open in May and said she smelled perfume. When he woke up, he had pain all over his body and a strange taste in his mouth. At home in Washington, he consulted a doctor. The results of the toxicological examination are not yet ready, but doctors believe that Arno was most likely poisoned with a neurotoxic substance. Prosecutors in the United States are now looking into it.

Natalia Arno. © ANP / EPA

Russian journalists also work in the Netherlands. Derk Sauer, publisher based in Amsterdam Moscow Timesbe careful with the messages from The initiate. “If you read the whole story, it could be, but nothing has been proven.” Russian journalists working here are not threatened as far as he knows and can lead a normal life here. “For us, the biggest threat is digital security. Hackers are the biggest risk for us.”

Although the illnesses of the past year remain unexplained, Kostyuchenko, Arno and Bablojan continue to work from abroad.

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