It’s well known that the fearsome Soviet spy agency, the KGB, used brutal tactics to eliminate and intimidate rivals. Legend has it that when Soviet diplomats were kidnapped by terrorists in Lebanon in the mid-1980s, KGB officers kidnapped and killed a relative of one of the perpetrators, mailing body parts to the terrorists to demonstrate why Russia’s enemies shouldn’t poke the bear.
Now-declassified CIA documents reveal the KGB had a special team created exclusively for assassinations. The KGB’s 13th Department was called the “Directorate of Special Tasks” and used “executive actions” or “liquid affairs” (read: targeted assassinations) to eliminate threats to the Soviet state.
The directorate had two special labs that most officers didn’t know about – one for creating unique weapons and explosives, the other for developing new poisons and drugs. Poisons were a favorite for these extra-judicial killings because they attracted less attention and were often confused for natural deaths.
Here are nine KGB assassination attempts that will make you want to run background checks on your friends.
1. Leon Trotsky
Trotsky was a key player in the Bolshevik takeover of Russia in 1918. When Lenin died, many believed he would take over. But it was Stalin who won the succession struggle.
Trotsky criticized the new Soviet state for suppressing democracy and was expelled from the government for his trouble. Eventually, Stalin exiled Trotsky out of the USSR.
The Mexico City suburbs became his new home, but the distance couldn’t keep him safe from the death sentence Stalin ordered. In 1940, Trotsky was done in by a Spanish Communist agent with an ice pick.
2. Franz Josip Tito
The World War II leader of Yugoslavia would not give up his country’s hard-fought independence for anything. Tito’s refusal to align himself with the Soviet Bloc frustrated Stalin to no end. So the Soviet dictator decided to get rid of Tito — as he had done with many previous political roadblocks.
The Russians tried to kill Tito using a pneumatic spray of bubonic plague, a box that sprayed poison gas when opened, and 20 other ways to end the Yugoslav leader’s life. Tito thwarted so many of Stalin’s assassin attempts , he had to send a letter to Moscow that read:
‘Stop sending people to kill me… If you don’t stop sending killers, I’ll send one to Moscow, and I won’t have to send a second.’
3. John Wayne
Film historian and author Michael Munn tells the story of John Wayne’s brush with a Soviet assassination order in his book, “John Wayne: The Man Behind the Myth.” Wayne’s anti-Communist statements didn’t sit well with Stalin, who allegedly ordered The Duke’s murder. Two Russian filmmakers, Sergei Gerasimov and Alexei Kapler, warned film legend Orson Welles about the order. Wells told Wayne, but Wayne was also warned by the FBI and stuntman Yakima Canutt, whom Wayne once credited with saving his life.
Wayne and a screenwriter friend planned to abduct the assassins, drive them to a beach, and stage a mock execution to pump them for information. The two hitmen turned and worked for the FBI while Wayne moved to a house behind a large wall.
4. Lev Rebet
Rebet was a Ukrainian nationalist writer, Nazi death camp survivor, and staunch anti-Communist. He was also the leader of the Ukrainian government for a time. In 1957, Rebet died suddenly of “natural causes” while on a trip to Munich. In 1961, a KGB agent named Bohdan Stashynsky defected to the West and revealed Rebet’s death was an assassination. The weapon he used was a gun that sprayed a cloud of cyanide gas. Stashynsky also killed Rebet’s party boss, Stepan Bandera, with the gas weapon.
5. Georgi Markov
A gray-haired man waiting for a London bus in 1978 would have attracted little attention from passers-by. In this case, that man was Georgi Markov, a Communist defector from Bulgaria who made England his new home. The man next to him dropped his umbrella, hitting Markov in the leg. It hurt, but Markov barely noticed. The man apologized and they both went on their way. Markov died four days later.
His autopsy revealed a pellet in his leg which contained .2 milligrams of ricin, a deadly poison used in chemical warfare and made famous by the show “Breaking Bad.” Vladimir Kostov, another Bulgarian defector, survived a similar fate with the pellet being stuck in his back. He told the world about the attack on Radio Free Europe four days after his brush with death.
6. Georgiy Okolovich
In 1954, Nikolai Khoklov appeared at the door of Georgiy Okolovich, the leader of a Russian anti-Communist group in exile. Okolovich lived in Frankfurt, West Germany, at the time. It must have been quite a shock when Khoklov said:
“Georgiy Sergeyevich, I have come to you from Moscow. The Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union has ordered your assassination.”
But Khoklov didn’t kill him. Instead, the KGB agent defected to the U.S. and revealed (via press conference) the weapon he was supposed to use: a cigarette pack that was actually an electrically-operated, silenced gun that fired cyanide rounds.
7. Nikolai Khoklov
In retaliation for his defection and failed assassination of Okolovich, Khoklov’s wife was sentenced to forced resettlement in the Soviet Union and Department 13 ordered Khoklov’s own assassination. The weapon would be thallium poisoning, the first use of radiological weapons by the KGB.
Thallium is a soft metal element that was often used as a rat or ant poison but fell into disuse for its potential side effects. When Khoklov’s skin began to crack, he began to lose his hair, and bleed without clotting, he knew what was happening. German doctors irrigated him with antidotes and he survived.
8. Pope John Paul II
When Polish Cardinal Karol Józef Wojtyła was elected Pope in 1979, the Soviet Union was less than thrilled. They believed he was the single greatest threat to their power, especially in Poland. So when the Pontiff was shot and wounded on May 13, 1981, the world looked to more than his attacker, a Turkish man named Mehmet Ali Agca, for answers.
The Solidarity movement was a direct outgrowth of the Pope’s visit to Poland in 1979 and became a constant irritation in the side of the Soviet leaders. A book detailing the Mitrokhin Archive, a massive trove of Top Secret KGB documents carried over by Vasili Mitrokhin after his defection to the West, shows the KGB carried out this assassination attempt in retaliation for the Pope’s attempt to undermine Soviet regime.
9. Alexander Litvinenko
Litvinenko served with the KGB from 1986 until the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. He continued serving in Russia’s internal security service long after, working to infiltrate organized crime groups. In 1998, he accused his superiors of ordering the assassination of a Russian media mogul in a public press conference. He was arrested twice for this and personally fired by Vladimir Putin, whom the agent accused of bombing Russian apartments and murdering a Russian journalist to get elected president.
He fled to London with his family and began to write books and advise the Britain’s intelligence community on Russian activities. Allegedly a target of the KGB’s susccessor, the FSB, in 2006 he suddenly became gravely ill, growing weak and unable to walk. When he was hospitalized, specialists conducted a test for radioactive materials and discovered the element Polonium-210, a radioactive element that emits alpha radiation – only damaging to human tissue when ingested.
The UK’s Health Protection Agency discovered the Polonium poison in Litvinenko’s teacup, 200 times greater than a normally lethal dose.