A History of Assassinations

Vladimir Putin with Patriarch Kirill, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Moscow, November 2019
Shamil Zhumatov/Getty Images
Vladimir Putin with Patriarch Kirill, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Moscow, November 2019


On a balmy day in late August 2019 in the center of Berlin, a man on a bicycle rode up to forty-year-old Zelimkhan Khangoshvili and fired three bullets at close range, killing him instantly. He then botched his getaway. Witnesses saw him throw his pistol into a nearby canal; police caught him hiding in bushes not far from the scene. The alleged assassin, who has been named as Vadim Sokolov, was discovered to be holding a Russian passport. Khangoshvili was an ethnic Chechen from Georgia who had served as the commander of a rebel unit during the anti-Moscow insurgency in Chechnya at the turn of the century.

In December the German authorities announced that they suspected Moscow of orchestrating the killing and expelled two Russian diplomats in retaliation. (The Russians responded in kind a few days later.) I would be surprised if the legal proceedings do not end up generating negative publicity for the Kremlin, as did the attempt in Salisbury to kill the defector and former spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter with a nerve agent in 2018, and the murder in London of another ex-spy, Alexander Litvinenko, using a radioactive poison in 2006.

Both of those incidents took place in the UK, a favored destination for political exiles from Vladimir Putin’s Russia. That the attackers in those cases used weapons obtainable only from a government suggested that Moscow was sending a message to Russians in general and regime opponents in particular: Yes, it was us—and we haven’t forgotten you.

Putin’s brazen revival of the Soviet practice of killing political opponents outside Russia has shocked many in the West—though one could argue that he has merely updated a long-standing political tradition. For hundreds of years, Russian leaders have sought to assert control over those who have sought new lives abroad. Ivan the Terrible was driven to distraction by Prince Andrei Kurbsky, a nobleman who went over to Muscovy’s Polish-Lithuanian archenemies and used his safe haven to bombard his former sovereign with scathing critiques. Peter the Great’s wayward son Aleksei wandered Europe, seeking political support from governments hostile to his father, until he was finally lured home to a fate of torture and death. In the nineteenth century Alexander Herzen railed against tsarist tyranny from his comfortable London exile.

Herzen managed to get away with it. For all their brutality at home, the tsars did not make a habit of killing their critics abroad, apparently fearing the likely effects on their international reputation and diplomatic prestige. The Bolsheviks had few such compunctions. From the very beginning of their rule they unleashed a campaign of terror against real and…

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