By Eric Vandenbroeck and co-workers
A General and a ballerina
As a follow-up to our earlier research about some of the actions and structure of Russian intelligence combined with a follow-up of our research about the Russian émigré communities, by the late 1920s, the wave of convenient but inexplicable “natural” deaths spread into Western Europe and even the United States. General Pyotr Wrangel, famously known as the Black Baron, was among the most famous victims.
Named for the black uniform he usually wore, Wrangel was one of the leading commanding officers among the troops that remained loyal to the fallen Tsar during the Russian Civil War. He was the last commander to leave the European part of the Soviet Republic in November 1920 and was known as one of the most prominent exiled White émigrés and military leaders of South Russia (as commander in chief).
In the Revolution, Wrangel joined the Whites - but only after the Reds had sought to kill his family. He was arguably the most successful and loved of all the White commanders and might have prevailed over the Bolsheviks had he been installed earlier. His fame was ensured when he became the last White Russian to leave Russia, refusing to embark until all his men were rescued and onboard. The grudging respect the Reds held for him was commemorated in the marching anthem of the Red Army celebrating their victory over the Black Baron, “White Army, Black Baron.”1 It remains a favorite song of the Russian Army today.
After the defeat of the Whites, many of those who escaped gathered in Paris, expecting that the Red regime would collapse in a few months. The Black Baron did the same. Wrangel was the leading expatriate target for Stalin, not just for what he represented but for his effective leadership of the resistance abroad. Wrangel and his family narrowly avoided being on his yacht when an Italian steamer rammed it on a journey that had originated from a Soviet port. Unable to kill the Black Baron in an accident, Stalin turned to the secret Soviet tools of Laboratory One. Wrangel predicted his death in his autobiography, writing that the KGB would soon poison him in a disguised “natural” death.2 And true to form, a stranger posing as a Russian refugee eventually came and stayed with the Wrangel family as a butler at their home in Brussels. Not long after, the Black Baron, previously in robust health, developed severe respiratory problems that swiftly took his life. The “butler” quickly disappeared; all efforts to validate the background of this phantom failed. The Wrangel's and most observers were certain the Black Baron was murdered in a staged natural death. There would be no final charge across the steppes. He would live only in the Red Army’s song celebrating victory over him, which failed to mention that Wrangel was not felled by a bullet or sword but by poison.
Wrangel’s successor in Paris was General Alexander Kutepov until he suddenly disappeared on January 26, 1930.3 He remained a missing person of uncertain fate for more than sixty years until the information of his secret poisoning by the KGB during a botched kidnapping finally surfaced.4 The next putative head of the White Russians was General Yevgeny Miller, who likewise disappeared in Paris in 1937. He was a missing person for sixty years until the 1990s, when Soviet records revealed that he had been drugged and secretly brought to the Lubyanka, where he was tortured and executed.5 There are few sadder documents than the undelivered letters held for sixty years in Miller’s secret file, written by Miller to his wife and children, which his jailers falsely promised to deliver.
Murder in Paris was not always with poisons simulating a natural death. On occasion, it was important to make a murder a learning experience for opponents of the regime. Thus on May 25, 1926, Symon Petliura, first president of Democratic Ukraine, was gunned down on a Paris street as a flagrant warning.6 Many attacks followed in Paris, sometimes open and sometimes secret. Shortly before Pavlova’s final return to Paris, on December 7, 1930, the first president of Democratic Georgia, Noe Ramishvili, was murdered at the specific direction of Stalin.7 Like Petliura, he was gunned down in a gruesome killing in daylight on a large Paris boulevard. It was a lesson that did not intimidate Anna Pavlova, who continued with her plans for a 1931 tour of Eastern Europe, despite Soviet efforts to discourage and even prevent it.
Any study of the records of the Russian émigré community would contain one story after another of similar mysterious deaths and disappearances. Émigrés like Pavlova and Diaghilev saw their friends drop dead at an alarming rate, and many shared Pavlova’s belief that a “Sword of Damocles” hung over her head.8 In Russia and the West, Stalin’s mass murder campaign accelerated from the 1920s up until the outbreak of World War II, with the dictator dealing death to people in Russia and Europe almost at random. His victims were as diverse as Yevgeny Zamyatin, one of the most significant early science-fiction writers; Nikolai Koltsov, biologist and zoologist; Boris Savinkov, politician; and Andreas Pavley, ballet director, who leaped or was thrown out of a sixteenth-story hotel window in Chicago.9 Prince Vasilchikov, Alexander Guchkov, and many others experienced quick, inexplicable, and convenient deaths, particularly in Paris in the late 1920s to late 1930s.10
A secret CIA study on Soviet assassinations written in 1964 was finally released in 1993.11. The study had been prepared and secretly delivered to the Warren Commission in 1964 and remained sealed for thirty years. The CIA concluded that a “long list” of Russian émigrés (some not yet known) perceived as potential threats had been assassinated with Russian involvement, concealed, and usually recorded wrongly as natural deaths. After efforts to lure the targets back to Russia or otherwise neutralize them failed, they would be eliminated by poison designed to conceal the true cause of their deaths and mimic natural deaths caused by prior diseases. According to the CIA, the devil’s brew of poisons included arsenic, potassium, cyanide, warfarin, scopolamine, thallium, chloral hydrate, paraldehyde, and barbiturates. Unlike Nero, Genghis Khan, or Robespierre, who openly gloried in the public infliction of death, Stalin, like Hitler, killed mainly out of sight, except when an object lesson was deemed valuable.12 Stalin increasingly turned to secret assassinations with poison to eliminate his victims, especially when dealing with enemies abroad.
The coming of Putin
Anonymous poison is the weapon of cowards. Bioweapons are the tools of madmen indiscriminate in their killings. Poisoners and bio-warriors are detested by true warriors and even by their masters like Stalin, who destroyed generations of Lab One workers. But not by Vladimir Putin. In 2017, Putin began a speech to the KGB by recognizing some of those he said were among Russia’s greatest heroes.13 Amazingly, first on his list was not General Zhukov, who defeated Hitler, or brave Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space who died at a tragically young age. Putin did not name the famous Russian women who were World War II snipers at Stalingrad or flew the dangerous Russian night biplanes used to torment the Nazis. True to his KGB roots, Putin’s list of greatest heroes began with Uncle Yasha, the “baker” and poisoner of Paris who murdered hundreds and likely poisoned Pavlova, as we will see underneath.14 In Putin’s mind, Yasha the poisoner ranks first among Russia’s KGB heroes. Indeed, despite their reported poses as strong men and Marxist heroes, Putin was never involved in a minute of personal combat (yet sending out 40,000 and still counting young Russians into their dead while in many cases participating in war crimes) nor carried out any notable act of personal courage and contrasted strikingly with their victims.
Evidence that Stalin directed the murder of Pavlova
There are more than forty different biographies of Anna Pavlova, mainly in English and Russian. They are almost all admirable, but three stand out. First and foremost is Keith Money’s exhaustive biography, Anna Pavlova.15 Also very valuable are the great Margot Fonteyn’s wonderful Pavlova, Portrait of a Dancer 16 (from the perspective of a great dancer), and Victor D’André’s Anna Pavlova in Art Life17 (a first-hand account shortly after her death by her manager/husband). None of these propose or discuss the Soviet poisoning of Pavlova, although each notes Pavlova’s repeated assertion that her food had poisoned her. Until the 1990s, known as “Uncle Yasha’s Group” headquarters in Paris in the late 1920s and 1930s, responsible for many such liquidations, was wholly unknown to the world and these biographers.
1. Pavlova, a trained ballerina very much in touch with her own body, told her doctors, her husband, and everyone who would listen that she had been poisoned by the food she ate in Paris before boarding the train. Although she, no doubt, could not state who had poisoned her or with what, her dying declaration that she had been poisoned in Paris is of considerable weight.
2. Joseph Stalin, the dictator of Russia, was deeply infatuated with ballet and believed strongly in cultural hegemony - the control of all culture in service to the Soviet State.
3. With Stalin’s approval, Anatoly Lunacharsky, the Soviet minister of culture, invited Diaghilev to return to Russia. Likewise, Pavlova’s long-lost mother appeared in 1924 to lure her into returning. It was a serious enough matter that Lunacharsky himself visited Diaghilev in 1926 in Paris to extend the invitation to Stalin personally.
4. When neither returned, Lunacharsky personally (and certainly with Stalin’s approval) condemned both in 1927 as class enemies of the Soviet people in a widely circulated article.4 Diaghilev’s family were secretly arrested and sent to Soviet labor camps. The status of Pavlova’s mother post-1926 is unknown. The Diaghilev family was executed a short time after Diaghilev’s death. Likewise, in 1927, defection from Russia or refusal to return when summoned was made a capital offense.
5. After 1925, the Yasha Group was organized in Paris with its poison lab at Stalin's direction. They began actively liquidating White Russian émigrés, often with poison. Like the Black Baron, the poisons simulated pneumonia or lung disease on occasion. The Yasha Group and its targets were sufficiently important that by 1929, Sergey Spigelglas, the most notorious and skilled of all high-level secret liquidators, was posted in Paris.
6. There were several later confessed Russian poisonings, both in Russia and in the West, which had been disguised to mimic natural causes. Those symptoms and the methodology were virtually identical to the Pavlova poisoning. See, for example, the confessed poisonings of each of the Gorkys (induced lung failure). The death of Diaghilev, while different from Pavlova’s pleurisy, was itself highly suspicious and resembled the effects of many poisons then being tested in Russia. Pathologists indicate there are a number of poisons capable of producing Pavlova’s symptoms. The most obvious suspect is anthrax, now a Soviet favorite.
7. While not overtly political, Pavlova, a favorite of the Russian royal family, was the most prominent and loved symbol of old Imperial Russia. She was much beloved by the White Russian émigrés and responded with benefits for the destitute. In Cannes, a few days before her death, she visited and prayed over the grave of the last Romanov recognized by some as the tsar and Stalin’s most deadly enemy. She had danced at his previous birthday earlier in 1928.
8. In August 1929, the Russian government seized all assets in Russia of Pavlova’s charity for destitute ballerinas. The assets were distributed to the Red Army. Pavlova has again declared a class enemy of the Russian people. This produced worldwide condemnation of the Soviet government, making any more overt action against Pavlova difficult. This practically coincided with Diaghilev’s suspicious death.
9. As Pavlova danced in Europe in 1930, the Russian government sought to prevent her performances through its ambassadors. Thus, the diary of Anna Kollontai in 1930 reflects her frustration at her failed efforts, at Stalin’s direction, to get Norway to block Anna Pavlova’s performance. Kollantai was among the most important Soviet diplomats globally and very close to Stalin. Pavlova knew of the pressure and implicit threat.
10. In a world that loved Pavlova, no one other than Stalin had both the motive and the instruments in place to poison Pavlova. Such an action would have to be approved by Stalin, as with so many others.
11. As a result of these actions, Pavlova told her friends shortly before her poisoning in the fall of 1930 that she felt “a sword of Damocles” poised over her, no doubt referring to the actions of the Soviets. She begged one friend to pray for her.
12. The circumstances preceding her death strongly support Pavlova’s belief that she was poisoned. She was a superb athlete in the wonderful condition who had never been seriously ill. Immediately after taking lunch in her Paris hotel room, while boarding a train to begin her 1931 tour - the performances Stalin ordered stopped - she suddenly and inexplicably felt very ill, inexorably spiraling down to death a few days later despite medical care. Her death appeared to those present to be caused by pneumonia and then blood poisoning. The Soviets had developed and been using poisons that mimicked those diseases.5 Within a short time, the Soviet government contested her estate in London, ostensibly on behalf of her ancient mother, with the inside knowledge that her marriage to D’André, publicly announced many times by Pavlova, had never been legally formalized. Through the ring in Paris, and with cooperation from several of Pavlova’s friends, Yasha had inside knowledge of everything she did.
13. The Soviets had available and were using poisons that closely mimicked the symptoms of Pavlova’s last hours.6 They later acknowledged their use in several murders. They also had a superb team of poisoners at the location where Pavlova said she was poisoned. Shortly before her death, they dispatched
14. The timing of the poisoning (immediately before a scheduled train trip with a meal in her room) reflects the brilliance of the Yasha liquidators. They had easy access to her meal, and her travel separated the victim from the forensic evidence and witnesses who might have aided in an investigation. The crime site was also located at the convenient headquarters city of Uncle Yasha and Spigelglas. The poisoning occurred immediately before the commencement of her 1931 tour that would take her into Poland, close to Russia, whose dictator she defied. It was an opportune moment to end the prohibited tour.
15. The reader must, in the end, decide whether Stalin poisoned Anna Pavlova, as he murdered so many others, and whether Pavlova’s long-ago plea that she was poisoned in Paris should finally be heeded or whether she will remain simply another convenient death by symptoms without a cause. Purges in the late 1930s completed by Yasha’s being beaten to death in 1955 sealed all lips, which could have provided additional information. Like the records on Wallenberg, the KGB archives on Pavlova will never be opened until Putin’s control of Russia collapses, and Russia is freed, as Akhmatova prayed. The refusal of Putin’s government to make the applicable records available long after the deaths of Pavlova and Raoul Wallenberg speaks loudly of their guilt.
1. Svetlana Lokhova, The Spy Who Changed History: The Untold Story of How the Soviet Union Stole America’s Top Secrets (New York: Pegasus Books, 2019).
2. Citing rumors the OGPU had poisoned Wrangel, the secret police who had deeply infiltrated émigré circles, Anthony Kroner, “Searching for Peter Wrangel,” Stanford University Hoover Institution, http://www.hoover.org/research/searching-peter-wrangel.
3. Brackman, The Secret File of Joseph Stalin, 213; Birstein, The Perversion of Knowledge, 85.
4. Anatoli Sudoplatov, Pavel Sudoplatov, Special Tasks: The Memoirs of an Unwanted Witness - A Soviet Spymaster, 1994, 91.
5. The Perversion of Knowledge: The True Story of Soviet Science, 2001, 85.
6. Adrian Bryttan, “Film Review: Secret Diary of Symon Petliura,” Ukrainian Weekly, November 16, 2018, http://www.ukrweekly.com/uwwp/film-review-secret-diary-of-symon-petliura/ .
7. Eric Lee, “Georgia: Another Revolution Was Possible,” openDemocracy.net, November 27, 2017, http://www.opendemocracy.net/en/odr/another-revolution-was-possible/; Nucleus, “Case File #0121: NKVD Black Work,” The True Crime Database, http://thetruecrimedatabase.com/case_file/nkvd-black-work .
8. Keith Money, Anna Pavlova, Her Life and Art (New York: HarperCollins, 1982), 385.
9. David S. Shields, “Andreas Pavley Biography,” Broadway Photographs, https://broadway.cas.sc.edu/content/andreas-pavley; “Andreas Pavley Leaps to Death in Chicago,” New York Times, June 27, 1931, https://timesmachine.nytimes.com/timesmachine/1931/06/27/102246707.pdf .
10. Describing victims of the NKVD, prima ballerina Maya Plisetskaya stated, “Nobody knew what NKVD did to people in their camps; the truth was hidden and lied about. I think there were many more victims,” Anna Nemtsova, in “Russia’s Greatest Ballerina Remembered in the War Zone,” Daily Beast, May 6, 2015, http://www.thedailybeast.com/russias-greatest-ballerina-remembered-in-the-war-zone?ref=scroll .
11. “Soviet Use of Assassination and Kidnapping,” Central Intelligence Agency.
12. Arnold Beichman, “Death of the Butcher,” Hoover Institution, April 30, 2003, http://www.hoover.org/research/death-butcher .
13. Colin Shindler, “The Russian Taste for Poison,” Jewish Chronicle, March 15, 2018, http://www.thejc.com/salisbury-nerve-gas-attack-on-sergei-skripol-russia-s-history-of-poison-plots-1.460725 .
15. Keith Money, Anna Pavlova: Her Life and Art, New York: HarperCollins, 1982.
16. Margot Fonteyn, Pavlova, Portrait of a Dancer, New York: Viking, 1984.
17. Victor D’André, Anna Pavlova, New York: Benjamin Blom, Inc., 1972.