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Three months after Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko died in a British hospital from being poisoned by Kremlin secret service agents in 2006, a Los Angeles physician and her daughter were shocked to discover they were on their way to a similar fate.
Marina Kovalevsky and her grown daughter Yana were visiting friends in Moscow, Russia, in February 2007, when they came down with painful stomach cramps, diarrhea, numbness and tingling in their hands and feet.
The Russia-born Americans eventually found out they had somehow ingested the metal thallium, which attacks the nervous system and vital organs and is often used to kill rats. It has long been a favorite of dictators such as Saddam Hussein, to knock off their political opponents.
“To this day nobody knows why it happened,” Leon Peck, Marina’s brother and an oral surgeon in Los Angeles, told The Post. “Maybe the poison was meant for someone else, but we don’t know.”
Earlier this week, it was revealed that Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich — acting as a go-between Russia and Ukraine — and two Ukrainian officials Ukraine official were poisoned in Kyiv on March 3, during peace negotiations to end the war in Ukraine. The men developed symptoms that included included red eyes, constant and painful tearing, temporary blindness and peeling skin on their faces and hands, according to the Wall Street Journal.
The symptoms were so severe that Abramovich asked the scientist examining him, “Are we dying?” according to the New York Times. But the dosage was not enough to cause any permanent damage, according to a series of tweets from Bellingcat, a Netherlands-based investigative group.
The targeted poisonings — it is suspected that the nerve agents Chloropicrin or Novichok were likely added to water and chocolates consumed at the talks — follow in a long tradition of Russian tradecraft that dates back to 1921, when then-Premier Vladimir Lenin founded Lab X, a suburban Moscow facility that manufactures a wide array of deadly chemicals.
“The idea behind poisoning is to intimidate and delay,” said Rebekah Koffler, a Russian-born US intelligence expert and author of “Putin’s Playbook: Russia’s Secret Plan to Defeat America,” published last year. “They don’t care if the public knows. The Russians want the target to know, and the opposing government to know, about the poisoning to instill fear and doubt. In Abramovich’s case, it’s probably Putin’s view that he went off the reservation and that his allegiance should have been exclusively to Putin.”
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky asked President Biden not to sanction Abramovich, who has been sanctioned by the UK and Europe, because he could be an asset in peace negotiations, the Wall Street Journal reported last week.
Since becoming president of Russia in 2000, Putin’s operatives are suspected of having poisoned a long list of foreign diplomats, dissidents and activists, including Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny in 2020, and Vladimir Kara-Murza, in 2015 and 2017. The Kara-Murza poisonings, which the anti-Putin activist survived, are currently being investigated by the FBI.
“There is a difference in the kind of poison that is used and it depends on the mission,” Koffler told The Post. “It depends on whether they want to just incapacitate you or silence you completely.”
And survival often depends on quick action, she said.
For Marina and Yana, the poisoning was a harrowing close call, Peck told The Post.
“It was scary because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time,” he said.
In February 2007, mother and daughter traveled to their native Russia to attend a birthday party and a wedding. After a day spent sightseeing and at a theater performance, both came down with debilitating stomach cramps. By the time they hailed a taxi to take them to a private clinic, Marina was having trouble walking, according to reports. While doctors initially diagnosed them with food poisoning and put them on dialysis, Marina, a Russian Jew who had emigrated to the US in 1989, suspected something more sinister.
At the time, there was a frenzy of media attention amid sudden fears that Russia’s poisoning tactics could strike anyone inside or outside of Russia. Litvinenko, the spy, had been drugged by Russian FSB operatives in the UK when he drank a cup of polonium-laced tea.
From her hospital bed, Marina dispatched a friend to sneak a vile of her blood to be independently tested.
“[Staffers] were afraid to test at the hospital,” said Peck, adding that the doctors at the clinic did not want to get involved in a difficult political situation involving the Kremlin.
When activist Navalny became violently ill on a flight from Moscow to the Siberian city of Omsk in August 2020, he spent two days in an Omsk hospital before being evacuated to Berlin — where toxicology tests confirmed that he was poisoned with Novichok, which can disrupt the nervous system and lead to cardiac arrest.
When lab work on Marina and Yana’s blood showed thallium poisoning, the mother used a borrowed cellphone to call Peck, who was told by hospital staff that they had no antidotes in stock.
Peck scrambled to find Prussian blue, a chemical used to counter heavy metal poisons. Through the FDA, he located a Texas company that manufactured the chemical and who told him where he could find it in California. He bought $1,300 worth of the chemical from a Santa Ana pharmacy before boarding the next plane to Moscow.
“When I got there, I found them hospitalized in the psych ward with guards holding heavy machine guns in front of the room,” Peck recalled, adding he did not know why the rooms were guarded.
He personally administered the antidote to his sister and niece, and was relieved when their symptoms lessened the following day.
But Russian authorities, who had seized the women’s passports, refused to allow the family to leave the country because they said they were conducting an investigation into the poisoning.
Peck had already reserved three seats each for his sister and niece — so that they could lie down — on a flight back to Los Angeles, and he wasn’t about to take “No” for an answer, he said.
“They had hungry eyes,” he said of the Russian officials who refused to cooperate until he offered a bribe. “A few dollars in their pockets helped.”
Once home in Los Angeles, mother and daughter spent more than 10 days in a hospital, where more Prussian blue was administered because it slowly eliminates metals through the bowels. Yana lost her hair and continued to have numbness and tingling in her legs, according to the Los Angeles Times, which conducted an interview with her in July 2007. She told the newspaper she had no idea why they were targeted.
“We have no political ties, we have no property in Russia and I don’t have a boyfriend with mob ties,” said Yana in the interview with the Los Angeles Times.
Yana, now 41, said she and her mother did have an idea where they may have encountered the poison on their trip, but were told not to divulge the location by their lawyers. Marina, 64, did not return The Post’s calls this week.
“My mother has never spoken publicly about what happened, and I have really tried for years to put this behind me,” Yana told The Post.