‘Poisoned’ Russian spy fighting for his life

From Russia with hate: Here are just five UK deaths thought to have been ordered by Moscow.

Why do we think of spies as glamorous or brave? Today’s shocking story is as vicious and tawdry as they come, distinguished only by the fact that it may be sanctioned by a foreign power.

After leaving her Salisbury gym on Sunday, Freya Church noticed an odd couple on a bench. An old man was “doing some strange hand movements” as a younger woman sat slumped against him. “They looked so out of it”, she noted. “Like they had been taking something quite strong.”

Things moved quickly after that. The pair were rushed to hospital and treated for suspected poisoning. They were identified as Russian ex-spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia. Counter-terrorism police launched an investigation. Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson warned of a “robust” response if the Russian state was found to be behind the attack.

The cause of the couple’s sickness is far from clear. However, it bears similarities to past incidents in which Russian dissidents died suspiciously in the UK (see image above).

In particular, it echoes the poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko, another ex-spy, in London in 2006. An inquiry concluded that Russian President Vladimir Putin had “probably” ordered the assassination.

A former military intelligence colonel in Russia, Skripal was convicted in 2006 of spying for the UK. The Russian secret service accused him of passing on the identities of Russian secret agents in exchange for money. He was later pardoned, and moved to the UK in 2010 as part of a spy swap. He has since led a quiet life in Salisbury.

The swap aroused great interest at the time, as spy stories tend to do. People often link the profession with the high life and high stakes of a James Bond plot. Some seem to fit this mould: take Duško Popov, the womanising, Nazi-hating double agent, or Anna Chapman, the glamorous spy who returned to Russia as part of the 2010 swap.

But the reality is more complex. Spies are not generally licensed to kill. Far from behaving like action heroes, they work best if they can blend anonymously into society. Their job can require a lot of desk work and does not necessarily involve much travel.

Despite this, the world of espionage remains very alluring. Is that justified?

For queen, country and cash

Absolutely, say some. Spies are smart and quick-witted. They are principled: they use their intelligence in the service of something they love, whether it’s a country or an ideology. They are also brave, as their job often requires them to put their life on the line. What can be more glamorous than that?

How naive, reply others. Some agents are just in it for cash, protection or a sense of power. What’s more, many spies rarely face danger. On the other hand, the deceit and isolation that come with the more high-risk jobs can lead to paranoia, depression — or a sticky end. Bond is fantasy: espionage is rough, cynical and not that fun.

You Decide

  1. Would you want to be a spy?
  2. Is it worse to spy for another country than for your own?


  1. Take HowStuffWorks’s espionage quiz in Become An Expert.
  2. If the Russian government turns out to be behind this incident, how should the UK government respond? Should it punish Russia? Draft a statement to be read out by the foreign secretary.

Some People Say...

“The more identities a man has, the more they express the person they conceal.”

John le Carré

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Skripal and his daughter remain in intensive care. One member of the emergency services is also being treated. Experts are testing samples from the scene to work out what substance made them unwell. Counter-terrorism police are leading an investigation into the incident, but they are not currently treating it as an act of terror. They do not believe that there is any risk to the public.
What do we not know?
Who is behind all this. The Russian state has denied any involvement. But the UK’s National Security Council has discussed the incident, which suggests that the government suspects the Kremlin. Skripal had reportedly feared for his life; his wife, son and brother all died recently. After the spy swap, Putin said that double agents “will kick the bucket, trust me”.

Word Watch

A small city in Wiltshire, southern England.
Johnson also seemed to suggest that England could boycott this year’s World Cup in Russia. His office later clarified that he was only referring to English officials, not the team.
Past incidents
Many Russian exiles live — and die — in the UK. According to a BuzzFeed report from last year, US intelligence officials link at least 14 deaths in the UK to the Russian state or mafia. The report suggests that the UK authorities, scared of angering Russia or alienating its wealthy exiles, turn a blind eye.
Alexander Litvinenko
Litvinenko, who worked for the British intelligence services, was poisoned in a London hotel by two Russians with close ties to the Kremlin. Russia denies any responsibility.
Spy swap
Ten Russian spies in the US, whose identities had been exposed, were swapped for four Russians (including Skripal) who had been jailed for illegal contacts with the West.
For instance, the UK’s notorious “Cambridge spies” acted as double agents for the Soviet Union. They were communists.

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