WSJ Historically Speaking: Poison and Politics

From ‘cantarella’ to polonium, governments have used toxins to terrorize and kill their enemies

ILLUSTRATION: THOMAS FUCHS

Among the pallbearers at Senator John McCain’s funeral in Washington last weekend was the Russian dissident Vladimir Kara-Murza. Mr. Kara-Murza is a survivor of two poisoning attempts, in 2015 and 2017, which he believes were intended as retaliation for his activism against the Putin regime.

Indeed, Russia is known or suspected to be responsible for several notorious recent poisoning cases, including the attempted murder this past March of Sergei Skripal, a former Russian spy living in Britain, and his daughter Yulia with the nerve agent Novichok. They survived the attack, but several months later a British woman died of Novichok exposure a few miles from where the Skirpals lived.

Poison has long been a favorite tool of brutal statecraft: It both terrorizes and kills, and it can be administered without detection. The Arthashastra, an ancient Indian political treatise that out-Machiavels Machiavelli, contains hundreds of recipes for toxins, as well as advice on when and how to use them to eliminate an enemy.

Most royal and imperial courts of the classical world were also awash with poison. Though it is impossible to prove so many centuries later, the long list of putative victims includes Alexander the Great (poisoned wine), Emperor Augustus (poisoned figs) and Emperor Claudius (poisoned mushrooms), as well as dozens of royal heirs, relatives, rivals and politicians. King Mithridates of Pontus, an ancient Hellenistic empire, was so paranoid—having survived a poison attempt by his own mother—that he took daily microdoses of every known toxin in order to build up his immunity.

Poisoning reached its next peak during the Italian Renaissance. Every ruling family, from the Medicis to the Viscontis, either fell victim to poison or employed it as a political weapon. The Borgias were even reputed to have their own secret recipe, a variation of arsenic called “cantarella.” Although a large number of their rivals conveniently dropped dead, the Borgias were small fry compared with the republic of Venice. The records of the Venetian Council of Ten reveal that a secret poison program went on for decades. Remarkably, two victims are known to have survived their assassination attempts: Count Francesco Sforza in 1450 and the Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II in 1477.

In the 20th century, the first country known to have established a targeted poisoning program was Russia under the Bolsheviks. According to Boris Volodarsky, a former Russian agent, Lenin ordered the creation of a poison laboratory called the “Special Room” in 1921. By the Cold War, the one-room lab had evolved into an international factory system staffed by hundreds, possibly thousands of scientists. Their specialty was untraceable poisons delivered by ingenious weapons—such as a cigarette packet made in 1954 that could fire bullets filled with potassium cyanide.

In 1978, the prizewinning Bulgarian writer Georgi Markov, then working for the BBC in London, was killed by an umbrella tip that shot a pellet containing the poison ricin into his leg. After the international outcry, the Soviet Union toned down its poisoning efforts but didn’t end them. And Putin’s Russia has continued to use similar techniques. In 2006, according to an official British inquiry, Russian secret agents murdered the ex-spy Alexander Litvinenko by slipping polonium into his drink during a meeting at a London hotel. It was the beginning of a new wave of poisonings whose end is not yet in sight.

WSJ Historically Speaking: The Long, Long Fall of Monarchy

A portrait of Czar Nicholas II, published in a French newspaper in 1896. PHOTO: LEEMAGE/UIG/GETTY IMAGES

A hundred years ago, on March 14, 1917, just before midnight, the ministers of Czar Nicholas II informed him that the army was on the verge of mutiny. “What do you want me to do?” the Russian emperor reportedly asked. “Abdicate,” they replied. After a few minutes’ silence he agreed to go, thus bringing down the curtain on three centuries of Romanov rule. Continue reading…

WSJ Historically Speaking: A Brief History of Sledding

The sled symbolizes the all-American way of life—with its freedom, simplicity and comfort—that Kane lost when he gained his riches. It should be no surprise that another quintessential American classic, Frank Capra’s 1946 “It’s a Wonderful Life,” also has an iconic scene of children sledding on a wintry day. Continue reading…

The Sunday Times: Click with care – we’re close to giving the bad guys control of the internet

Source: Creative Commons

Source: Creative Commons

WHOM do you trust more with your freedom: America or Russia? The Edward Snowden revelations about government surveillance have made that more of a loaded question than it used to be, so I’ll rephrase it. Who do you think is more protective of human rights: America or Saudi Arabia?

You would have to be a moral idiot to choose Saudi Arabia, the country of routine beheadings, public floggings and judicial torture. Yet it’s chairing one of the key committees of the United Nations human rights council (UNHRC). That’s the way things work at the UN: smoke, mirrors and rampant horse-trading. The latest WikiLeaks cache has revealed something of the back story to the Saudi Arabia fiasco.

No doubt there’s a similar load of emails elsewhere that explains how Iran was able to strong-arm its way to chairing the 120-country Non-Aligned Movement, which has many members in the UNHRC. (Using this muscle, Iran submitted a resolution last month that says sanctions are a violation of human rights.)

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The Sunday Times: Money, energy and cunning, the US’s new Cold War armoury

Photo: Blair Fraser

Photo: Blair Fraser

MORE THAN 5,000 people have died in Ukraine since the start of Russia’s annexation and despoilment campaign. It is not as though the EU and the US have looked the other way during this bloodshed; it’s just that every attempt to engage or contain Russia has so far ended in failure.

Does Russia’s dismantling of Ukraine mean that the Cold War has resumed after a 25-year hiatus? Or is it a new Cold War with America? Or a neo-Cold War against liberal democracies, or a frozen conflict with Nato, or just a regional conflict within the old Soviet bloc?

The reason the categorisation is so important is that the naming of the crisis brings with it a set of ideological and practical responses.

The term “Cold War” carries the unmistakeable baggage of an existential conflict between irreconcilable systems of government. It implies that democracy itself is once again on trial for its life. This is all rather unfortunate timing considering that the major democracies are still reeling from the financial crisis of 2007-8, and in many cases have yet to prove themselves capable of restoring public confidence or fiscal order.

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The Sunday Times: Chest-beating Putin aims his vilest weapon at the West — misogyny

Photo: Drew Hays

Photo: Drew Hays

I am not a professional Dr Angry. I don’t go round collecting grievances. Nor do I have a brain that categorises everything in terms of “isms”.

So when I say Vladimir Putin’s Russia is one of the most loathsomely misogynistic countries in the world, I am speaking from the heart. I don’t just mean misogyny in a crass, vodka-swilling, male loser way; I mean in a big threat to world peace way.

I have visited a fair number of countries this year in the course of filming a documentary series on the history of women. Some could hardly be described as bastions of tolerance and equality. But only in Russia did I witness sexism bolstered by state-sanctioned menace and contempt. It’s a truly repellent culture that can’t see anything wrong in a poster for vodka showing an alluring woman with bruised knees.

But simply being brutish and boorish is not in itself a national catastrophe. The poison in the well comes from the skilful way in which Putin has encouraged a cultural war— one that equates patriotism and nationalism with hard-fisted chauvinism — in order to bolster his political war with Europe.

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