How They Tried to Kill Me

I want to live

Photo of Munich
Photograph by Angel de los Rios, via Flickr.

In 2022, n+1 published four reports (1, 2, 3, 4) from the war in Ukraine by the Russian journalist Elena Kostyuchenko. In the following essay, Kostyuchenko describes—for the first time—why she fled Ukraine and reveals that she was poisoned last fall in Munich. (The essay originally appeared in Russian on Meduza’s website and was translated by Bela Shayevich.) Kostyuchenko’s book I Love Russia, which includes her reporting from Ukraine and elsewhere, is forthcoming this fall from Penguin Press.

I didn’t want to write this for a long time. I feel disgusted, afraid, ashamed.

I can’t write about everything I know because I have to protect the people who’ve saved my life.

On February 24, 2022, my country attacked Ukraine.

On February 24, I went to Ukraine on assignment from Novaya Gazeta, where I had been working for the previous seventeen years.

I crossed the Polish-Ukrainian border on the night of February 25.

Over the course of four weeks, thanks to the incredible support of countless Ukrainians, I was able to file four stories—from the border, Odesa, Mykolaiv, and Kherson. Kherson was under occupation. Getting in and out meant crossing the frontlines twice. In Kherson, Russian soldiers were kidnapping and torturing people. I was able to find people who had survived being tortured. By collating their stories, working in the field, I was able to find where the kidnapped people were being held—a former temporary detention center located at 3 Teploenergetiki Street. I learned the names of forty-four kidnapped people and the circumstances under which they were taken. I published my article and handed over what I had uncovered to the Ukrainian Prosecutor General’s office.

The next place that I was going to was Mariupol.

Mariupol was still resisting. There was active combat. On many days, there were no humanitarian corridors. The only occasionally passable road lay through Zaporizhzhia. It often came under fire, and, as you approached Mariupol, the Russian checkpoints began. Nevertheless, people traveled this road every day in order to try to rescue their loved ones from the city as it was being destroyed. Volunteers organized them into columns. I decided to travel with them.

On March 28, I entered Zaporizhzhia.  Waiting at the checkpoint, (the Teroborona were examining my passport and press credentials), I started getting messages from friends. “Assholes.” “Hang in there.” “Let me know if I can help.” That’s how I found out that Novaya Gazeta had shut down. Novaya had received its second warning that year from the state censorship agency, Roskomnadzor, which meant it could now lose its license. I’d been anticipating this, I’d been waiting for it from the moment of the incursion, but I couldn’t know how painful it would be.

I decided I’d go to Mariupol anyway. Publish my piece wherever I could.

On March 29, I was meeting with volunteers and the people heading to Mariupol to rescue their relatives. I found someone willing to take me in their car despite my Russian passport.

We arranged to leave on the 31st.

I spent March 30, the eve of our trip, in a hotel. I was trying to gather my strength. A colleague from Novaya called me. She asked me if I was going to Mariupol. I was puzzled: only two people from the paper knew I was going to Mariupol—the editor-in-chief, Dmitry Muratov, and my editor Olga Bobrova. I said, Yes, I am going tomorrow. She said, “My sources have gotten in touch with me. They know that you’re going to Mariupol. They say that the Kadyrovites have orders to find you.”

The Kadyrovites, a Chechen subdivision of Rosgvardia, were actively engaged in the fighting around Mariupol—they manned the checkpoints. I knew that. My colleague said, “They’re not planning to hold you. They are going to kill you. That’s been approved.”

It was like running into a wall. I went deaf, everything went white. I said, “I don’t believe you.” She said, “That’s what I told them, too, that I didn’t believe them. Then they played me a recording of you talking to someone about Mariupol, planning your trip. I recognized your voice.”

She hung up, I sat down on the bed. I didn’t think anything, I just sat.

Forty minutes later, my source from Ukrainian military reconnaissance called me. He said, “We have information that an assassination of a female journalist from Novaya Gazeta is being organized in Ukraine. And all-points bulletin on you has been sent out to every Russian checkpoint.”

An hour later, Muratov called me. He said, “You can’t go to Mariupol anymore. You have to leave Ukraine this minute.”

But I couldn’t make myself go.

The following morning, I woke up to messages from an editor at Novaya. The Russian Prosecutor General’s Office and Roskomnadzor had sent them letters demanding they take my reporting from Ukraine down from their website, or else the site would be blocked. Novaya complied. Somehow, this was what crushed me. I started crying and couldn’t stop. Then rage came in place of the tears, and it filled my entire being.

I tried to find another way into Mariupol, looking to bypass the Russian checkpoints. This path did not exist—there was active combat everywhere. The only road was through Zaporizhzhia, and they were waiting for me on that road.

I was incapable of accepting my powerlessness. Rational arguments didn’t work on me. The only thing that stopped me from moving forward was thinking what would happen to the person who agreed to take me in their car. If I got killed, they wouldn’t be spared, either.

On the night of April 1, I left Ukraine.

I left in a very bad state. I had lice, mumps, and PTSD. My friends took me in, they passed me from hand to hand. My girlfriend Yana came from Russia, she took care of me, made sure I was eating and sleeping. I was planning on getting better, finishing the book I was writing, and going back to Russia. All of my work, my entire life, my mother and sister—they are all there. The worse the news from home got, the more I felt like I belonged there and nowhere else.

I thought about how they were going to kill me. But the more I thought about it, the calmer I got. I feel stupid and embarrassed remembering what was going through my head. I didn’t know who had issued the orders, I referred to the killers as “them.” I thought that they’d probably made an emotional decision. The war wasn’t working out the way they wanted at all, everything was going haywire. And I had just gotten in and out of Kherson, right under their noses—of course they’d gotten upset. They started looking into what I was doing, found out I was going to Mariupol, which was, in its entirety, one giant war crime, and this was their diabolical solution for keeping me out of there. The distance between the last Ukrainian checkpoint and the first Russian one was a few kilometers apart—a no-man’s-land, not under anyone’s control. The Russian soldiers could have claimed that I’d never even made it to them. People are always disappearing during a war. Who knows, maybe it’d been the Ukrainian soldiers who’d killed me? I am a Russian journalist after all, and the Ukrainians hate Russians, as everyone knows.

I thought, At least I’m alive, that is good.

On the evening of April 28, Muratov called me. He spoke in a very gentle voice. He said, “I know that you want to come home. But you cannot go back to Russia. They will kill you.”

I hung up the phone and started screaming. I stood in the street and screamed.

A month later, we were able to meet. Muratov said, They’ll make it look like a hate crime. The people on the right hate lesbians and you’re a lesbian.

Then I was working on my book. I wrote and only thought about what I was writing. There wasn’t room for anything else in my head and those were the best days.

At the end of September, I got in touch with Muratov again. I asked him to find out whether I could return to Russia. He called me back several days later. “No. No. No.”

I found an apartment in Berlin and moved there. On September 29, I began working for the website Meduza. We decided that my first reporting trip would be to Iran. I’d been there and I knew how to work there. I found people who would help me, got a visa, bought clothes. We decided that after Iran, I would go to Ukraine. Meduza asked me to submit the paperwork for a Ukrainian visa before I left.

I couldn’t fill out an application or make an appointment at the embassy on their website—it wouldn’t let me. The Ukrainian Ministry of Foreign Affairs hotline told me their website was being attacked by hackers, and until they were able to deal with it, it’d be impossible. I started looking for contacts within the embassy. I got someone to agree to see me in their consulate in Munich.

There is no justification for this, and there cannot be, but I have to say that I corresponded about my trip to Munich over Facebook Messenger. It’s not secure and I knew that. But I wasn’t in Russia, I was in Germany. I didn’t even think about the basic tenets of my security, the protocols I’d been following for years.

On the evening of October 17, I traveled to Munich. I took an overnight train, traveling in a seating car. I took off my shoes, lay down on the seat, and slept. People walked past me, they’d knock into my feet. I kept sleeping.

On the morning of October 18, I arrived. I went to meet my friend, tried to sleep, then went to the embassy. The staff there questioned me, asking what I was planning to do in Ukraine. They took my documents, but I still wasn’t able to apply for a visa—their internal system was glitching. We decided that I would come again another day.

My friend picked me up at the embassy and we went to get lunch. We sat outside at a restaurant. While we were sitting there, two different groups of her acquaintances happened to run into us. They came up to our table—there was a man, and then two women. I thought, What a small town Munich is, it really seems like everyone knows each other. I went to the bathroom and came back. All I could think about was the visa—I was unlikely to get it, but what if it worked out?

Then my friend took me to the train station. As we approached it, she said, “Listen, I have to tell you: you smell bad. Let me find you some deodorant.” She couldn’t find any. I remember I was shocked by what she said—she’s a very tactful person, and she would have never said anything if I hadn’t actually smelled terrible.

When I got on the train, I found my seat and immediately went to the bathroom. I wet some paper towels and started wiping myself off with them. I was covered in sweat. The sweat smelled strong and strange, like rotten fruit.

I sat down and started reading the manuscript of my book. After a while, I realized that I was just reading the same paragraph over and over and couldn’t move forward. My head ached.

I’d gotten Covid three weeks earlier. I thought, Do I really have it again? I called Yana. I said, I feel unwell. I said, I hope it’s not Covid, how will I go to Iran if it is?

I tried to get back to the book, but I kept feeling worse. My headache got so bad I couldn’t look at things anymore. I kept sweating, I went back to the bathroom and wiped myself off again.

When I got out at the train station, I realized that I couldn’t figure out how to get home. I knew that I needed to transfer to the subway, but I couldn’t figure out how. I considered going outside and calling a cab, but the very thought of having to find my location on the map in the app and figuring out how it corresponded to real streets terrified me. I thought to myself, this is too difficult a task, I won’t manage. I looked for the transfer  for a long time. When I finally got down there, I burst into tears—I didn’t know what direction I was supposed to go in. Other passengers helped me.

The walk home from the subway is five minutes. It took much longer. Every few steps, I had to put my bag down—it seemed unbearably heavy—and rest.

On the stairs, I got short of breath. I thought to myself, This fucking Covid has really messed me up.

As soon as I got home, I went to sleep. I hoped that I would feel better when I got up.

But I only got worse.

I woke up from a pain in my stomach. It was strange—very strong, but not sharp, it was like it was being turned on and off. I tried to sit up and lay right back down. I felt so dizzy, it was like the room was spinning. With every rotation, I grew more nauseous. I got to the bathroom where I threw up.

I kept corresponding with the Iranians. I cried. It was supposed to be my first trip for my new job and now, this.

The pain in my stomach kept getting worse. It was painful to even touch the skin. I barely slept those first few nights—as soon as I would drift off, I would be woken up by the pain. My head kept spinning whenever I sat down or got up.

On the third day, it became clear that I was not going anywhere and that whatever I had wasn’t Covid.

It isn’t easy to see a doctor in Berlin. I was only able to get an appointment on October 28, ten days after I became ill.

It was a regular clinic in my neighborhood. The doctors—there were two of them—both immediately said that I had long Covid. “It can go on for up to six months. If you don’t feel better six months from now, come back.” But they did an ultrasound, too—all clear. They tapped on my stomach. I got them to do some blood tests. I came out of the clinic consoled—it was nothing, I’d get better soon.

The blood tests came back bad. The levels of ALT and AST in my liver were five times above normal. They tested my urine. There was blood in it.

The doctors stopped joking around. I was referred to another, more experienced specialist. She said that it was most likely viral hepatitis, which I had contracted during the war. We’ll figure out which one it is and then treat it, she said.

The hepatitis tests came back negative.

My symptoms kept changing. My stomach hurt less and I got less dizzy. But I was totally weak. My face started swelling. Then my fingers. I barely managed to take my rings off and could not get them back on again. My fingers looked like sausages. Then my feet started swelling. The swelling kept getting worse, I lost sight of my chin, my face was no longer my face. When I looked in the mirror, it took me a moment to recognize myself. Sometimes my heart would start racing as though I was running. Sometimes my palms and the bottoms of my feet would start to burn, turning red and shiny.

Everything was exhausting. It was hard to go down the stairs. Sometimes, we would go out for fifteen minutes, half an hour, and I would get so tired that I’d have to go home. I stopped being able to sleep, no longer from pain. It was as though my brain had forgotten how to fall asleep. I’d lay there for hours trying not to wake up Yana, looking up at the ceiling and wondering what was wrong with me.

My hepatic enzyme levels kept rising. There was still blood in my urine.

I kept going to doctors. The doctors would come up with theories, test them, come up with new ones. Autoimmune diseases, acute complicated complex pyelonephritis, systemic diseases.

Meduza put me in touch with a doctor they trusted. The doctor decided to retest me for hepatitis (the tests came back negative). While I was heading home from the hospital, he wrote to me, “Is it possible that you have been poisoned?” I replied, “No, I am not that dangerous.”

I told Yana, we laughed. She said, Oh yeah, the simplest explanation. She must have been poisoned—she is a Russian journalist.

On December 12, I went back to my neighborhood doctor. I got a new round of tests, the results had gotten worse, my ALT was seven times above normal. We sat in her office. She said nothing, going through her papers. Then she said, “Elena, there are two theories left. The first one is that the antidepressants you’re on may have suddenly started working aberrantly. But you recently changed medications and your symptoms and test results haven’t changed. That’s why we have a second theory. Please try to stay calm. You may have been poisoned.”

I laughed. The doctor stayed silent. I said, “That’s impossible.” She said, “We’ve ruled out all other options. I’m sorry. You need to go to the toxicology department at Charite.”

I spent the next three days lying there and thinking. I don’t remember what I was thinking about. Yana says that the first day I said it was stupid and that the doctors had made a mistake, it was just that they couldn’t diagnose me, and didn’t want to run any more tests. Then I stopped talking. Then I got in touch with Meduza and we started trying to figure out what to do next.

In order to get blood tests done for poisoning, you have to go to the police.

So I did. From the precinct, they sent me straight to the hospital. The police officers turned up too, to talk to me and the doctors.

My first session was with the Berlin Criminal Police and lasted nine hours. The police wanted to know everything: what I was working on, what I was planning to work on, whom I had been in contact with in Ukraine, which of my colleagues I was in contact now. I had to reconstruct October 17 and 18 minute by minute.

My clothes and apartment were checked for radiation. My body, too. They took the clothes I’d traveled to Munich with. Then the police did a “safety check” of my apartment. An officer asked me, “Why are your blinds open? You could easily be shot from the balcony across the way.” The police told me that I needed to follow new safety protocols. Like what? “Move. Take different routes home. Don’t get cabs directly to your destination, get out of cars a block away. Wear sunglasses.” “That’s it?” “Well, it will all help your chances.”

The police officers were mad at me. They didn’t show it, but after the third round of questioning, we started talking. The senior detective had run the investigation into the killing of Zelimkhan Khangoshvili, a former Chechen field commander, who had been shot in the Tiergarten in 2019. The killer was quickly caught thanks to eyewitnesses and security camera footage. His passport said he was Vadim Sokolov, but journalists and police established that his real name was Vadim Krasikov and that he had ties to the FSB. He received a life sentence in Germany for murder “on the orders of the Russian government, being a part of the Russian law enforcement apparatus.” The judge called what happened “state terrorism.” In 2022, Russia filed two separate requests to include Krasikov on the list of prisoners up for exchange, but Germany refused. A year earlier, the same detective investigated the poisoning of Petr Verzilov, the publisher of Mediazona and a member of Pussy Riot. He had been taken to Charite from Moscow on a private plane, convulsing and delirious. Verzilov’s friends found that the Berlin hospital was under surveillance. The police offered Verzilov protection and opened an investigation. “And we weren’t able to establish anything. Not even the substance used.” “How come?” “Because it’s impossible to ask a lab, ‘Was this person poisoned?’ You can only ask if there was a specific substance present in their body. And there are thousands of substances. That’s why it’s such a popular means of assassination.”

“We can’t understand why it took you this long to come to us. You should have called the police right away, as soon as you felt sick on the train. We would have met you at the station.”

“But I didn’t think I’d been poisoned. I’m still not sure.”

“Why didn’t you think so?”

“It seemed crazy to me. And I’m in Europe.”

“So what?”

“I felt like I was safe.”

“That is what drives us crazy,” the detective said. “You come here and act like you’re on vacation. Like this is some paradise. It doesn’t even occur to you to keep yourself safe. We have political killings here. The Russian special services are active in Germany. Your carelessness, yours and your colleagues, knows no bounds.”

I was not kept informed of the progress of the investigation.

On April 2, at a journalism conference, I was approached by Insider editor-in-chief Roman Dobrokhotov. He took me aside. “Lena, I have a personal question. But first I need to tell you something. Christo Grozev from Bellingcat and I have been investigating a series of poisonings in Europe. All the known targets are female Russian journalists. I want to ask you. You haven’t written anything for a long time—is it because you’ve been sick?”

And I told him what I am telling you now.

On May 2, I got a letter from the Berlin Prosecutor General’s office telling me that the investigation into my attempted assassination had been closed. The police had not found “any indication” that there had been an attempt to kill me. “Blood test results do not conclusively indicate poisoning.”

The doctors consulting Insider and Bellingcat said that the most likely explanation of what had happened to me was that I’d been poisoned with a chloroorganic compound. I passed this information on to the police. On July 21, the Prosecutor’s office reopened the case.

How am I now? The pain, nausea, and swelling have gone. I still have no energy. I left Meduza—I am a long way away from being able to return to the field. Right now, I can work three hours a day. This keeps increasing, but slowly. There are days when I can’t do anything. I lay there and try not to hate myself.

While I was writing this, I strove to establish the chronology of events, remember all the important details. But what details are really important? In November, a friend of mine came to Berlin. He is a publisher—not an activist, not a journalist, not a politician. He came over and he was horrified at the state I was in. He said, Do you understand that you may have been poisoned? Have you talked to your doctors about that? I said, I haven’t and I am not going to, that’s stupid. I said, Don’t try to infect me with your paranoia.

I lied to the police. It wasn’t that the idea of it “seemed crazy” to me. During my time at Novaya Gazeta, four of my colleagues were killed. I organized the funeral of Khimki journalist Mikhail Beketov, he’d been a friend. I knew that journalists got murdered. But I did not want to believe that they could kill me. I was protected from this thought by revulsion, shame, and exhaustion. It disgusted me to think that there were people who wanted me dead. I was ashamed to talk about it. Even with loved ones, let alone the police. And I felt how exhausted I was, how little strength I had left, that I wouldn’t be able to go on the run again.

My book is coming out in a few weeks. It is about how Russia descended into fascism. It is coming out in several languages simultaneously. The police believe that it might become a trigger. That the people who tried to kill me in Ukraine, and, possibly, in Germany, will try again.

I want to live.

That’s why I’m writing this.

I also want my colleagues and friends, activists, and political refugees currently living abroad to be careful. More careful than I have been. We are not safe and we will not be safe until there is regime change in Russia. The work we do helps to bring this regime down, and it is defending itself. If you are suddenly ill, please do not discount the possibility that you may have been poisoned. Tell your doctors. Fight for yourself. And if it’s already happened to you, please make contact with the investigative team at Insider or Bellingcat. They are looking for the people who are trying to kill us.

—Translated from the Russian by Bela Shayevich

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