Inside Room 239: How Alexei Navalny’s aides got crucial poisoning evidence out of Russia
By ROBYN DIXON | The Washington Post | Published: October 4, 2020
MOSCOW — Vladlen Los sat in a chair outside Room 239 of the Xander Hotel. It was midmorning on Aug. 20 in the Siberian city of Tomsk. The lawyer Los was determined that no one get inside the room that his colleague, Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, had left hours before.
All that was known at that point was that Navalny was gravely ill — stricken on a plane returning to Moscow. But Los and a handful of other members of Navalny’s inner circle immediately suspected a deliberate poisoning.
And they decided some clues still could be in the hotel room. They also knew they had to be first to get inside.
So began a pivotal, high-pressure gambit with four of Navalny’s associates becoming forensic evidence hunters — recovering a hotel water bottle on which a German military laboratory later found traces of a Novichok group nerve agent. Novichok-linked poisons have been used in previous attacks that Western officials and others assert were carried out by Russia.
The effort to gain access to Room 239, described to The Washington Post by members of Navalny’s team, largely has been overshadowed by Navalny’s slow recovery in a Berlin hospital and widespread suspicion of Russian state involvement in the attack.
But the actions of Navalny’s colleagues at the Xander Hotel were critical in attempts to piece together what happened that morning.
Some events described by Navalny’s associates could not be verified independently, but a clip of the video from the hotel room search was posted online and fits with the accounts.
Their speed also contrasted with glacial police response, seen by activists as deliberate stonewalling. Police still have not opened a criminal probe.
In a statement posted by Navalny last week, he accused Russian President Vladimir Putin of the attempted killing.
“I certainly believe that Putin is personally behind the attempt on my life,” he wrote Thursday.
Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said Thursday the accusation was groundless and offensive, and claimed Navalny was working for the CIA.
Russian political analyst Kirill Rogov said the full details might never be known, but speculated that it was not an “accident.”
“From time to time, somebody is poisoned by groups close to the Russian government,” he said. “This is the system, an institution, not an accident.”
‘I’ve been poisoned’
About 10 a.m. on Aug. 20, Los was having breakfast with two other members of Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation, part of his political network. They had stayed an extra day in Tomsk. Navalny was on the early flight to Moscow.
Georgy Alburov, an investigator with the foundation, pulled up a flight-tracking app. He noticed Navalny’s plane was diverted to Omsk. He fired off a lighthearted message — “How’s Omsk?’ — to Navalny press secretary Kira Yarmysh, who was on the flight.
“A couple of minutes later, she replied that everything is terrible. Alexei is unconscious and he was poisoned,” said Alburov. Not long after, in a video posted on Twitter by a passenger, Navalny was heard screaming and moaning.
In an interview with Der Spiegel published Thursday, Navalny said he was in no pain, but believed he was dying. He told Der Spiegel he became disoriented after takeoff and started sweating. He washed his face in the bathroom, then emerged to tell a flight attendant, “I’m dying. I’ve been poisoned.”
In Tomsk, the three Navalny aides — Alburov, Los and Maria Pevchikh, the group’s head of investigations — tried to set their next move. They decided it was worth trying to gather potential evidence.
At first, they didn’t think the room search would turn up much. Theories were circulated quickly on social media that Navalny was poisoned by tea he drank at the airport.
First, they stationed Los outside room 239. They phoned former detective Anton Timofeyev, a Tomsk lawyer assisting the Navalny team. Pevchikh and Alburov approached the hotel reception.
Pevchikh tried to reason with the young hotel administrator to let them into the room. “It would be the right thing to do, that she could make a huge difference and do something important,” Pevchikh recounted telling the hotel worker. “She didn’t care.”
They were denied access to the CCTV footage. Proyekt, an investigative independent media site, reported that police later seized the video.
Finally, the hotel staff agreed to let them in. At 11.45 a.m., the team donned rubber gloves and entered the room, filming everything. They were accompanied by a hotel employee who warned nothing could be taken without police permission, the Navalny team members said.
“Unfortunately we can’t agree to that demand,” Timofeyev recalled saying.
Alburov had bare feet, a fact pro-Kremlin media later would seize on.
“We knew exactly what we needed,” said Alburov. “We started to collect and pack all possible things we could carry with us without being charged with robbery.”
They took the shampoo bottles, water bottles and hotel towels. Timofeyev bagged and labeled the items.
“I really wanted to take his pillowcase. I tried everything. I tried convincing them to let me buy it,” she said. The hotel refused.
She thought the chances they would save anything useful were slim.
“We were doing it for the minor, tiny chance that he had been poisoned within the room with something traceable.’
They divided the items and carefully hid them in different parts of their luggage.
Vladimir Uglev, one of Novichok’s developers, said in an interview the banned substance came in two forms: a liquid like vegetable oil and a solid that looked like salt. He believes the substance might have been put onto Navalny’s clothing.
Navalny has demanded the return of his clothing, but Kremlin spokesman Peskov retorted, “With no disrespect to the patient, we don’t deal with clothes,” Peskov said. “That’s not our area.”
Establishing a timeline
After the room search, Pevchikh and the team drove 165 miles to Novosibirsk, arriving about 5 p.m. to get a flight to Omsk. There was no Internet access for much of the journey through remote Siberia.
“We were very worried about Alexei,” said Pevchikh. “It was an awful ride.”
In Omsk, Navalny’s wife, Yulia, and his staff faced Russian doctors refusing permission for him to be flown to Germany for care.
On Aug. 22, Navalny finally was allowed to fly to Berlin. Pevchikh, carrying the hotel room evidence, flew out on the same air ambulance as Navalny. She handed the items to the Berlin hospital. Evidence of a Novichok group chemical weapon was established from analysis of samples taken from Navalny.
The water bottle recovered from the hotel room showed traces of the nerve agent on the outside, suggesting that Navalny touched the poison before he grabbed the bottle for a drink.
“It was very useful not in identifying the actual Novichok. It was very useful for the timeline,” Pevchikh said.
Georgy Satarov, a Russian political scientist who was one of the authors of the Russian constitution under former president Boris Yeltsin, said the evidence on the bottle was crucial because it discredited the many contradictory theories promoted by pro-Kremlin media, doctors and others that there was no poisoning, or that Navalny had a metabolic illness.
‘A dirty game’
Russian state media have launched a blizzard of conspiracy theories centered on the trope of a “villain” torn straight from the Soviet KGB disinformation playbook, casting Pevchikh as the beautiful, seductive, clever lover and attempted murderer of Navalny.
A fake biography was conjured that she was U.S. Navy SEAL-trained and had a chain of Australian bookshops. Neither is true.
“Then they started the hunt,” said Pevchikh. “These troll factories and fake media and state-owned channels started this whole operation.”
State media were dispatched to question former neighbors for gossip. Unidentified men started following Pevchikh’s mother constantly, she said. Journalists for state media sought out the grandmother.
“It’s a dirty game that they’re playing. It doesn’t get lower than this, approaching an 85-year-old woman, saying, ‘What do you think about your granddaughter being a murderer?’ I hate them doing that,” she said.
State television broadcast Pevchikh’s passport photo and innocuous surveillance video of her going back to 2014, suggesting she had been under watch for years.
“I guess they just wanted him to die in the hotel room and we would find him in the morning. And then the poisoning would always be a conspiracy theory,” said Pevchikh. “Whereas now, it’s a medical fact.”
Putin told French president Emmanuel Macron in a phone call Sep. 14 that Navalny was a troublemaker who might have poisoned himself, according to Le Monde, citing leaks recently. Peskov said the report was “not precise.”
One state TV host, Dmitry Kiselyov, recently stayed in Navalny’s room, filming himself shaving in a bathrobe in a baffling effort to prove that no poisoning could have occurred more than a month earlier. Another TV presenter, Vladimir Solovyov, argued that Alburov could not have been barefoot if there was poison in the room.
Pevchikh said Russia probably never would open an investigation because it automatically would give Navalny access to all the investigation materials, including surface tests for poisoning, results of a police room check and hotel CCTV footage.
In recent weeks, authorities have stepped up harassment, freezing Navalny’s bank account and barring him from selling or mortgaging his home.
“My task now is to remain a guy who is not afraid. And I am not afraid.” Navalny told Der Spiegel.