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Russian activist hospitalized: History shows crossing Kremlin can be a health hazard

A closer look at the day's most notable stories with The National's Jonathon Gatehouse: Kremlin critic Pyotr Verzilov hospitalized after suspected poisoning; from spacecraft to soccer stadiums, the market for naming rights is booming.

Newsletter: A closer look at the day's most notable stories

Pyotr Verzilov, a member of the feminist protest group Pussy Riot, gestures during hearings on July 23 in a court in Moscow. Russian news reports say Verzilov, a vocal critic of the government, has been hospitalized in grave condition for what could be a case of poisoning. (Pavel Golovkin/Associated Press)

Welcome to The National Today newsletter, which takes a closer look at what's happening around some of the day's most notable stories. Sign up here and it will be delivered directly to your inbox Monday to Friday.


  • Pyotr Verzilov, a critic of the Russian government and one of the people who helped launch the band Pussy Riot, has been hospitalized after a suspected poisoning.
  • On the At Issue panel tonight: It was not, perhaps, until protesters were taken away in handcuffs yesterday that Ontarians realized they were dealing with a new era of politics.
  • From spacecraft to soccer stadiums, the market for naming rights is booming.
  • Missed The National last night? Watch it here

Russia's passion for poison

It took just two hours for Pyotr Verzilov to go from full health to the intensive care unit of a Moscow hospital last night.

The 30-year-old Russian-Canadian political activist first started to feel ill, lost his vision, then the ability to talk or walk, all before the ambulance arrived.

His friends say that doctors have yet to provide a medical diagnosis, but they believe they know the cause — poison.

Activist Pyotr Verzilov is escorted to a courtroom by police in Moscow on July 31. He was detained after he and members of the Russian punk protest group Pussy Riot disrupted the World Cup soccer final. (Alexander Zemlianichenko/Associated Press)
Members of the band Pussy Riot — part of the art-and-protest collective that Verzilov helped found a decade ago — took to Twitter to announce their suspicions and find an expert toxicologist.

These days, Verzilov is the publisher of Mediazona, an independent online news site that focuses on human rights issues in Russia and is frequently critical of Vladimir Putin.

He is also in a relationship with Veronika Nikulshina, a member of Pussy Riot, and was part of the group's on-field protest against political repression during the final of the FIFA World Cup in Moscow in July.

Security officials pull Verzilov off the pitch after he stormed onto the field and interrupted the July 15 World Cup final match between France and Croatia in Moscow's Luzhniki Stadium. (Martin MeissneréAssociated Press)
Verzilov's comrades have yet to say how he might have been poisoned, or with what. But it's not hard to infer who they believe is behind the alleged attack — their enemies in the Kremlin.

Poison has long been a favoured weapon of the Russian state and its intelligence services.

The Soviets established their first poison lab in 1921, and made fast progress in developing a variety of hard-to-detect and lethal substances by testing them on political prisoners.

Sometimes the poison is delivered in spectacular fashion, like infamous 1978 assassination of Bulgarian dissident Georgi Markov, who was pricked by a ricin-tipped umbrella as he crossed Waterloo Bridge in London.

An undated photo of Bulgarian dissident Georgi Markov, who died in September 1978, four days after he was jabbed in the thigh with a poison-tipped umbrella while waiting for a bus on London's Waterloo Bridge. (Dimitar Deinov/Associated Press)
And in 1995, Moscow banker Ivan Kivelidi and his secretary both died after someone spread a military-grade poison on the mouthpieces of their office telephones.

Other times, the attacks have been more mundane.

In 2004, someone slipped TCCD, a substance 170,000 times more deadly than cyanide, into the soup of Viktor Yushchenko, then a candidate for president of Ukraine. He survived and went on to win the election, but the toxin disfigured him.

Former president of Ukraine Viktor Yushchenko speaks during the 2015 Concordia Summit in New York City. (Leigh Vogel/Getty Images)
That same year, Anna Politkovskaya, a crusading anti-Putin journalist, was served some poison-laced tea on an Aeroflot flight. She survived, but was later shot dead outside her Moscow apartment.

In 2008, Karinna Moskalenko, a well-known human rights lawyer, found mercury scattered inside her car. It was an attempt, she suspected, to keep her away from the trial of the men accused of killing her friend Politkovskaya.

The list goes on. Last year, the website Buzzfeed published an investigation that alleged 14 Kremlin critics had died under mysterious circumstances in Britain over the past several years.

A March 2005 photo of Russian human rights advocate, journalist and author Anna Politkovskaya during the book fair in Leipzig, eastern Germany, where she presented her book 'In Putin's Russia.' (Jens Schlueter/AFP/Getty Images)
Putin critic Alexander Litvinenko died in a London hospital in 2006, after drinking tea that had been laced with the rare and radioactive polonium-210.

Russian businessman Alexander Perepilichny, another U.K. resident, dropped dead while jogging in 2012 after he was served some soup containing gelsemium, a poisonous plant found only in the wilds of China.

Vladimir Kara-Murza, a leader of the Open Russia pro-democracy movement, survived two poisonings before he moved to the United States

Why the Russians seem so fond of poison when there are so many other, less suspicious ways to kill, isn't so clear.

Perhaps it's a sense of history. The Grand Duke of Moscow, Dmitry Shemyaka, was felled by arsenic in his chicken dinner in 1453. Prince Mikhail Skopin-Shuisky, a rival to Tsar Vasili IV, was poisoned by his wife — on royal orders — in 1610.

But part of the appeal is clearly the fear factor of potential death lurking in every appetizer, tea pot, or spread across your front door.

Earlier today, the two men whom British authorities have identified as their prime suspects in the Novichok poisoning of ex-Russian intelligence agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia gave an interview to Russian television.

In this handout photo issued by the Metropolitan Police, Salisbury Novichok poisoning suspects Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov are shown on CCTV in Salisbury on March 4, 2018. (Metropolitan Police via Getty Images)
Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov admitted they were indeed in Salisbury on the day before the March attack, but strictly as tourists.

"Our friends had been suggesting for a long time that we visit this wonderful town," said Petrov.

"There's the famous Salisbury Cathedral, famous not only in Europe, but in the whole world. It's famous for its 123-metre spire, it's famous for its clock, one of the first-ever created in the world that is still working," Boshirov added, displaying a surprising amount of knowledge about Wiltshire attractions.

They said that their real goal had been to visit Stonehenge, 20 minutes outside of the city, but that the weather was too cold.

A monumental explanation for what authorities allege was a Kremlin-hatched plot.

A note to readers

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At Issue

Rosemary Barton on what's coming up tonight on The National's At Issue panel:

It was not, perhaps, until protesters were taken away in handcuffs that Ontarians realized they were dealing with a new era of politics.

Such were the events of yesterday when members of the public and those elected were tossed from the Ontario legislature for causing such disruption as they loudly protested the reintroduction of a bill halving the size of Toronto's city council.

This was the product of a government that has decided to make its agenda happen and not let anything stand in its way. Not even the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

The legislation, deemed earlier in the week by a judge to contravene voters' rights to freedom of expression, was tabled a second time Wednesday using the rare notwithstanding clause, so that it would not be struck down again.

Ontario Premier Doug Ford speaks during question period at the Ontario Legislature in Toronto on Wednesday. (Chris Young/Canadian Press)
And so Premier Doug Ford has already left a mark on the province, becoming the first premier of Ontario to use the provision.

The issue, of course, is whether it was the right move or whether it was heavy-handed, as some suggest.

At Issue panelist and Toronto Star national affairs writer Chantal Hébert suggests this may now mean Quebec becomes the next province to use the clause. She reminds us in her column in the Toronto Star that, "The notwithstanding clause is more widely seen as a legitimate tool in Quebec than anywhere else in Canada. But it would be simplistic to conclude that repeated use has normalized the practice."

Panelist and PostMedia columnist Andrew Coyne has plenty to say about it as well, via his Twitter account:

Needless to say, At Issue will spend some time on this tonight, plus Parliament returns next week and the NDP and Liberals are holding pre-sitting caucus meetings.

Andrew, Chantal and HuffPost Canada's Althia Raj join me for my favourite night of the week.

See you tonight.

- Rosie Barton

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A view to a shill

Space sells.

That was one of the earliest lessons of the rocket age, when NASA sent John Glenn into orbit in February 1962 and gave him some orange-flavoured crystals to mask the horrible taste of the Mercury capsule's life-support system water. For decades thereafter, Tang successfully sold itself as the drink of astronauts. 

Now comes news that the U.S. space agency is thinking of voyaging to the final frontier of marketing and auctioning off the naming rights for its future spacecraft and rockets.

"Is it possible for NASA to offset some of its costs by selling the naming rights?," Jim Bridenstinethe space body's chief administrator, wondered aloud at a forum earlier this month. "I'm telling you there is interest in that right now. The question is: Is it possible? The answer is: I don't know, but we want somebody to give us advice on whether it is."

The United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket with NASA's Parker Solar Probe onboard at Cape Canaveral, Fla., on Aug. 11. The NASA and mission logos on rockets could soon be joined by corporate branding. (NASA/Reuters)
There is certainly the potential to make money.

The Washington Post cites a recent study by the Science and Technology Policy Institute which predicted that a for-profit space station could earn between $455 million US and $1.2 billion a year by hosting tourists and corporate events, renting itself out as a film set, and selling its naming rights.

After all, businesses seem to be willing to pay almost anything to affix their names and logos to sports stadiums, arenas, theatres and other public edifices.

For example, Scotiabank is paying a record-setting $800 million over 20 years for the rights to confuse hockey fans in Toronto who go looking for what used to be the Air Canada Centre.

In the United States, State Farm insurance just splashed out several hundred million for the naming rights to the arena where the NBA's Atlanta Hawks play, as well as the Glendale, Ariz., stadium that is home to the NFL's Cardinals.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who finished dead last in NFC South last season with a 5-and-11 record, missing the playoffs for the 10th straight year, just signed a decade-long deal to put a local hospital's name on the team's new practice facility. (Perhaps the idea is to have medical professionals resuscitate the DOA football franchise.)

Across the pond, a recent consultants' report pegged the value of stadium naming rights for the English Premier League's 20 teams at a collective £135.6 million ($231 million Cdn.) a season, an 80 per cent increase since 2013. The market price to get your corporate name attached to Old Trafford, Manchester United's home ground, is just over  £26 million ($44 million Cdn.) a year, the survey suggests.

A view inside Manchester United's Old Trafford stadium. (Jason Cairnduff/Reuters)
There are cheaper alternatives, of course. Notts County, the oldest professional soccer club in the world — now toiling in League Two, the fourth tier of English football —  is considering selling naming rights to its century-old grounds. On the condition that the deal strikes a "delicate balance between maintaining our proud tradition and generating significant revenue for the club."

Or there are outside-the-box options. The Dubai metro system has been selling of the naming rights for its subway stops, labelling them after nearby shopping malls and banks, which has generated some $700 million US in fees over the past decade.

The Dubai Metro has been selling the naming rights for its subway stations. (Tom Dulat/Getty Images)
And no place is out of bounds.

A high school in Pennsylvania just sold the naming rights to its library for $2,500 US a year to an insurance company. Students will now surf the internet and serve detention at the Tri-County General Insurance Library of the Lackawanna Trail High School.

There's also a new brew pub in Auburn, Maine, that is looking for a company to put its name on its restrooms; price negotiable.

The perfect opportunity to boldly go where many people have gone before.

A few words on ...

Taking your safety cues from corporate America.

Quote of the moment

"3,000 people did not die in the two hurricanes that hit Puerto Rico ... This was done by the Democrats in order to make me look as bad as possible when I was successfully raising Billions of Dollars to help rebuild Puerto Rico. If a person died for any reason, like old age, just add them onto the list. Bad politics. I love Puerto Rico!"

- U.S. President Donald Trump puts himself at the centre of the hurricane in a series of tweets this morning.

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during a Congressional Medal of Honour Society reception at the White House in Washington on Wednesday. (Susan Walsh/Associated Press)

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Today in history

Sept. 13, 1995: Michael Moore's northern affection

Michael Moore has always had a soft spot for Canada. Perhaps it's his Michigan upbringing. Or maybe it's the fact that his first documentary, Roger & Me, premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival, winning plaudits and the People's Choice Award. However, we probably could have done without the tribute of Canadian Bacon, his one and only feature film. The 1995 political comedy had a great cast, including John Candy, Alan Alda and Rip Torn. But it was painfully unfunny, and made just $164,000 at the box office.

Michael Moore's northern affection

27 years ago
Duration 26:07
Michael Moore discusses his Canada-inspired ideals and his new film <em>Canadian Bacon</em>. Canadian Bacon, produced by Dog Eat Dog Films, Gramercy Pictures, Maverick Picture Company, Polygram Filmed Entertainment, and Propaganda Films.

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Jonathon Gatehouse

CBC Investigative Journalist

Jonathon Gatehouse has covered news and politics at home and abroad, reporting from dozens of countries. He has also written extensively about sports, covering seven Olympic Games and authoring a best-selling book on the business of pro-hockey. He works for the national investigative unit in Toronto.