So when Russian diplomats started keeling over, it was perhaps to be expected that one common response would be: What’s the plot of this film? Not that it took long to answer that question. The readily available plot was, of course, that Donald Trump had been elected president with the quiet support of Russian actors and, various theories went, someone at the Kremlin was now mopping up the evidence.
Axios (which we’ll identify here as Politico 2.0) ran a brief list at the end of February detailing those deaths under the headline, “Russian diplomats keep dying unexpectedly.” The deceased:
- Andrei Karlov, ambassador to Turkey
- Vitaly Churkin, ambassador to the United Nations
- Peter Polshikov, chief adviser in the Latin American department of the Foreign Ministry
- Alexander Kadakin, ambassador to India
- Andrei Malanin, head consul at the Russian Embassy in Greece
- Sergei Krivov, consular duty commander
They also included Oleg Erovinkin, former chief of the KGB, though he wasn’t a diplomat. There’s a reason that he was included in the list, which we’ll get to a bit later on.
Those six alone, though, paint a particular picture: a pattern of deaths linked, no doubt, to something nefarious.
But the devil of the international murder conspiracy theory is in the details, and some details are warranted.
We can immediately set Karlov aside as an outlier. He’s the diplomat who was shot in the back in an art gallery in Turkey last December by a man apparently angry at Russia’s involvement in the Syrian civil war.
Vitaly Churkin died in New York last month. He was almost 65 when he died, and had several health problems, including heart trouble. The New York Police Department didn’t find signs of foul play; his death was attributed to a heart attack.
Bear in mind that the life expectancy of Russian men at birth in 2014 was 65 years of age. That year, the New York Times noted that Russia’s was a relatively low life expectancy — including that a quarter of Russian men died by age 55. By that metric, a 65-year-old with heart problems dying of a heart attack is … not that surprising. But let’s march forward.
Next up: Polshikov was found dead of a gunshot wound in his apartment in Moscow last December, shortly after the death of Churkin. In Axios’s formulation, the “gun was found under the bathroom sink but the circumstances of the death were under investigation.”
One thing you’ll notice if you poke around on this is how sketchy a lot of these reports are. Reports from British tabloids indicate that two shells were found in the apartment and “a” gun was found under a sink. That offers a slightly different picture. But the sourcing for those claims is murky.
What’s more, Fox News reported that Polshikov may not have been working for the government at the time of his death. In other words, he’s included in this grand conspiracy by virtue of having at some point worked for the Foreign Ministry — a pool of people that’s necessarily in the thousands.
It’s at this juncture that we should skip over to a terrific 2002 article from the New York Times Magazine called “The Odds of That,” by Lisa Belkin.
Among the other things addressed in the article — an exploration of how the human tendency to look for patterns often leads us to assume nonexistent connections — is a series of deaths of microbiologists after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Rumors about a slew of dead microbiologists at a moment when anthrax had been mailed to elected officials gained traction online, with a number of names added to a suspicious list of sudden fatalities.
There were a few factors that reinforced people’s suspicions. Several of those included had died in weird places: in a car or on the street. In some cases, initial reports suggested foul play. And of course, there was the fact that so many were involved in microbiology.
But these things are easily explained. One guy died of a heart attack, another from an undisclosed health disorder. They died where they happened to be, which wasn’t at a hospital or at home. A dead body by the side of the road could signify a crime — or it could simply be a guy who pulled over as he was suffering from a heart attack. What’s more, initial reports of foul play, perhaps stemming from people assuming that a weird place of death suggested a weird cause of death, often didn’t hold up.
Most importantly, though, not all of the people included on that list actually did microbiology work, just as Polshikov may not have been involved in the Foreign Ministry. Just as Erovinkin, the KGB guy, was included on Axiom’s list, despite his not being a Russian diplomat, in any sense. If you expand the pool of people you’re willing to tag with a certain label, it makes it easier to find patterns within that pool.
And in a big enough pool, lots of amazing coincidences emerge. As a Stanford statistician said to Belkin, assuming that the population of the U.S. was 280 million, ”280 times a day, a one-in-a-million shot is going to occur.”
The microbiologist death list fell apart upon examination. What was depicted as evidence of a plot to eliminate key researchers was actually evidence of our predisposition to look for such plots.
So we had just gotten to Kadakin on our list. He was 67 and died of heart failure in India.
Malanin, 55, died in Greece in January. While the death is being investigated, he apparently died of natural causes, in his apartment. There was no sign of a break-in.
Krivov’s death in New York on Election Day last year spurred its own conspiracy theorizing. A consular employee, he was apparently found dead with head trauma. The Russian deputy foreign minister said the death was a natural one — a heart attack — but circumstances are still unclear.
So let’s call Krivov’s death mysterious. (In Belkin’s retelling of the microbiologist story, she notes that one early report about trauma to one person on the list turned out to be incorrect.) Let’s also acknowledge, as does Axios, that Russian authorities have demonstrated a willingness to assassinate political opponents.
We’re left with the question, then: Why these people? If this is a grand conspiracy, why these guys? Two ambassadors (ignoring Karlov), two consulate employees and a guy who maybe didn’t work for the Foreign Ministry any more — representing interests in Greece, India, New York and Latin America?
In July 2015, there was a rash of news stories about arsons at black churches. As it turned out, that wasn’t really the case. Churches catch fire fairly regularly, but only a certain set of fires was lifted to national attention — often with details exaggerated or left out to paint a bigger picture. Here, people started looking for “suspicious deaths tied to Russia” and, from a big pool of a lot of older Russian men, picked out a pattern, just as people saw a pattern in those burning churches.
The beautiful thing about conspiracy theories, of course, is that you can’t prove them wrong. So if you’re a Russian man who ever worked for the Foreign Ministry, try not to die any time soon, unless you want your family to have to spend the next few years explaining that you weren’t murdered.