KIEV — In the plush, crimson-decked lobby bar of Kiev’s five-star Premier Palace Hotel, Denis Voronenkov, a Russian lawmaker who had defected to Ukraine, knew he was in danger.
“For our personal safety, we can’t let them know where we are,” he said Monday evening as he sat with his wife for an interview with The Washington Post.
Less than 72 hours later, he was dead, shot twice in the head in broad daylight outside the same lobby bar. It was a particularly brazen assassination that recalled the post-Soviet gangland violence of the 1990s. His wife, dressed in black, sobbed as she stooped down to identify Voronenkov’s body, which lay beneath a black tarp in a pool of blood.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, just hours later, called the attack an “act of state terrorism by Russia.” As of Thursday evening, police had not identified the assailant, who died in police custody after being shot by Voronenkov’s bodyguard. Dmitry Peskov, a spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin, called the accusation a “fabrication.”
In the weeks before his death, Voronenkov, a former member of Russia’s pliant Communist Party, had told friends he was being targeted. Hackers had been trying to pry into his Twitter account and his wife’s email. He had received threatening text messages, and the police had recently assigned him a bodyguard. There were rumors he was under surveillance.
“It’s a totally amoral system, and in its anger it may go to extreme measures,” he said as he sat next to his wife, Maria Maksakova, a fellow parliamentarian who defected with him. “There’s been a demonization of us. It’s hard to say what will happen. The system has lost its mind. They say we are traitors in Russia.”
He said he could return only “when Putin is gone.”
At a time when the question of Russian influence dominates U.S. politics, Voronenkov’s death will add further scrutiny to the extent, and potential lethality, of Russia’s reach abroad. It remained unclear who might have wanted to kill Voronenkov — theories include Russian agents, Ukrainian nationalists or business interests — but the fact remains that he is just the latest Kremlin opponent to wind up dead.
The most famous among them include Alexander Litvinenko, the former Russian FSB agent who was poisoned with a radioactive isotope in London in 2006. Political opponents of the Kremlin in Moscow have also been targeted, including Boris Nemtsov, the opposition politician who was gunned down in sight of the Kremlin in 2015.
In Kiev in 2012, before the Russian annexation of Crimea drove a wedge between Russia and Ukraine, a leftist Russian activist named Leonid Razvozhayev, who was fleeing an investigation into whether he was plotting a revolution, was kidnapped off a city street, shortly after applying to the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees for asylum status.
He reappeared days later in a Moscow court, claiming he had been kidnapped and tortured.
Yet Voronenkov, who only recently began criticizing Putin, may be something of a different case: A former investigator turned loyal lawmaker in Russia’s State Duma, Voronenkov fled Moscow for Kiev with his wife in October amid a corruption investigation against him and suddenly became one of Putin’s most vocal critics, a thorn in Moscow’s side comparing the current wave of patriotic sentiment in Russia to Nazi Germany.
His complicated past, including an appearance in the Panama Papers and a Duma vote in favor of the annexation of Crimea, raises the possibility that others may have had motive to kill him. (He claimed in the interview that he was absent during the Duma vote and that his vote was recorded by fellow party members.)
“Yes, some people are pouring dirt on us,” he said during the interview, one of his last. “Sure there are nationalists here who are unhappy. But that’s the same everywhere. What am I, going to judge Ukraine because of them? There are a lot more sick people in Russia than here.”
He and Maksakova, an opera singer, wanted to show that they were enthusiastic about their new life: She was planning to tour Ukrainian cities and sing local folk songs, she said, while he was giving testimony against former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych, who fled to Russia after being overthrown in the country’s 2014 revolution.
Voronenkov was granted Ukrainian citizenship in December, a process that was said to be expedited by his growing ring of contacts. He also wanted to share information about Russian smuggling with Ukrainian prosecutors, friends said.
In the three years since Ukraine’s pro-Western revolution, Kiev has become something of a refuge for Russian opponents of the Kremlin. In a way, the city has taken on the role of a modern Casablanca or post-revolutionary Paris. Just 500 miles southwest of Moscow, members of Russia’s liberal, leftist and nationalist opposition mingle with refugee journalists, renegade Russian fighters battling Russian-backed separatists in southeast Ukraine, hipster entrepreneurs seeking to escape a tightly controlled political landscape in Moscow — all in a city that offers relative safety and protection from Moscow’s reach.
“He was coming to meet me,” tweeted Ilya Ponomarev, another former member of the Russian parliament and Putin critic wanted by the Kremlin and hiding in Kiev. “There are no words.”
In an interview before Voronenkov’s death, Ponomarev said that he had helped persuade Voronenkov and Maksakova to come to Kiev and said that Voronenkov was in talks with the Ukrainian prosecutor’s office to try to continue his career.
“Voronenkov was not a thief, but an investigator,” he said in a Facebook post, “and fatally dangerous for Russian officials in law enforcement.”