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Why are so many Putin critics tumbling out of high-storey windows?

Pavel Antov died just days after his friend on a trip to India.

Pavel Antov died just days after his friend on a trip to India. Photo: Getty

Indian police are investigating the death of a Russian sausage tycoon, who died just days after another wealthy compatriot – the latest in a worrying long line of rich Russians to die in mysterious circumstances this year.

The body of 65-year-old Pavel Antov was found outside his hotel in the eastern Indian state of Odisha on December 24. Conflicting reports suggest he either fell off the hotel roof or from a hotel window.

Mr Antov was a wealthy Russian politician serving President Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party in a regional area about 140 kilometres east of Moscow.

Before his political career, he founded meat processing plant, Vladimir Standard.

He had been travelling with friends in India – another one of whom had died just days earlier.

They are among as many as 20 high-profile Russian tycoons – many of them critics of Moscow and, in some cases, of Russian President Vladimir Putin himself – to die in unusual circumstances since the Ukraine invasion began last February.

The spate of suspicious deaths even has its own Wikipedia page.

Russian tycoon criticised the war in Ukraine

The Kyiv Post reported that Mr Antov’s death came six months after he criticised Russia’s war in Ukraine, something he later denied doing.

In a WhatsApp message from Mr Antov’s account in July, he reportedly described a family trapped by rubble in a Kyiv bombing.

“A girl has been pulled out from under the rubble, the girl’s father appears to have died,” the message said according to the Kyiv Post.

“The mother is trying to be pulled out with a crane. She is trapped under a slab. To tell the truth, it is extremely difficult to call this anything other than terror.”

The BBC later reported that Mr Antov claimed the message was in fact from someone who he disagreed with and it had been posted by accident. He said it was a misunderstanding and he was a patriot who supported Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Police walk back on initial theories

Russian media reported that Mr Antov died after falling from a window at his hotel in India.

At the time of his death, Mr Antov had been travelling with three friends. Just days earlier, one of them – Vladimir Budanov – had died due to a heart problem.

“It took two days to avail permission to cremate Vladimir on December 24,” a police inspector told Indian English-language newspaper The Hindu.

“After cremation, Antov had gone to the roof of the hotel and he fell from the roof. Further investigation would tell if he ended his life or fell accidentally.”

People stand at the entrance of a hotel where police are investigating the sudden deaths of a wealthy Russian politician who reportedly criticised the Ukraine war and his travelling companion, at Rayagada in India's Odisha state on December 29, 2022.

Pavel Antov’s body was found on December 24 in a pool of blood outside his lodgings in eastern Odisha state.

Initially, police believed that Mr Budanov died of a stroke and Mr Antov was took his own life due to depression. Now, a task force has been formed to investigate the deaths.

“The team has [questioned] their interpreter … who was accompanying them and guiding them during their tour,” an Odisha Police spokesman told the ABC. 

“The team has also [questioned] the driver … who was driving the car during their Odisha tour.” 

An autopsy reportedly showed Mr Antov died of internal injuries, the ABC reported.

Mysterious Russian deaths since Ukraine war

Throughout 2022, more than 20 Russian businessmen have been reported to have died in suspicious circumstances.

Many have previously criticised the Ukraine invasion or Mr Putin directly.

Late last week, Russian-American journalist Julia Ioffe told a US radio station that “pretty big” air quotes should be used around the idea of the run of fatalities were “coincidences”.

“If anything, it has become even more dangerous, domestically and abroad, for Russian oligarchs to oppose Vladimir Putin, to speak out against him. And Vladimir Putin seems to be making that very clear with a string of these coincidences,” she told Texas Public Radio.

“If you talk to anybody who has ever worked in intelligence or the security services in America or in other countries, they’ll tell you that coincidences like this have to be very carefully planned.”

The first high-profile death of the year was Leonid Shulman, the head of Russian transport service Gazprom Invest. He was found dead in a bathroom in a remote village near Leningrad, of a suspected suicide, in January 2022.

A month later – the day after Russia invaded Ukraine – another top executive at Gazprom, Alexander Tyulakov, was found dead in the same village. His death was also ruled a suicide.

Mikhail Watford was a Ukrainian-born businessman who was found dead in Britain on February 28. British authorities investigated his death and found no suspicious circumstances.

Two more Russian businessmen with links to Gazprom died in apparent murder-suicide incidents in April.

One was Vladislav Avayev, who was found dead alongside his wife and daughter in April. He was the ex-vice president at Gazprombank.

Investigators in Russia claimed Mr Avayev shot and killed his wife and daughter before killing himself, Reuters reported. However, Igor Volobuev, a former VP of Gazprombank, told CNN he did not believe that to be true.

In September, the chairman of the national oil company Lukoil, Ravil Maganov, died after falling from a window in Moscow.

CNN reported that Lukoil, Russia’s largest privately owned oil and gas company, had recently taken the unusual public stance of speaking out against Russia’s war in Ukraine, calling for sympathy for the victims, and for the end of the conflict.

Two weeks earlier, Latvian-born American investor Dan Rapoport – an outspoken critic of Mr Putin – had also died after falling from a window, this time in an apartment in Washington DC.

Ioffe said the deaths came as dissent was increasingly criminalised in Russia.

“These might be natural deaths. Again, we don’t know for sure. But we can be absolutely sure that people in the Russian business community are taking note and being extra, extra, extra careful now in terms of what they’re saying about the war, about Putin – which they’ve already been careful before the war, but now I’m sure they’re being doubly, triply so,” she said.

Overall, however, due to a lack of verifiable information, it remains unclear whether this year’s string of suspicious accidents and deaths is just an alarming twist of fate – or something more sinister.

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