‘I was poisoned and my hair fell out’, says Russian anti-war activist

Elvira Vikhareva
Elvira Vikhareva
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A Russian politician known for her grassroots activism and opposition to the war in Ukraine believes she was poisoned with highly toxic heavy metals that caused her hair to fall out.

Elvira Vikhareva has not been seen in public since she began feeling unwell in November, with symptoms including hair loss, muscle spasms and severe stomach pains.

Ms Vikhareva on Friday shared blood tests with Russia’s Sota news channel that showed high levels of potassium dichromate, a compound commonly used in industrial chemistry but which can be extremely harmful. It is usually fatal if ingested.

The suspected attack on Ms Vikhareva, who is largely unknown in Russia, could be a sign that the Kremlin is expanding its crackdown to target lower-profile activists, now that most well-known figures like Alexei Navalny or Ilya Yashin are in prison or exile.

‘Took its toll on her looks’

The 32-year-old, who hosts regular political shows on YouTube, stopped showing her face on camera about a month ago, instead speaking to her guests with the camera off.

Ms Vikhareva told Sota that her worsening health “took its toll on her looks”.

The politician described first feeling unwell in November last year, when she experienced sharp stomach pains and heart palpitations. She later began fainting and her hair started falling out.

Out of fear for her safety, Ms Vikhareva declined to give further details and asked for privacy.

“I’ve said everything I could given the fact I am in Moscow,” she said. “Even though I’m engaged in opposition politics, I’m still a modest person who is not used to this kind of attention linked to my health.”

Reports of Ms Vikhareva’s ill health first surfaced earlier this month, when Leonid Gozman, a political scientist and friend, voiced his fears in an interview with a Russian political YouTube channel.

“It looks very much like poisoning,” said Mr Gozman, who was forced into exile after a series of fines and periods in jail.

Ms Vikhareva – who in previous years worked on election campaigns for Dmitry Gudkov, the exiled opposition politician – ran for parliament in 2021 but lost to a pro-Kremlin candidate amid widespread accusations of vote rigging.

The Kremlin has often been accused of poisoning its opponents and exiled dissidents, including Mr Navalny.

Journalists for Bellingcat, the investigative online platform, and The Insider unmasked a group of intelligence officers in 2021 who were allegedly behind not only Mr Navalny’s near-fatal poisoning but also suspected attacks on Vladimir Kara-Murza Jr, a Russian journalist, and Dmitry Bykov, a novelist.

Those poisonings closely resembled the attack on Mr Navalny, who was poisoned with the military-grade agent Novichok. None of the victims in those poisonings reported hair loss or disfigurement.

But the Kremlin has form for targeting good-looking politicians with poisons that leave them physically scarred.

Viktor Yuschenko, the pro-Western candidate in Ukraine’s 2004 presidential elections, who was once voted Ukraine’s best-looking politician, was left badly disfigured after he was poisoned with dioxin, a chemical found in the herbicide Agent Orange.