The Atlantic

Who Killed Alexander Perepilichny?

An enemy of the Kremlin dies in London.
Source: Tomer Hanuka

On November 10, 2012, Alexander Perepilichny was feeling a little under the weather. He decided to try to shake it off by taking a few laps around the gated community southwest of London where Russian émigrés like him lived in multimillion-dollar mansions alongside members of the English elite. Perepilichny jogged through a neighborhood of homes once owned by Elton John, Kate Winslet, John Lennon, and Ringo Starr.

He collapsed on Granville Road, within 100 meters of the house he was renting for $20,000 a month. Police and medics were called to the scene, but within 30 minutes, Perepilichny was pronounced dead.

Police told the press the death was “unexplained.” A 44-year-old man of average build and above-average wealth had simply fallen down and died in the leafy suburb he’d recently begun calling home.

Among the material facts not known at the time was that Perepilichny was in good health, as proved by a physical he’d had for a life-insurance policy soon before his death. That he’d traveled that morning from Paris, where he had, inexplicably, reserved two hotel rooms in different parts of the city for the same nights. That he’d been meeting with a man he said was from the Russian government, but who was actually an affiliate of a Russian criminal syndicate. And that he’d gotten an ominous phone call informing him that police had found his name on a hit list in the home of an alleged Chechen contract killer.

Three years passed before a theory emerged that might explain what had happened to him. But highly interested parties—including a wealthy American-born investor and quite possibly officials in the highest reaches of the British and Russian governments—were watching the story the whole time.

Perepilichny’s friend Yuri Panchul learned of his death on a blog maintained by a Russian opposition figure. Panchul thought it was strange that police didn’t immediately suspect foul play: The Perepilichny he knew partook of few vices that could stop the heart of a healthy man.

Panchul works as an engineer in Silicon Valley. He told me he met Perepilichny 30 years ago, in Moscow. He remembers his old friend as a shy young man who walked with his head down and carried his anxiety in his gait. He had the pale complexion and skinny frame of someone who spent most of his time indoors, his nose buried in books.

Growing up in Ukraine in the 1970s and early ’80s, Perepilichny wanted to be a scientist. He performed well enough on the entrance exams to win admission to Phystech, a prestigious science university founded at the beginning of the Cold War, in part to develop better ballistic missiles. The residue of its security-oriented mission lingered: Perepilichny had to sign a document limiting his communication with foreigners. Submitting papers to international journals and traveling to conferences abroad required special permission.

The campus was drab, but Perepilichny was surrounded by some of the brightest minds in the Soviet Union. He dove into his research and discovered his passion: DNA. At parties he was quiet and sober while those around him drank and smoked heavily. He didn’t need the thrill. The applications of what he was working on were limitless, unimaginable—he was exploring what made people people.

Perepilichny’s arrival at the university coincided with Mikhail Gorbachev’s at the Kremlin; soon after came glasnost, the new leader’s policy of “openness”—including openness to ideas and information from abroad. Aspiring Soviet scientists were able to see more clearly just how far they lagged behind the West. To Perepilichny and Panchul, it felt as though Russia had woken up to a world of important discoveries that had already been made. Perepilichny concluded that if he wanted to be a scientist, he would have to go to America.

He figured he’d need $3,000—a wildly ambitious sum, considering his stipend at Phystech was about $10 a month. But the same changes that lifted the veil on Russia’s standing in the sciences brought an opportunity: Before Gorbachev, private enterprise had been virtually forbidden. Now demand soared for products that had been unavailable or very scarce in the Soviet Union. Products like personal computers. Government ministries wanted them; so did the new businesses popping up.

Panchul had been writing software since he

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