Yuri Shchekochikhin, a State Duma deputy and veteran investigative journalist, died under mysterious circumstances one year ago, and Novaya gazeta, the publication where he was a deputy editor, devoted eight articles to him in its July 1 issue. Shchekochikhin fell ill just prior to a short visit to Ryazin in late June 2003, and his condition deteriorated upon his return to Moscow, which led to his hospitalization. He died in the government’s Central Clinical Hospital during the night of June 2-3, 2003, of what was then described in the media as an “acute allergic reaction.” Alexander Gurov, chairman of the State Duma’s Security Committee, on which Shchekochikhin served as a deputy chairman, said at the time that Shchekochikhin’s condition had “advanced absolutely drastically, with catastrophically progressing speed,” from peeling skin to “edemas of the respiratory system and brain” (Gazeta.ru, July 4, 2003).
Novaya gazeta reported in its July 1 issue that in the intervening year, it conducted its own investigation into Shchekochikhin’s death, with the help of medical specialists in Europe and “the special services of a number of states,” but was unable to reach a conclusion on whether or not he was murdered, as a number of observers have suspected. The chief reason for the continuing uncertainty is that all medical information about his death was deemed to be a “medical secret” that ostensibly cannot by law be disclosed even to family members.
However, the bi-weekly uncovered a medical report that reviewed Shchekochikhin’s treatment while in the Central Clinical Hospital, which detailed his condition and treatment from the time he was admitted on June 21, 2003, until his death eleven days later. The report notes a consultation with Moscow’s chief toxicologist, Yuri Ostapenko, on June 24, 2003 — that is, three days after Shchekochikhin was admitted to the hospital. Ostapenko concluded that “a diagnosis of a toxic-allergic reaction to a pharmacological agent (Lyell’s Syndrome) does not raise doubts,” adding that “theoretically, poisoning by boric acid can give a similar clinical picture” but that clinical data ruled this out in Shchekochikhin’s case.
Novaya gazeta consulted Alexander Vavilov, a dermatological researcher with the Ministry of Health, about Lyell’s Syndrome. He said that drugs such as sulfonamides — a family of antibiotics — barbiturates, and analgesics, including aspirin, most often trigger the rare condition. While the medical report on Shchekochikhin found no such substances in his system, Vavilov noted that it is possible certain medications could build up in an individual over years and that eventually even a small amount could trigger the syndrome. At the same, a British specialist told the newspaper that a bacterial or viral infection, or a drug, could trigger the syndrome but be undetectable by the time the individual was hospitalized.
In early 2002, Yuri Shchekochikhin was put under protective guard along with his family after receiving threats connected to an investigative piece published in Novaya gazeta in February of that year. In that article, he claimed that a “criminal group” had paid $2 million to top officials in the Prosecutor General’s Office to close down an investigation into allegations that two leading Moscow furniture outlets, Tri Kita (Three Whales) and Grand, evaded import duties by falsifying the weight and purchase price of millions of dollars’ worth of goods they had imported. Other media had earlier reported that among the co-founders of the Tri Kita and Grand stores were “firms belonging to the father” of Yuri Zaostrovtsev, then a deputy director of the Federal Security Service (FSB) (Jamestown Monitor, February 20, 2002). According to Novaya gazeta, Shchekochikhin had also received threats just prior to his death (Novaya gazeta, June 1). The newspaper reported last year that on the eve of his murder, Shchekochikhin was planning to travel to the United States to ask the FBI to investigate connections between the Tri Kita case and money laundering through the Bank of New York (Novaya gazeta, August 11, 2003).