Alexander Perepilichny had been a Russian exile in Britain for the past three years. Aged 44, and in good health, he was rich enough to be paying a huge five-figure monthly rent for a house in Weybridge, a spot in Surrey where nouveau-riche people cluster. A couple of weeks ago, he went out jogging, and was found dead by the side of the road. Tests have failed to reveal the cause of death. Toxology tests are due in case he was poisoned by radiation like Alexander Litvinenko in an earlier and somewhat similar case. There may be an innocent explanation, but more probably here is another of the crimes that give frightening insight into today’s Russia.
According to press reports, Perepilichny was an associate of the Klyuev Group, who were tax officials in Russia skimming off public funds. They framed Hermitage Capital, an investment company whose chief executive officer was, and is, William Browder. (He is the grandson of Earl Browder, once general secretary of the American Communist party. “The smiling moustaches of Earl Browder,” runs a line in a poem by Roy Fuller that exemplifies the fellow-travelling absurdity of the Thirties.)
When I met Bill Browder, he told me how these tax officials had set him up and run him out of Russia. He engaged Sergei Magnitsky, a well-known young human-rights lawyer, to defend him. The day after Magnitsky named names, he was arrested. Then he was found dead in the Lubyianka, the old Soviet hell-hole in Moscow. But there was a paper trail of hundreds of millions of stolen dollars leading through banks to Switzerland and the purchase of property abroad. Perepilichny apparently could document the whole vast scam, and he handed the information to the Swiss authorities. One can only guess at his motives, but the reports describe him as a “supergrass,” an activity that may have cost him his life. In Soviet times, the top officials took steps to kill whoever gave secrets away, and this case might prove they haven’t changed.