Russian minister dies after falling ill on flight from Cuba

A Russian minister died this weekend of an unknown illness during a flight home to Russia, marking the latest mysterious death of a prominent Russian figure since the start of the Ukraine war.

Deputy Minister of Science and Higher Education Pyotr Kucherenko, 46, died on Saturday as he was returning from a government trip to Cuba, the ministry announced in a brief press release.

Kucherenko “became ill on the plane,” the ministry wrote, causing the plane to make an emergency stop in the Russian town of Mineralnye Vody.

There, “doctors tried to help, but they failed to save” the deputy minister, the release states. No other details were given. The ministry offered condolences to Kucherenko’s friends and family.

According to state-run broadcaster Zvezda, Kucherenko’s family believes his death may be related to a heart condition, but an official forensic examination is set to take place on Wednesday. In a Telegram post published shortly after Kucherenko’s death, independent Russian journalist Roman Super shared details of a conversation he had with the deputy minister in early 2022.

Super fled Russia for security reasons, he claims, which Kucherenko encouraged him to do after Russia invaded Ukraine last February.

“Save yourself and your family. Leave as soon as possible,” Kucherenko allegedly told the journalist. “In a year you won’t recognize Russia at all.”

Super asked the deputy minister if he planned to flee Russia as well at the outbreak of the war. Kucherenko said it would be impossible for him to leave.

“It is no longer possible to do so. They take away our passports,” the post reads.

Kucherenko reportedly added that no country in the world would be willing to take in a Russian deputy minister “after this fascist invasion.”

“I drink antidepressants and tranquilizers at the same time. Handfuls. And it doesn’t help much,” Kucherenko was quoted as saying when asked how he was handling the situation in Russia.

“I hardly sleep. I feel terrible. We are all taken hostage,” he said. “Nobody can say anything. Otherwise, we are immediately crushed like aphids.”

CNN, citing an investigation by independent outlet IStories, reported that some senior Russia officials tried to quit their posts but were not allowed to. A Russian government spokesperson has dismissed the report as a hoax.

Kucherenko is survived by his wife, pop singer Diana Gurtskaya, and their teenage son.

Kucherenko is far from the first Russian elite to meet a mysterious end since the Ukraine war started. Many of the people who died had reportedly spoken out about the war.

In February, a top Russian defence official was found dead after apparently falling from the 16th floor of a highrise apartment in St. Petersburg.

Marina Yankina, 58, had been the head of finance and procurement for the Russian Defence Ministry’s Western Military District, one of five arms of the Russian armed forces.

Located in western Russia, the Western Military District has suffered some of the heaviest losses in Russia’s war against Ukraine.

At least a dozen others have also died:

  • Maj. Gen. Vladimir Makarov was found dead in an apparent suicide outside Moscow. He had been recently fired from his job by Russian President Vladimir Putin.
  • Anatoly Gerashchenko, the former head of a Russian aviation research university, died on the institute’s grounds after reportedly falling down numerous flights of stairs. The Moscow Aviation Institute, where Gerashchenko was serving as an adviser, said the death was accidental.
  • Vladimir Nikolayevich Sungorkin, the editor-in-chief of major state newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda, died “suddenly” after appearing to suffocate, according to the paper he used to helm. An initial medical examination found that Sungorkin may have suffered a stroke. The Kremlin called his death “a great loss to Russian journalism.”
  • Ivan Pechorin, an energy executive, died after falling overboard from a speed-boat and his body was later found after washing up on the coast of Russky Island in the Sea of Japan.
  • Ravil Maganov, chairman of the board of Russia’s largest private oil company, Lukoil, died after falling out of the sixth-storey window of a hospital. Lukoil was one of a few Russian companies to call for an end to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
  • Alexander Subbotin, a former top manager for Lukoil, was found dead in the basement of a shaman’s house after allegedly receiving a hangover treatment involving toad venom.
  • Sergey Protosenya, a former executive at Novatek, the largest independent natural gas producer in Russia, was found hanged outside a Spanish villa along with the bodies of his wife and 18-year-old daughter. The deaths appeared to be a murder-suicide.
  • Vladislav Avayev, former vice-president of Gazprombank, Russia’s third-largest bank, was found dead in his Moscow apartment along with the bodies of his wife and 13-year-old daughter. The deaths also appeared to be a murder-suicide. Avayev and his family were found one day before Protosenya and his family died.
  • Vasily Melnikov, owner of Medstom, a company that imports medical equipment into Russia, and his family were all found dead in their luxury apartment in Nizhny Novgorod. Melnikov, his wife,w and their 10-year-old and four-year-old sons had been stabbed to death and the murder weapons were found at the crime scene. Investigators again concluded that the deaths were a result of a murder-suicide.
  • Mikhail Watford, a Ukrainian-born oligarch who made his millions as an oil and gas tycoon, was found hanged in the garage of his home in Surrey, U.K. Watford’s wife and children, who were home at the time, were not harmed. Watford changed his last name from Tolstosheya after moving to the U.K. in the early 2000s.
  • Alexander Tyulyakov, deputy general director of the treasury department for Gazprom, the largest publicly listed natural gas company in the world, was found hanged in the garage of his cottage. A note was found with his body leading investigators to conclude that Tyulyakov died by suicide.
  • Leonid Shulman, a top executive at Gazprom, was found dead in the bathroom of his cottage next to an apparent suicide note in the same neighbourhood where Tyulyakov would die a month later.

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