Somewhere, isolated from the rest of the world, nerve agent victim Yulia Skripal recently turned 40. She miraculously survived her alleged exposure to a deadly poison called “novichok” six years ago — but her life was still destroyed

When Yulia Skripal flew from Moscow to London on Saturday, 3 March 2018 to make one of her regular trips to see her father Sergei in the English city of Salisbury, she lost her life in Russia forever.

She left behind her partner, Stepan; the apartment they shared; her dog Nuar; her Ford Kuga car and her job — which was reportedly at PepsiCo Moscow and not the US Embassy, as an early report suggested.

For Yulia, it was a tragedy. She lost everything.

No-one can ask her about what happened because she has disappeared. She apparently doesn’t want any help. She supposedly has a new identity and is living somewhere far away: perhaps New Zealand.

But it seems almost certain that Yulia had no idea she was about to lose her life in Russia when, six years ago, she boarded Aeroflot flight AFL2570 to London Heathrow.

She surely thought she would be back home in her Moscow apartment with Stepan within a couple of weeks.

But it was not to be.

Instead, two secret agents supposedly acting on the orders of Russian President Vladimir Putin allegedly tried to kill her and her father, and she became a central figure in a strange story about spies, assassins and oddly ineffective “military grade” nerve agents: a story with terrible consequences for international relations — but also for her.

Yulia, then 33, was flying to the UK with good news for her father: she and Stepan were engaged to be married, and were planning to start a family.

“[Yulia] wanted to request [Sergei’s] blessing… and had even commissioned work to turn one of the smaller rooms [in her apartment] into a nursery,” according to one report.

But Yulia’s dreams of marriage and motherhood were shattered the day after she arrived in Salisbury, when she and her father were supposedly exposed to one of the most toxic poisons ever made — a nerve agent called “novichok”.

Miraculously, both Yulia and Sergei survived.

The poison had apparently been surreptitiously smeared on the front door of Sergei’s Salisbury home by two Russian secret agents, who had allegedly been ordered by President Putin to kill Yulia’s father in revenge for his betrayal of Russia 20 years before.

Sergei, a former Colonel in the Russian intelligence agency known as the GRU, spied for the UK during the 1990s as a double agent. He was eventually arrested in 2004 and convicted by a Russian court in 2006. Sentenced to 13 years in prison, he was pardoned after four years and deported, arriving in Salisbury as part of a spy swap in 2010.

But it appears Sergei had not truly been forgiven. It seems the memory of his crimes festered in the mind of a vindictive President Putin for almost eight years, until he finally directed his secret services to exact terrible retribution against the traitor in an audacious, exotic and horribly indiscriminate attack.

Moscow was at the time engaged in a huge global public relations exercise, as Russia was weeks away from hosting a major international sport tournament — the 2018 World Cup.

Despite this, President Putin apparently found himself unable to control his desire for revenge against Sergei any longer. However inconvenient the timing might be for the football competition Russia was about to stage, he decided to “send a message”.

It seems President Putin wanted to signal that he could punish anyone who had ever betrayed Russia: whenever he wanted, wherever they were in the world, whatever the consequences might be for international relations and regardless of how much time had passed since their crimes.

And so, according to UK police, at around 12pm on Sunday 4 March 2018, two Russian secret agents walked into the cul-de-sac where Sergei lived and used a high-tech container disguised as a perfume bottle to apply one of the deadliest substances known to man to the front door handle of his home.

This poison, “novichok”, was said to be a uniquely Russian — and uniquely deadly — chemical weapon, originally developed in the Soviet era.

It was also said to be “Putin’s signature”.

A letter from the UK’s national security advisor to NATO sent a few weeks after their poisoning strongly suggests Sergei and Yulia separately touched the “novichok” that had been smeared on the front door of Sergei’s house early in the afternoon of 4 March 2018, and in consequence they were found incapacitated together on a bench in Salisbury city centre a few hours later.

The effect of “novichok” poisoning is an important part of the tragedy of Yulia Skripal — but not because it killed her or her father.

Rather, it made them both vanish.

Like Yulia, Sergei disappeared after his alleged exposure to and recovery from this deadly nerve agent — and like Yulia, no-one can ask Sergei about what happened to them.

Like her, the suggestion is he may be in New Zealand.

But even before their apparent poisoning and subsequent disappearance, Yulia and Sergei’s lives had been touched by tragedy.

Soon after Sergei was exiled to Salisbury in 2010, his wife — Yulia’s mother, Lyudmila — joined him in Wiltshire. They may have hoped to enjoy a new chapter of their lives together following Sergei’s years in prison.

But soon after Lyudmila arrived in England she was diagnosed with cancer.

She died just two years later in 2012 aged 59, of “disseminated endometrial carcinoma”.

Yulia moved to England around same time as Lyudmila and ended up living in the UK for around five years. She doubtless wanted to be close to her dying mother, and then her bereaved father. For a time she worked at a hotel in Southampton, about 20 miles from Salisbury.

Despite the anxiety Lyudmila’s illness must have caused the family, Yulia reportedly enjoyed her time in the UK, passed her driving test, and intended to apply for citizenship before changing her mind.

In 2014 Yulia moved back to Moscow, where her grandmother still lived, “after a long-term friendship turned romantic”.

Happy as this development may have been for her, there was more sadness in store for Yulia and her father.

In March 2016, Sergei’s older brother — Yulia’s uncle, Valery — died in a car crash in Russia, aged 68. Valery had been sick for some time, but the cause of his illness and the circumstances of the accident are not clear.

Then, less than a year-and-a-half later in July 2017, Yulia’s older brother Alexander — Sergei and Lyudmila’s only other child — died while on holiday with his girlfriend in St Petersburg, aged just 43.

Apparently an alcoholic, his cause of death was said to be liver failure.

Alexander’s body was cremated and Sergei arranged for his ashes of his son to be sent to Salisbury. They were interred at the cemetery where his mother had been buried just five years before.

The true causes of Alexander and Lyudmila’s deaths were called into question by UK authorities and members of parliament following Yulia and Sergei’s alleged exposure to “novichok”.

Their deaths became part of the Metropolitan Police investigation into the events in Salisbury and the MP Tom Turgendhat — then chairman of the UK government’s foreign affairs committee — stated that Yulia’s mother and brother had probably been murdered by the Russian state.

The cause of Valery’s death was also said to be suspicious.

No-one can ask Yulia or Sergei if they believe any of this could be true.

However, it seems Lyudmila and Alexander were very much on their minds on the day they were themselves allegedly subjected to an assassination attempt by the Kremlin.

On the morning of Sunday, 4 March 2018, Yulia and Sergei apparently visited Lyudmila and Alexander’s graves. It seems Sergei drove them to the London Road Cemetery in Salisbury at around 9:15am.

The graves were later sealed off by the UK authorities due to fears of contamination, but no traces of “novichok” were found at the cemetery.

This is because the two Russian secret agents who allegedly tried to kill Yulia and Sergei did not arrive at Salisbury railway station until 11:48am, so there is no way they could have poisoned them before then.

Exactly when Yulia and Sergei were in fact exposed to the poison is not clear. There is no evidence they returned Sergei’s house following their visit to the cemetery and there is an information blackout around what they did next, as they supposedly turned off their mobile phones for a while.

According to some accounts, such as that of Eliot Higgins — founder of the “citizen journalist” organisation Bellingcat that apparently exposed the real identities of the two Russian secret agents sent to kill Sergei — Yulia and her father did not leave the house that morning and were actually at home when the two Russian secret agents arrived outside.

In his book We Are Bellingcat, Higgins states that Sergei and Yulia were “inside the house” at the time the two Russian secret agents approached it and contaminated the front door with nerve agent.

Other narratives, such as that of the BBC reporter Mark Urban in his book The Skripal Files — which he began writing before the “novichok” incident in Salisbury occurred — suggest Yulia and her father returned to the house after visiting the cemetery, and were exposed to the poison at that point.

But either way, as noted: the UK national security advisor suggested in a letter to NATO that at some point early in the afternoon, Yulia and Sergei both touched the “novichok” that had allegedly been applied to the front door handle of Sergei’s house by Russian secret agents using a fake perfume bottle.

Yulia and Sergei then enjoyed an afternoon together in Salisbury, perhaps in celebration of Yulia and Stepan’s engagement.

The “military grade” poison did not seem to have an effect on either of them for several hours.

Sergei drove them into the city centre, where they fed ducks on the River Avon. There they passed quite close to the two Russian secret agents who had poisoned them, as their would-be assassins had apparently decided to take the opportunity to do a bit of window-shopping in Salisbury after carrying out their orders, rather than leave the city immediately.

Yulia and Sergei then went to a restaurant and a pub. It was after this — while they were walking in a shopping area of Salisbury called The Maltings — that the nerve agent they had supposedly been separately exposed to a few hours earlier dramatically entered their bloodstreams.

They apparently had time to sit on a public bench in The Maltings as they were almost simultaneously overcome together by its powerful effects.

According to at least one account, Yulia vomited and stopped breathing. Sergei meanwhile appeared to be suffering from hallucinations, and was making strange gestures with his hands.

Fortunately for them, the British Army’s most senior nurse happened to be passing by with her daughter, and they gave Yulia and Sergei first aid.

The initial consensus among the paramedics called to the scene was that Yulia and Sergei had taken an overdose of the powerful synthetic opiate fentanyl. They were rushed to Salisbury District Hospital where the early diagnosis of an opiate overdose was apparently maintained.

But their blood samples were taken for testing at the UK’s nearby chemical weapons laboratory Porton Down, which a couple of days later informed the doctors at Salisbury that their patients had in fact been exposed to a nerve agent — and one of the deadliest ever made.

Receiving this diagnosis from Porton Down, the doctors expected the Skripals to die.

But to their astonishment Yulia and Sergei staged a recovery that they could not “easily explain”.

While she was in hospital, Yulia was apparently given a phone so that she could call her cousin Viktoria in Russia, although the authenticity of their recorded conversation was not confirmed. The BBC published a partial transcript of the call, but put Yulia’s name in inverted commas throughout.

Everything is OK,” the person called “Yulia” told Viktoria on 5 April, almost exactly a month after her alleged poisoning. “Everyone’s health is fine. There’s nothing that can’t be put right … [Sergei] is resting now, having a sleep. Everything is fine, everything is solvable, everyone is recovering and is alive. I’ll be discharged soon. Everything is OK.”

Yulia was duly discharged from Salisbury hospital four days later, and Sergei was discharged five weeks after that.

But everything was not OK.

On 24 May, six days after her father was released from hospital, Yulia made a statement on camera for the Reuters news agency from RAF Fairford, an air station in Gloucestershire about 50 miles from Salisbury that operates as a major air base for the United States Air Force.

Yulia appeared fully recovered, and there was no sign from her speech or movements that she had suffered permanent injury as a result of her alleged exposure to a deadly nerve agent. However, she did have a clear tracheostomy scar on her neck that she made no attempt to hide.

In her statement, Yulia appealed for privacy on behalf of herself and her father, and said she was having difficulty coming to terms with what had happened to them. She emphasised that no-one was entitled to speak on behalf of her or Sergei, and said that in “the longer term” she hoped to return home to Russia.

Yulia also stated she did not want any help from the Russian Embassy.

Yulia was not asked any questions after reading out her statement, which appeared to have been handwritten in Russian and then written out again in English, possibly by someone else.

After this statement, Yulia disappeared forever.

In the months and years that followed, Yulia’s car and apartment were sold. Nuar was rehomed. Stepan disappeared. Yulia’s grandmother Elena — Sergei’s mother, who was 90 at the time of the Salisbury events — died three years later, never having heard from her granddaughter or her son again.

But Viktoria apparently received another phone call from Yulia on 20 November 2020, shortly before Elena passed away. In this call “Yulia” said she and Sergei were living separately in England due to Coronavirus restrictions, and that her father lived with a nurse who looked after him and changed a tracheostomy tube that he still needed.

“Yulia” also said she was keen to relocate to New Zealand, but “unfortunately so far in no way”.

As with the call from Salisbury hospital more than two-and-a-half years before, Viktoria said she was sure she had genuinely been speaking to her cousin: but the recording of their conversation was not authenticated.

The explanations offered by the UK establishment for Yulia’s disappearance from public view are remarkably implicit and vague.

Whether they are in New Zealand or not, Sergei and Yulia are currently assumed to be in some kind of “witness protection programme” — but there seems to be no requirement for either of them to provide witness statements about what happened in Salisbury.

Although President Putin seemingly failed in his exotic and elaborate plot to kill Yulia and Sergei, UK intelligence services have apparently determined that they may not be able to protect them from another assassination attempt if either of them were ever to give any kind of account — for example, by video link — of their ordeal six years ago.

The implication is it is too dangerous for Yulia or Sergei to provide testimony in any form about the events surrounding their alleged poisoning: even though they are the central figures in a case of international significance that is used to this day as a justification for the ever-escalating conflict between the UK, NATO and Russia.

This is a conflict that potentially threatens humanity, and a cynic or sceptic might suggest Yulia and Sergei are being kept quiet.

Sergei has never made a statement of any kind since the events of 4 March 2018.

Not even a written statement has been published in his name.

And Yulia was able to make her statement to camera in May 2018 without being tracked down and killed.

But now, allowing Yulia to have any kind of communication with the outside world apparently represents a huge threat of some kind: perhaps to her, or perhaps to the story of what really happened to her.

And so Yulia is condemned to remain in limbo forever, permanently cut off from the life she once knew.

That this is the position of the UK authorities — if not of Yulia and Sergei themselves — was recently confirmed in a statement given by a UK government-appointed lawyer to a public inquiry into the death of Dawn Sturgess, a woman who died four months after the Salisbury events in the town of Amesbury, eight miles away.

Sturgess was apparently killed after her partner, Charlie Rowley, gave her the fake perfume bottle containing “novichok” that the two Russian secret agents had used to poison Sergei’s front door.

It seems that, after using it, the Russian secret agents had taken the trouble to box and seal the bottle in plastic before discarding it in Salisbury, where it remained for four months until Rowley supposedly found it.

Receiving the bottle and its odourless contents from Rowley but apparently believing it contained perfume, Sturgess supposedly sprayed “novichok” on her wrists and began to suffer symptoms within 15 minutes. She was taken to Salisbury hospital where she died eight days later when her life support was switched off.

The Sturgess family have been fighting ever since for an inquest to find out how the events in Salisbury led to Dawn’s death, and after Dawn’s daughter won a legal case against the coroner’s initial judgement the UK government converted the inquest into a public inquiry so that it could hide evidence from them in the name of national security.

The inquiry is due to begin in October 2024, but at an initial hearing on 21 June, Jack Holborn — a barrister appointed by the UK government to represent Yulia and Sergei in the legal process — stated that they “[feared] for their safety if they [gave] evidence” to the inquiry because “[no] security measures are perfect” and giving testimony would “cause [them] distress”.

There is no suggestion that Holborn has spoken to either Sergei or Yulia.

Of course, she may simply not want to talk.

And so her tragedy continues.

(Featured Image: Image copyright purchased by author from Alamy.)


  • Tim Norman

    Tim Norman lives on the south coast of England and began his career in technology journalism in the 1990s writing about the then-emerging internet. He has worked in editorial production roles for local, national and international media and on daily, weekly and monthly publications. A member of the NUJ, he was Father of the Chapel at The Argus in Brighton when the newspaper went on strike in 2011.

    View all posts