Russian President Vladimir Putin's former KGB mentor and one-time crony, who turned into one of his biggest foes, for being an outspoken critic, has died from an unexplained "serious illness", officials said. Viktor Cherkesov, 72, died in St. Petersburg Tuesday night. Cherkesov was the former chief of the Federal Drugs Control Service (FKSN).
Aleksandr Khinshtein, the head of the State Duma Committee on Information Policy, announced the passing of Cherkesov on Telegram earlier today. However, he did not mention the cause of death but Russian media reported that it followed a "serious illness." Cherkesov's death is the latest in a series of mysterious deaths of Putin allies who turned foes following Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
Another Mysterious Death
Announcing Cherkesov's death on Telegram, Khinshtein described him as a "wonderful person and true statesman." "Victor Vasilyevich was a wonderful person and a true statesman. Eternal memory to him!" he wrote.
Cherkesov was a former presidential envoy to the Northwestern Federal District and the head of the now-defunct State Drug Control Service (FKSN), according to Radio Free Europe. He began his career as a KGB agent in St. Petersburg in the 1970s, where he hunted down dissidents and looked into anti-Soviet activities.
He finally worked his way up to become the branch chief of the local FSB. He is also considered Putin mentor at the KGB.
When Putin was heading the FSB secret service in 1998 before becoming the prime minister, Cherkesov was appointed as Putin's most trusted deputy.
Cherkesov was chosen by Putin to serve as his representative in Russia's Northwestern Federal District after he won the presidential election. Cherkesov was then a Security Council member as well. He was later appointed director of the FKSN in 2003.
Putin directed the Cherkesov-led agency to look into the "Three Whales" corruption scandal, which involved high-ranking FSB officials and was thought to be connected to money laundering through a bank in the United States, in 2006. The case involved major furniture smuggling.
Aleksandr Zherikhov, the head of the Customs Service, and Prosecutor-General Vladimir Ustinov both resigned in response to the investigation, which also resulted in the dismissal and detention of several top figures from the FSB, Interior Ministry, Customs Service, presidential administration, and other institutions.
Ally Turned Foe
Cherkesov's relationship with Putin soured after that. Eventually, he went on to become one of the most hated persons in Putin's eyes. This came after Cherkesov wrote a contentious opinion piece disclosing details of a covert turf battle being fought by senior Russian intelligence service officials.
In the article that appeared in the newspaper Komersant in 2007, Cherkesov chastised rogue FSB agents and wrote: "We cannot allow warriors to become merchants."
In response, Putin slammed Cherkesov for washing the FSB's dirty laundry in the media and made a veiled allusion to the fact that his former mentor was not beyond reproach either.
"I consider it incorrect to air such problems in the media," Putin had said.
"And if someone acts in this way, makes such claims about a war of the special services, he himself must first be impeccable."
At the time, an agent and an ex-agent who worked for Cherkesov, the Federal Drug Control Service's then-director, inexplicably passed away from "poisoning."
Cherkesov was removed from this position soon after that as a result of his criticism of Putin's secret services.
However, Putin did not want to lose him completely. Cherkesov was appointed head of the Federal Agency for the Supply of Weapons, Military, Special Equipment, and Materials for a two-year term. According to one source, Cherkesov "knows where the dead are buried over many years."
Cherkesov later became an MP and was never again associated with Putin's inner circle, although the two had been close since university.
He was nonetheless referred to be "one of the few people with whom Putin is frank."
Cherkesov was the FSB's deputy director at the time of the apartment building explosions in Buynaksk, Moscow, and Volgodonsk in September 1999, which resulted in 300 fatalities. There was also a near-miss in Ryazan, where a device was deactivated.
Although independent journalists alleged the secret services were behind the attacks as part of a political plot to support Putin, the FSB attributed the attacks on Chechen militants. In 2000, Putin, who was the prime minister at the time, utilized the "terrorist threat" to launch a "popular war" in Chechnya, which helped him win the presidency for the first time.
Cherkesov was not perceived as flamboyantly cashing in on his contacts like many other former Putin friends, and he was not labeled as a billionaire. He was a retired police general and a colonel-general in the reserves.
He was also a distinguished attorney and "honorary counterintelligence officer." Natalya Chaplina, his second wife, is the owner of a 65-year-old news agency with strong ties to Russian security agencies.