World News

A Trace of Novichok on Your Salad?

Posted April 20, 2018 3:30 p.m. EDT

MOSCOW — An organ-failure-inducing, military-grade nerve agent may seem an unlikely source of inspiration for a product that is advertised as promoting “longevity.”

Not so for Alexei Yakushev, however, a farmer from a village in central Russia. This week, he launched “Novichok,” a sunflower oil named after the chemical agent the Kremlin is accused of using last month to poison Russian former spy Sergei V. Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, in Salisbury, England.

The oil comes in a tall brown bottle with a black label decorated with the emblem of the Soviet-era secret police and the words, “Recommended by the KGB.” On Thursday, a beaming Yakushev posed for photos and a video promoting his new product at a trade fair in Ulyanovsk, a city 520 miles east of Moscow.

The 43-year-old farmer, who runs a family business called Yakushev, said he was seeking to inject an element of humor into an international spy scandal that has prompted Western nations to eject more than 150 Russian diplomats and the United States to impose a new round of economic sanctions, sending relations with the West to their lowest point since the Russian military interventions in Crimea and eastern Ukraine.

Yakushev did not explain what he thought was funny about an attempted assassination, though he might have been taking a cue from the Russian news media. Since Britain accused Russia of involvement in the Skripals’ poisoning, news outlets have peddled dozens of conspiracy theories about the incident, mainly accusing Britain and the United States of staging the event to cast Russia in a bad light.

The cacophony of outlandish explanations has sown an atmosphere of confusion and distrust about official versions that has caused many in Russia to doubt the very existence of the nerve agent that the British say was used to incapacitate the Skripals.

“We hear so much about this novichok,” Yakushev said, referring to the poison. “They search and search for it, and no one can find it. So, in the end, I decided to make it myself.”

For Yakushev’s information, novichok nerve agents — there are a broad array, coming in powder, paste or liquid form — were developed in the Soviet Union’s laboratories toward the end of the Cold War and are considered many times more powerful than more conventional nerve agents like sarin or VX. Western intelligence agencies say they are tightly controlled by the Russian government. Indeed, the attack on the Skripals was their first known use outside Russia.

The sunflower oil is a limited release of 1,000 bottles produced specifically for the trade fair, Yakushev said. But he has been heartened by its popularity on social media and said he plans to satisfy demands from friends and fans for a new batch.

“I’ll be releasing another version, as soon as I’m done with the spring harvest,” he said.