Russian education minister dies after ‘criticising Ukraine war’

Pyotr Kucherenko was taken ill on a return flight from Cuba, with a journalist later claiming he had privately called the invasion fascist’

May 22, 2023

Russia’s deputy minister for science and higher education has died after he reportedly criticised the Kremlin’s offensive on Ukraine as a “fascist invasion” in a private conversation. 

In a 21 May statement the science ministry said Pyotr Kucherenko “became ill” while returning with a Russian delegation from a business trip to Cuba. His plane landed in the Russian town of Mineralnye Vody, it said, but local doctors were unable to save the 46-year-old, who had held his position since March 2020. 

The same day, Roman Super, a Russian journalist who has written for The Guardian and broadcast for the US-funded Radio Free Europe, claimed in a post on his Telegram channel that Mr Kucherenko had privately criticised Russia’s invasion of Ukraine to him. 

Mr Super claims to have met his “old friend” at his office in the ministry, where the deputy minister reportedly told Mr Super to leave Russia, referring to the war as a “fascist invasion”. Russian media report that Mr Super is now based in Israel.

Before he became a minister, Mr Kucherenko worked as a lawyer and a professor in the Department of Constitutional and Municipal Law at Peoples’ Friendship University of Russia.

He allegedly told Mr Super that Russians were “all taken hostage” and unable to speak for fear of being “crushed like aphids”. He also told the journalist he was taking “handfuls” of antidepressants and sleeping pills. 

Mr Kucherenko is the latest in a series of seemingly loyal and high-ranking Russians to have met mysterious ends since the invasion of Ukraine, including multiple falls and alleged suicides. February 2022 saw the deaths of the head of finance and procurement for Russia’s western military district and a former police general who helped to oversee the country’s crackdown on the opposition. 

The atmosphere for even uncritical academic work has become increasingly tense, with three hypersonic missile scientists charged with treason in recent days. Their colleagues wrote an open letter warning that the charges, levelled despite claims of their patriotism and compliance with publishing restrictions, would further harm Russian science.

Flights have proven particularly risky for Kremlin critics. In 2020, opposition leader and anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny was poisoned with the Novichok nerve agent during a flight from Tomsk to Moscow. The cause of Mr Kucherenko’s death remains unknown.

He leaves behind a wife, the pop singer Diana Gurtskaya, who represented Georgia in the 2008 Eurovision song contest, and a son.

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