Book review: Skripal in prison

You all surely know the story. Sergei Skripal, a one time officer in the Russian military intelligence agency, the GRU, was recruited by the British intelligence service MI6, and worked for a while as a British spy before being caught by the Russian authorities and imprisoned. He was then released as part of a spy swap and went to live incognito in Salisbury, England, where he carried on his life peacefully until one day a couple of GRU officers, Anatoly Chepiga and Alexander Mishkin, travelling under the pseudonyms Petrov and Boshirov, flew to the UK and smeared a nerve agent known as Novichok on the door handle of his house. The poisoning almost killed Skripal and his daughter, Julia, but both eventually survived. Also poisoned was a police officer Detective Sergeant Nick Bailey, who entered the Skripals’ house to investigate. He too survived. Less lucky was another resident of Salisbury, Dawn Sturgess, whose boyfriend Charlie Rowley gave her a perfume bottle he found somewhere in town. The bottle contained the Novichok used by Petrov and Boshirov to poison Skripal. Sturgess died after spraying herself with its contents.

That’s the official narrative, which most people accept. John Helmer, though, doesn’t believe it. Ever since the original poisoning he’s been penning pieces on his blog, Dances with Bears, casting doubt on the story being provided by the British police and government. Now he has assembled his pieces into a book entitled Skripal in Prison, which lays out the case against the theory that the Russians were behind the Skripal poisoning.


Helmer’s technique is to latch onto apparent contradictions in the statements of public officials, expose gaps in knowledge about the case, and portray things which most observers might consider quite innocuous as deeply suspicious, all to give a sense that things aren’t quite what they seem to be. For instance, he asks why it was necessary to knock down the roof of the Skripals’ house, and then the entire building, if the Novichok was just on the door handle. It must mean that the poison was really in the house, not outside on the door, he conjectures. And that must mean that Skripal was playing around with Novichok inside his home, and poisoned himself. Of course, it could just be that the British authorities were playing safe, and that they realized that nobody would ever want to buy the house and that it would have to be demolished. But Helmer doesn’t consider alternative possibilities. An apparent contradiction in one detail is taken as evidence that the entire narrative must be false, after which an entirely new narrative is constructed based entirely on conjecture. Suffice it to say that I don’t find this method of argument very convincing.

Now it’s true that there are some things about the Skripal story which remained unexplained. If the Skripals came into contact with the nerve agent when they touched the door on leaving the house, it’s not clear why it took several hours for them to display symptoms of poisoning. It’s also unknown how Sergeant Bailey was infected, or where Charlie Rowley found the bottle, or what happened to the bottle in the weeks between the poisoning of the Skripals and Rowley picking it up. But in a case like this there are bound to be gaps in knowledge. As things stand, one might find it difficult to convict Petrov and Boshirov in a court of law, where the standard is guilt beyond reasonable doubt, but that doesn’t mean that one can’t make a judgement outside of the court that they are fairly likely guilty of the crime.

Helmer, though, has a different take on events. This is what he thinks happened, as written on page 208 of the book:

Sergei Skripal poisoned himself by accident on March 4, 2018, in the centre of Salisbury. At the time he was engaged in an operation, freelance or official, which was known to the British intelligence agency MI6. The two Russians, Anatoly Chepiga and Alexander Mishkin, who visited Salisbury on March 3 and during Skripal’s fateful afternoon, were a signal from the Russian military intelligence agency GRU that the Russians knew in advance what Skripal was doing, and wanted the British to know they knew. The two Russians never made it to the front door of the Skripal house in Salisbury; the door handle wasn’t poisoned, there was no contact between Skripal, Chepiga, Mishkin. Their affair had nothing to do with the subsequent death of Dawn Sturgess.

To which I can only say ‘phooey’. Helmer produces not a jot of evidence to support any of these claims. It’s pure speculation. What Helmer does do is cited Occam’s Razor, the famous principle that the simplest explanation of any problem is the most likely one. But if an ex-GRU agent is poisoned on the same day that a couple of current GRU agents turn up in his town and are spotted just a few minutes walk from his house, isn’t the simplest explanation that they were the ones who poisoned him? Indeed, it’s noticeable that Helmer doesn’t contest the identification of Petrov and Boshirov as GRU officers Chepiga and Mishkin. What the hell were they doing in Salisbury two days in a row? Warning Skripal, as Helmer claims?? What sort of logic is that? It doesn’t make any sense to me at all.

I write a lot about the crazy nonsense churned out by Western writers about Russia, but there’s a danger in thinking that because so many of the accusations made against Russia are false, they all are. The Russian state is not all sweetness and light. Helmer knows this very well, and often writes about the corrupt nexus of state and business in Russia. On the back of his book he proudly prints a statement from the Russian Foreign Ministry saying, ‘Helmer writes bad things about our country.’ I find it odd, therefore, that he’s so keen to let the Russians off the hook for the Skripal poisoning. Some may be persuaded by his logic. I am not.

27 thoughts on “Book review: Skripal in prison”

  1. “That’s the official narrative, which most people accept.”

    Are you saying, Professor, that the Russians are, therefore, not “people”?

    Also – good to know, Professor, that you remain an Officer and a Gentelman, and always remember the solemn oath you swore to Her Majesty the Queen.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. John Helmer is somewhat of a crackpot on this, but just because his
    theory has big holes does not mean the British version is not BS.
    According to the official British version of events, Skripals got
    Novichok on their hands from the doorhandle of his house, and
    collapsed on a park bench some 4 hours later. British police had to
    destroy the table at Zizzis restaurant where Skriplas dined shortly before
    the park bench episode because the table was so contaminated with Novichok.

    So we know that about 12:30 Skriplas got their hands full of Novichok
    (door handle) and at Zizzies a couple of hours later their hands we
    still full on Novichok (table was contaminated and had to be destroyed).
    However, between these, we know Skriplas were at the pond and feeding ducks (Sergei Skripal had brought some bread). There were
    some boys there; Sergei Skripal gave pieces of bread to the boys. One
    boy actually ate a piece of bread. We know this since a few British
    papers talked to the moms of the boys who where there. No boys got
    sick, no ducks were hurt. How is this possible if the Skripals had hands
    full of Novichok?

    So you ask us to believe that at 12:30 Skripals got Novichok on their
    hands, then at the pond it magically disappeared from their hands, then
    at Zizzis it magically reappeared on their hands? Seriously? This is not
    physically possible (care to explain how this could possibly happen?)

    It is a virtual impossibility that Skripals got Novichok on their hands
    from the door handle. It must have happened some time later (after
    the pond). Some screwy stuff was going on that day in Salisbury, but the
    British official version is total BS.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. If that is established, the British authorized version is bunkum.

      But that doesn’t mean that Helmer’s version is any better. All we can say is that we don’t know what happened.


  3. The only thing in this story that is inconceivable is that the two Russian secret agents were so incompetent that they couldn’t kill someone they had set out to kill. What sort of people do they employ? Don’t they get any training at all?

    Certainly Russia is in a bad state, but not SO bad?

    Liked by 2 people

  4. I think Patrick Armstrong in his joke pieces lays out the best case for why we should treat this with skepticism, the overly elaborate scheme and also the fact these guys were supposedly spraying something much like Sarin without any protective equipment. Even if you assume, not too unreasonably, that the Russian government is not the cuddliest of organisations this itself is a bad idea because they might fall ill and get caught from their own poison and thus become two intelligence officers on a hit squad mission.
    We will need, unfortunately, years to even begin to arrive at an account that actually is comprehensive of this mess. As it is, western governments may be right, but their messaging is so slap dash it becomes ridiculous as it is clear they are salivating over anything to demonise the Russians rather than arrive at an objective finding of what happened.

    Liked by 3 people

  5. David, if in your critique you do not even refer to the Blogmire, then your critique is really shallow. You often show remarkable leniency for the British state apparatus or military. The Skripal case is a case in point where total exhonoration of Russia is quite easy. The bumbling – some deliberate, lots just incompetence – of a rapidly put together MI5/6 hoax is blatantly obvious. Why not mention that those names – Boshirov and Petrov – continue to be the names referred to also by the British authorities, and not Chepiga and Mishkin? Why not mention that the Europol search warrant was dropped?
    Helmer’s mistake is to give in to the temptation to try and make sense of it all and construct his own theory. He goes too far. I believe the origin of this hoax is exposed in the leaked emails about the Integrity Initiative, which showed clearly the British spy agencies’ intent on arranging events that would discredit Russia and its allies. We know because of the OPCW leaks about Syria that chemical weapons breaches are top choice for the British spy services.
    Both the Steele dossier’s British roots, the Skripal saga, the (4!)Syria chemical weapons hoaxes, the background material of the Integrity Initiative, and the smearing of Assange bear a lot of resemblance in style and content. This is not about Russia being innocent; this is about a floundering Britain and its spy services trying to squeak out a leveraged raison d’etre inside the mostly Anglo-Saxon western oligarchies.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Were not Dawn Sturgess and Charlie Rowley residents of Amesbury not Salisbury?

      I have always been impressed that Prime Minister Theresa May was on the attack before any formal police report. ESP perhaps?

      I do not think our host has done enough background checking here. He might find Craig Murray”s discussion of the affair interesting. In it, he summarizes some of the key points that the Blogmire has made..

      I will say, without having read the book that John’s accidental poisoning scenario seems strange but I will have to read the book to see how he comes to this conclusion.


  6. >make a judgement outside of the court that they are fairly likely guilty of the crime.

    Eh, not in this case. Skripal’s case official version is positively riddled with contradictions. It’s not at the point where it would be difficult to prove in a court of law, is at the point where it would be laughed out of it.


  7. This was the biggest story at the time

    -Led to sanctions

    -Expulsion of diplomats

    -stories about dead ducks and children (made up by the CIA to get Trump to take is seriously)

    Then nothing …… until your post today

    The interesting thing about Sergei Skripal is that he was a spy for the British when their “friend” Yeltsin was president.

    He was released by President Medvedev and went to live in UK – so what was the reason for this alleged attempt on his life and his daughter (who could have been killed in Moscow as she was living there) ?

    What was Sergei and his daughter doing that would incur the wrath of the Russian state ?

    No reason was given – just that Putin in bad and it’s what evil Russians do!!!

    The whole story never made sense

    Liked by 3 people

    1. It only makes sense as a classic English high-level conspiracy, real James Bond stuff, the purpose being to lay the propaganda framework for the sanctions. Anybody who believes that Novichok nonsense deserves a Dunce of the Year award.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Please, everyone, respect that our man is a respected academic and so, of course, can believe at least 6 impossible things before breakfast, so long as they play out along the comfortable lines of power. (Though the lack of analysis and reflection is terribly low even so for the putative conclusions. Rather like the Plod and “Move along! Nothing to look at here!”)

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Isn’t anybody interested to know, where the Skripals are (if they are still alive) and who is keeping them from telling their story publicly?


      1. Judging by a Fred Weir thread on Facebook, he seems to have had a fight with half the press corps. In this case, it’s largely his own fault. When he asked if I would review the book, I warned him that I was unlikely to be sympathetic, but he sent me a copy anyway. As it was, I was quite temperate in my criticisms. I could have been a lot harsher, but toned things down to avoid being mean-spirited.


      2. “As it was, I was quite temperate in my criticisms. I could have been a lot harsher, but toned things down to avoid being mean-spirited.”

        But you were, Professor! 😉

        “Robinson’s reference to “certain features of my long distant past of which only a few are aware” is to the Intelligence Corps. As that mask fell off in the witness box, Robinson removed several lines from his ending: “I find it odd, therefore, that he’s so keen to let the Russians off the hook for the Skripal poisoning. Perhaps the reason lies in his conspiratorial frame of mind and the fact that he is, as I observed when reviewing his last book, ‘an equal opportunity critic’. He’s the sort of guy who thinks that for every crime the GRU have committed, MI6 and the CIA have committed two. It’s not my frame of mind at all. But then perhaps I’m part of the conspiracy too!””

        As someone, who’ve read the blogpost above mere hours after its publication, I also remember these lines being present. Now:

        … Robinson’s revision can be read here. He still wants the reader to know “I find it odd, therefore, that he’s so keen to let the Russians off the hook for the Skripal poisoning.” To that Robinson adds: “Some may be persuaded by his logic. I am not.”

        So… you’ve backtracked , Professor. That’s not as epic, like your well orchestrated denunciation of the Russian Insider, but also deserving to enter the Annals of History.

        P.S. My pet theory is that this whole “feud”, aka “Helmer vs Robinson Epic Flamewar Battle” is just a staged PR ploy, agreed upon by both sides to shake the things ups and increase their repsective readership/views in our “slow” times of lockdowns and stuff


        Liked by 1 person

      3. Piling on Russia Insider in conjunction with an establishment like propping of certain venues unlike some others isn’t so sporting.

        Love the conspiracy theory on Helmer-Robinson. In all likelihood, they each see an open give and take benefit from their respective position.

        How ethical is it to release full email conversations without the consent of the other party?

        On the matter of back and forth Russia related differences of opinion:

        AP being given a gold star for being some kind of outstanding commenter is absurd, given his inability to grasp the actual meaning of collaborator relative to Bandera, Vlasov and Krasnov.

        I’m all for a constructive showtime.


      4. ‘How ethical is it to release full email conversations without the consent of the other party?’

        Let’s put it this way: it’s not something I hope I would ever do…


      5. Ouch, I would not want to ever get Helmer mad at me!

        all I can see is that Helmer heavily talked/wrote past the Prof in his responses. Communication is not quite as easy as igenerally assumed.

        Yes, that is only me and I
        a) was and am a Skripal Russian/Putin-targeted-attack skeptic
        b) was also quite skeptical, when a British prof who spoke German quite well informed us Germans of the 14 Russian assassations that already happened on British ground.

        So skeptical that I contacted him to ask what cases he had in mind, beyond the famous Litvinenko case. … As I recall he sent me a link to an article by BuzzFeed:

        Both the Litvienko and the Skripal cases are surely as colorful as fiction in the official tale.

        But yes, I remain skeptical on both the Litvinenko and the Skripal cases.

        On the other hand, this does not necessarily mean I will be easily made a fan of a countertale and this is a really, really superficial pick leaving me slightly skeptical too: BuzzFeed: From Russia With Blood:
        A bombshell cache of documents today reveals the full story of a ring of death on British soil that the government has ignored.

        Liked by 1 person

      6. Some of the best exchanges are the off record ones. When sharing such, I get around this matter by leaving out the other party’s name and his/her email address, with a note that confidentiality is being respected.

        That said, it’s okay when being critical of someone in an article to say that you made an effort beforehand to get a reply from that person.


  10. Interesting JH sought your review, I had wondered whether you were succumbing to “balance” in casting about for a Russian conspiracy to put up against the western Russiaphobia you have written about.

    I have not read JH book although I have looked at his blog, alongside Blogmire, C Murray and Twiki. They have pointed out inconsistencies in the UK Govt narrative which in my view make it simply not credible to any informed and reasonably intelligent person.

    They have been more about showing the fallacies in the official narrative than speculating on what may have happened.
    But JH has included such speculation in his book with which you disagree.
    On the parts you list so do I.
    The favoured online speculative narrative I think has been Michael Antony’s (here)

    I don’t know how much detail is included in JH book, but the difficulty I have with your review is not your dismissal of JH narrative but your willingness to accept the official.
    That does make me wonder how well you are across all the data.

    Your glib dismissal of their simultaneously collapsing on a bench several hours after alleged skin contact is more than “things unexplained” it is just unbelievable.
    Similarly their survival 36hr (Sun evening – Tue morning – on Twiki tapes) before hospital staff aware “organophosphate poisoning” and commenced treatment is not a credible scenario.

    You include your preference for “cock up” over conspiracy in your excellent argument against the value of NATO continuing in your 2017 online video.
    Can I suggest the Skripal saga has furnished instances of “cock up” derailing conspiracy;
    For example “external incident” being declared by management the day before ICU staff had reached their diagnosis.
    Or the MoD, in response to apparently innocuous FOI, being “unable to find” the blood request form with time and date on which Nchk estimations were made
    Or the letter, briefly appearing in The Times, from a different DEM consultant than appears on Urban interview, stating no patients suffering from nerve agent.

    I think while Helmer may be wrong on his speculative hypothesis of events, he is certainly correct in the official narrative being a hoax, and you have actually done yourself a disservice in glossing over the inconsistencies as you do.


  11. I think it’s fairly obvious that Skirpal wanted to go home to mother Russia (his involvement with the dodgy dossier proving perhaps too distasteful even for him) the British were obviously not a fan of this and looking, as always, for an anti Russian narrative to feed to their pets in the corporate press prior to the World Cup and for ‘sanctions purposes’ saw a chance to nip it in the bud. Obviously the UK intelligence services being only marginally less incompetent than the Americans thus arranged this little ploy with a puff of fentanyl here or there (confirmed by the hospital staff until the bumblers in MI5/6 intervened) Anyway whatever one thinks, the whole affair came off far worse for the UK than it did for Russia (as do most of these kak handed efforts that the establishment seem hell bent on cooking up every week) It is the kind of incident that defined Mays utter incompetence in all things connected to her short tenure at No10. Will we ever know? I doubt it unless someone on either side blows a whistle or two. Helmer has as much right as anyone to throw in his tuppence worth, it’s hardly likely to be less convincing than Theresa May and MI5 telling us just how bad those awful Russians are but never giving us any details or facts beyond the sort of casual racism that flourishes in Whitehall. A state that is so obviously Russophobic lacks any credibility when casting aspersions whilst still having The City suckling on the teat of post Soviet o!igarch cash.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Skripal openly supported Crimea’s reunification with Russia. Notwithstanding, Putin referred to him as a scumbag.

      While not necessarily like Putin (often disliking him), some of the Russian expats are known for not always seeing eye to eye with each other. Given the nature of Skripal’s work, it’s not out of the question (based on what’s known and not known) that his poisoning wasn’t a clandestine Russian government operation.


  12. Rob Slane of the Blogmire, as others have noted, certainly poked the biggest holes in the govt’s story. Slane, I believe, stopped short of theorizing bout what ‘must have actually happened,’ contenting himself with discrediting the official account.
    It was clear early on that the Skripals were most unlikely to have been victims of a powerful nerve agent. An opiate such as fentanyl was much more plausible. That and a litany of other discrepancies that the govt refused to address made it clear UK officials were covering something up.
    But what? And then what to make of the presence of two probable Russian agents in Salisbury the same day – even if they never actually went to the Skripal house, as seems likely? And what to make of the discovery of a NEVER-OPENED perfume flask containing novichok, in a garbage dumpster not far away, a few weeks later – the novichok that killed Dawn Sturgess?
    I will reserve final judgment on Helmer’s book til I read it myself. But from this review, it sounds like his theory falls victim to some of the same implausibilities that afflict the official narrative. Like at least one other commenter, I’m fond of Michael Antony’s theory.
    It seems to meet the requirements of Occam’s Razor more neatly than Helmer’s – or any other that I’m aware of.


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