The KGB mentor, onetime second-in-command and later outspoken critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin has died from an unexplained “serious illness,” officials said.
Viktor Cherkesov, 72, died in St. Petersburg Tuesday night, according to a Telegram post by Alexander Khinshtein, chairman of the State Duma Committee on Information Policy.
“Victor Vasilyevich was a wonderful person and a true statesman. Eternal memory to him!” Khinshtein wrote.
There was no released cause of death, but Russian media outlets reported that his passing came following a “serious illness.”
Radio Free Europe reported that Cherkesov was a former chief of the now-defunct Federal Drugs Control Service (FKSN) and presidential envoy to the Northwestern Federal District. He began his career as a KGB officer in St. Petersburg in the 1970s, primarily persecuting dissidents of the government and investigating anti-Soviet activities. He rose through the ranks and headed the city’s FSB branch. When Putin was appointed director of the FSB in 1998, Cherkesov moved to Moscow, becoming his second-in-command.
In 2000, when Putin ran for president, Cherkesov worked on his campaign, marking him as a close ally and member of the Russian president’s inner circle.
After his victory, Putin appointed Cherkesov to the Security Council and later made him head of the FKSN agency.
In 2006, Cherkesov began to separate from Putin after he led an investigation into a sprawling corruption scandal involving high-ranking FSB officers, who had been accused of laundering money and smuggling furniture.
The probe led to a series of high-profile resignations, and in the aftermath, Cherkesov wrote a controversial opinion piece that revealed details about a secret turf war being waged by top members of Russia’s security services. He harshly criticized rogue FSB members, writing: “We cannot allow warriors to become merchants.” The article was published by newspaper Komersant in 2007.
In response, Putin lashed out at Cherkesov for exposing the FSB and hinted that the accuser wasn’t beyond reproach himself.
“I consider it incorrect to air such problems in the media. And if someone acts in this manner, voicing complaints about a war of the special services, he himself must be impeccable,” Putin said at the time.
Cherkesov quickly lost his rank, was demoted and ultimately fired from government service, but he later became a member of the State Duma where he spoke against reforming the Ministry of Internal Affairs.
Cherkesov’s second wife, Natalya Chaplina, runs the news agency Rosbalt, which in 2021 was declared a foreign agent by the government.
Cherkesov is the latest in a long line of former Putin allies and detractors who have died under mysterious or otherwise unexplained circumstances since the start of the war in Ukraine.