A physician and her adult daughter returned to Los Angeles Wednesday after being poisoned during a trip to Moscow, the latest in a string of Russian poisoning cases that have sparked international intrigue.
Marina Kovalevsky, a 49-year-old internist well known in L.A.'s Russian community, and her daughter Yana, 26, were sickened 12 days ago by thallium, an odorless, colorless, toxic chemical element initially suspected in the death of a former Russian spy in London last year.
The women, both U.S. citizens who have lived here more than 15 years, arrived Wednesday afternoon at Los Angeles International Airport from Moscow to a throng of waiting TV cameras and reporters. Looking pale and being pushed in wheelchairs to waiting ambulances by attendants, the women had little to say.
“Have some decency; have some respect,” said Yana Kovalevsky, her breathing labored and her hand raised to shield her face from the lights of television news cameras.
Her uncle, Leon Peck, a Beverly Hills oral surgeon who flew to Moscow last week to help his sister and niece on the trip home, told waiting reporters they did not want to talk. “You can see their condition,” he said.
The Kovalevskys were taken to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. Hospital spokeswoman Simi Singer said late Wednesday that they were evaluated by physicians in the emergency department and were admitted. She added, “Both women are alert and in stable condition.
Their plight has roiled the large local community of expatriates from Russia and other former Soviet republics, many of whom say it is hard to imagine any motive for an attack on the popular doctor or her daughter.
“Everybody is upset. Everybody is talking about it,” said West Hollywood resident Irina Mermel, 69, who has known the family more than a decade.
At the same time, some familiar with Russian crime said it was hard to think that the poisoning was accidental.
Russian intelligence officials told the Moscow media that they believed the pair might have been poisoned in an attempt to cover up the theft of their jewelry, though family members who have been in contact with the women said neither had mentioned anything about that.
The Kovalevskys traveled to Moscow in mid-February to attend the wedding of a friend’s niece, said their cousin Olga Tabarovskaya, but were hospitalized Feb. 24 after reporting pain and numbness.
Tabarovskaya said she and other relatives at first believed the women were suffering from food poisoning and were shocked when tests indicated thallium. The mother and daughter had been staying at a five-star hotel near Red Square and planned to be home in time for a full day of work Feb. 26.
“I think it’s an accident, because I can’t imagine anything else. It’s really bizarre,” said Tabarovskaya, a chiropractor who works out of the same West Hollywood office as her cousin.
Tabarovskaya, who has spoken to the women several times since their poisoning, said they had been improving medically in recent days. Their symptoms included nausea, diarrhea, muscle weakness and paralysis. Family members said they were treated in Moscow with dialysis and a poison antidote called Prussian Blue to counteract the thallium.
The role of poison in Russia’s hard-edged political and business scenes came to prominence last year when Alexander Litvinenko, a former spy for that nation, fell fatally ill in London. A vocal critic of Russian leaders, he died three weeks after being hospitalized with what doctors first suspected was thallium poisoning. Later tests indicated that he had received a lethal dose of polonium-210.
Thallium is a toxic metal used as a catalyst in certain metal alloys, optical lenses, jewelry and semiconductors, as well as dyes and pigments. Compounds containing the metal have been used as rat poison and insecticide, which is one of the most common sources of human thallium poisoning. Saddam Hussein used thallium against his enemies.
“It’s one of the more toxic metals, which can cause gastrointestinal irritation, paralysis, loss of vision, heart and liver problems, as well psychic disturbances,” said USC associate professor Joseph R. Landolph, an expert in toxicology. But he said it also “has been used cosmetically as a depilatory, to remove hair.”
Those who know Kovalevsky, who practices internal and family medicine, said they find it impossible to believe she or her daughter could have been a political target. Though many Russians speak out on various subjects, Kovalevsky did not, said Victoria Wexley, who sits on the board of the Russian American Medical Assn. with Kovalevsky.
“It does sound like and look like she was poisoned,” she said. “Whether it was intentional because of her involvement in politics -- I doubt that.”
Still, for some who left the former Soviet bloc behind, the Kovalevskys’ misfortune was a reminder of lingering problems.
Lyubov Burban, who lives in West Hollywood, said she believes that Kovalevsky was poisoned accidentally. Burban, a Ukrainian immigrant, said she and many others who left the former Soviet Union remain fearful of their native countries. Her son was killed in 2002 when Chechen rebels seized a Moscow theater and Russian security personnel sprayed potent gas into the auditorium before storming in.
“It’s very dangerous,” she said. “It’s terrible to think about what can happen.”
Census data show that there are more than 145,000 residents of Russian ancestry in Los Angeles County. Of those, 6,000 to 7,000 live in West Hollywood, said Tatiana Rodzinek, the Russian community outreach coordinator for the city; most are Jewish seniors who immigrated in the 1970s and ‘80s, she said.
Though some West Hollywood Russians believe their native country has progressed under President Vladimir V. Putin, others fear that the nation’s future is bleak, Rodzinek said.
She said what happened to Kovalevsky worries her. She has always considered the possibility of food poisoning but “never heavy metal or radioactive.”
“I travel to Moscow,” she said. “It’s kind of scary that if you can go anywhere there, you can get poisoned.”
Kovalevsky got her medical degree in 1980 from Kemerovo Medical Institute in western Siberia. A colleague said Kovalevsky’s father, also a doctor, worked at the institute for years.
Neighbors of Kovalevsky in the hills of Studio City expressed shock at the news. Lionel Kipnis said that his conversations with her usually consisted of little more than a hello and that she never discussed politics.
But at a small market in a heavily Russian business strip on Santa Monica Boulevard those familiar with the steady stream of crime news from Russia said they were not surprised.
“It’s very dangerous there,” said owner Paul Khostikyan.
Times staff writers Tony Barboza, Anna Gorman, Mary MacVean, Paul Pringle, J. Michael Kennedy and Andrew Blankstein contributed to this report from Los Angeles. Yakov Ryzhak of The Times’ Moscow Bureau also contributed.
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A toxic metal
A West Hollywood physician and her daughter were in Moscow for a wedding when they were poisoned by the chemical element thalliuim. Here is more information on the substance:
What is thallium?
Thallium is a highly toxic metal used as a catalyst in certain metal alloys, optical lenses, jewelry and semiconductors, as well as dyes and pigments. Compounds containing the metal have been used as rat poison and insecticide, which is one of the most common sources of human thallium poisoning. Thallium has also been used cosmetically as a hair removal agent.
How are people normally exposed to it?
The most frequent form of thallium exposure takes place in the industrial workplace, where workers either inhale the chemical or absorb it through their skin. The chemical can also make it into the body through digestion of contaminated food or drink. In addition, there have been intentional poisoning cases.
What are the health effects?
They can range from discomfort to death. Thallium can cause gastrointestinal irritation, paralysis, loss of vision, heart and liver problems, and psychic disturbances. Sometimes symptoms of thallium poisoning can be confused with the flu.
Source: USC associate professor Joseph R. Landolph and Times reports
Prominent poisonings with former Soviet bloc connections:
Aug. 4, 1995: Ivan Kivelidi, the founder of Rosbiznesbank and one of Russia’s wealthiest men, was poisoned with a nerve agent that had been placed on the telephone in his office. Vladimir Khutsishvili, a member of the bank’s board of directors, was arrested on suspicion of murder for a second time last year and is awaiting trial.
April 11, 2002: A Chechen separatist field commander known as Khattab was killed after apparently receiving a poisoned letter. Chechen militants shot and killed the man suspected to have sent the poison on instructions from the Russian Federal Security Service, which denied any connection to the murder.
July 3, 2003: Russian newspaper writer and politician Yury Shchekochikhin died of what was declared a brain hemorrhage. Many of his colleagues suspected that he was poisoned. His investigation of smuggling by the Three Whales stores and news reports about corruption in law enforcement bodies were thought to be the motives.
June 1, 2004: Khizri Aldamov, an ally of a leader of the Chechen separatist movement, was hospitalized along with Aldamov’s son and nephew. Georgian Interior Ministry officials determined that Aldamov’s car had been poisoned with a substance containing phosphorous. The victim, who recovered, alleged that he was poisoned on orders of the Federal Security Service.
September 2004: Ukrainian opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko, fell seriously ill and was disfigured by dioxin poisoning. The next month he was elected Ukrainian president in a disputed election.
Sept. 24, 2004: Roman Tsepov, general director of the Baltic Escort private security company, died in St. Petersburg, Russia. The cause of his death was poisoning by a medicine used to treat leukemia. Tsepov did not have the disease. The company he headed provided protection to the leaders of the city. The death is still under investigation.
Nov. 1, 2006: Alexander Litvinenko, a former spy for Russia who became a vocal critic of Russian President Vladimir V. Putin and the Federal Security Service, fell ill in London from what doctors initially believed was thallium poisoning. He died three weeks later from what was determined to be a lethal dose of polonium-210 radiation poisoning. Traces of the substance were found throughout London businesses and restaurants he had visited.
Sources: Kommersant and Los Angeles Times