VLADIMIR Putin's KGB spy mentor who was demoted for publicly criticising the tyrant has died of an unexplained "disease".
Viktor Cherkesov is the latest of Putin's cronies to die in mysterious circumstances this year.
Ruthless Cherkesov, 72, was once in charge of crushing Soviet dissidents and was seen as crucial to Putin's rise to power before the pair's relations became strained.
When Putin headed the FSB secret service before becoming prime minister, Cherkesov was installed as his trusted deputy.
Earlier he had been in charge of law and order in St Petersburg when it became Russia’s “criminal capital” with a record for countless unsolved contract killings.
At the time, Putin was deputy mayor.
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In 2007, Cherkesov suggested in a newspaper that the secret services were becoming corrupted under the now-Russian president.
An outraged Putin blamed him for washing dirty linen in public, and hinted his longtime ally Cherkesov was hardly clean.
He said: "I consider it incorrect to air such problems in the media.
“And if someone acts in this way, makes such claims about a war of the special services, he himself must first be impeccable.”
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At the time an agent and also a former agent working for Cherkesov – then Director of the Federal Drug Control Service – died mysteriously from "poisoning".
Cherkesov was fired from this role in the wake of his criticism of the secret services under Putin.
Some interpreted his demise and the poisonings as due to brutal turf wars among Putin’s warring henchmen.
Yet Putin did not want to lose him completely.
Cherkesov – seen by one source as “knowing where the bodies were buried over many years” – was made Head of the Federal Agency for the Supply of Weapons, Military, Special Equipment and Materials for a two-year stint.
He later became an MP, but was never again seen as being in Putin’s inner circle, even though they had been close since university.
Yet he was described as “one of the few people with whom Putin was frank”.
Cherkesov was deputy head of the FSB at the time of apartment block explosions in September 1999 in the Russian cities of Buynaksk, Moscow and Volgodonsk, in which 300 died.
The FSB blamed the attacks on Chechen terrorists but independent journalists claimed the secret services was behind them in a political ploy to aid Putin.
Putin – then PM – used the “terrorist threat” to wage a “popular war” in Chechnya which helped him secure the presidency for the first time in 2000.
Unlike many other old Putin cronies, Cherkesov was not seen as flamboyantly cashing in on his connections, and was not listed as a billionaire.
Cherkesov was a colonel-general in the reserves and a retired police general.
He was an honoured lawyer and “honorary counterintelligence officer”.
KILLER IN THE KREMLIN
His second wife Natalya Chaplina, 65, runs a news agency with close links to the Russian security services.
Cherkesov had been in charge of the KGB unit responsible for combating anti-Soviet propaganda in the 1980s.
State Duma deputy Alexander Khinshtein confirmed Cherkesov's death in a Telegram.
It is said he died from an unexplained “serious disease”, but no further information has been given.
His death follows those of at least seven Russian oligarchs who may have been murdered as the president purges his inner circle of former wealthy allies.
Ivan Pechorin – Putin's point man for developing Russia's vast Arctic resources – fell off the side of a boat in waters close to Russky Island in mysterious circumstances, it is reported.
It came just weeks after oil boss Ravil Maganov died after "falling from a hospital window".
The 64-year-old, who was head of Russian oil giant Lukoil, reportedly died after falling from a sixth-floor window at Moscow's Central Clinic Hospital.
Lukoil, which had earlier criticised the war in Ukraine, confirmed Maganov's death, but bizarrely put it down instead to some unknown illness.
Meanwhile in February the body of Alexander Tyulakov, a senior Gazprom financial and security official at the deputy general director level – was discovered dead by his lover.
The 61-year-old's neck was in a noose in his £500,000 home.
Just three weeks prior – in the same elite gated housing development in the Leningrad region – Leonid Shulman, head of transport at Gazprom Invest, was found dead.
The 60-year-old was discovered with multiple stab wounds in a pool of blood on his bathroom floor.
Meanwhile, wealthy Vladislav Avayev, 51, an ex-vice-president of Gazprombank and former Kremlin official, was found shot dead in his elite Moscow penthouse.
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And days later, the former deputy chairman of Novotek, Sergey Protosenya, 55, was found dead by hanging in Spain.
And in March, the body of Russian billionaire Vasily Melnikov was found in his luxury apartment with stab wounds in the city of Nizhny Novgorod.
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