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A Putin Critic Fell from a Building in Washington. Was It Really a Suicide?

The mysterious death last week of a prominent critic of Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine in Washington’s West End neighborhood is drawing fury from some of the Kremlin’s best-known global detractors — but scant notice in Washington, where police say they don’t suspect foul play was behind Dan Rapoport’s fall from a luxury apartment building on the night of August 14.

“I think the circumstances of his death are extremely suspicious,” says Bill Browder, the formerly Moscow-based American financier who became a crusader for sanctions after the killing of his Russian lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky. Browder got to know Rapoport in Moscow years ago, before they both fell out of favor with the Russian regime. “Whenever someone who is in a negative view of the Putin regime dies suspiciously, one should rule out foul play, not rule it in.”

According to a Metropolitan Police Department incident report, officers responding to a call about a jumper found the 52-year-old Rapoport’s body on the sidewalk. He was wearing orange flip flops and a black hat and had a cracked phone, headphones and $2,620 in cash on him, but no wallet or credit cards. The police say the case remains open, even without a suspicion of foul play. As is standard for suspected suicides, a medical examiner’s report — which would typically reference medical or other records, include a toxicology screen and incorporate X-rays and other posthumous forensics to determine if there was a struggle before the fall — is pending.

The deceased was no mere exile. A Latvian-born U.S. citizen, Rapoport moved back to the U.S. in 2012 after making a fortune in Moscow but running afoul of the Russian government. Settling in Washington, he rubbed elbows with mover and shakers, living in a Kalorama manse that his family later sold for $5.5 million in 2016, when it became the home of Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner. By then, Rapoport had relocated again, setting up shop in Kyiv, where he became a frequent contact of U.S. media.

In the eyes of Rapoport’s political allies, the history of untimely deaths of Kremlin critics makes the police’s initial no-foul-play conclusion seem naive. “He was a well-known critic of Putin in the West and had been an effective critic,” Browder says. “He was also an open supporter of [the jailed opposition leader] Alexei Navalny. And he had all these connections in the elite of Washington, D.C. The immediate response of the Washington, D.C. police, I think, is a premature and unhelpful conclusion.”

“Nothing adds up,” says David Satter, a longtime Moscow correspondent in Soviet and post-Soviet times who in 2013 became the first U.S. reporter booted from Russia since the Cold War. Satter, now a frequent Wall Street Journal contributor and the author of several books about Putin’s Russia, had stayed with Rapoport in Kyiv. “This is why it has to be investigated. But everything we do know is very, very strange.”

Rapoport’s death has been the subject of major coverage overseas, but is oddly off the radar in Washington, where there has been little major media attention. It’s a strange and possibly telling omission from our midterm-absorbed city’s water-cooler conversation: A number of high-profile figures are implying that a foreign government may have killed an American citizen in the capital of the United States. Even if their conjectures are overblown, it ought to be news.

The suspicions, Browder says, began when the news of Rapoport’s death first broke on the Telegram channel of a former editor of Russian Tattler, via a convoluted story that claimed Rapoport’s dog was let loose with a suicide note and cash attached to him. Because intelligence services often put out information through gossip sites, the location raised antennae. “How the hell did she [the ex-Tattler editor] learn about Dan’s alleged suicide?” asks Vlad Burlutsky, a Russian expat who met Rapoport through his work supporting Navalny.

In a Russian media interview, Rapoport’s wife denied the story about the note — and the suicide, saying her husband had been making plans and that she expected to be in Washington to see him. (The police report also makes no mention of a note or a dog.)

“I’ve talked several times to Alyona, his widow, and she says she is absolutely certain that it’s not a suicide,” says close friend Ilya Ponomarev, the only member of the Russian Duma to vote against the annexation of Crimea and now a strident Putin critic also living in Kyiv.

Ponomarev says he’s less certain. But he fears a repeat of what happened in 2015, when Putin’s former media czar died in odd circumstances in Washington and, in his view, U.S. authorities soft-pedaled the investigation. “I would not be surprised that it would be the same thing, that people don’t want to deal with some crazy Russians,” he says. (Alyona Rapoport did not respond to my messages, and has only been quoted in a single Russian media story since confirming his death on Facebook.)

The case for suspicion involves some more basic practical questions: What was up with the wad of cash? Why would Rapoport have been making plans for the next few days? Why was he wearing a hat?

But mainly the suspicion has to do with Russia. “There’s an old saying that anyone can commit a murder but it takes brains to commit a suicide,” says Satter. “The version of suicide is for the irrelevant people who will simply accept it and move on without raising questions.”

Born in the USSR, Rapoport came with his parents to the U.S. at age 11, settling in Texas. After graduating from college, he moved to Russia in the wild post-Soviet days, settling in Moscow after a stint in Siberia. He made his fortune there as a stockbroker, eventually opening Soho Rooms, one of the city’s top nightspots. But in 2012, he announced that he was leaving Russia, declaring on Facebook that life there had become “unbearable and disgusting.”

In Washington, Rapoport and his Russian-born wife settled into the exclusive Kalorama neighborhood, enrolling a child at Maret, a top local private school. Acquaintances here describe a frenetic, intense personality, someone with ups and downs. He dabbled in the dining industry here, too, says Winston Bao Lord, a tech entrepreneur whose investments are largely in the hospitality space. He met Rapoport, who at the time had some money invested in an Alexandria restaurant, to pitch an idea that never panned out. Lord says Rapoport was a jocular social presence. “He was a big partier when I knew him,” Lord says. “He was a confident guy that felt very strongly about his views.”

Rapoport appeared occasionally in the media with Kremlin-critical posts. In 2018, the open-source investigative platform Bellingcat reported that Rapoport was behind the Facebook page of David Jewberg, purported to be a senior Pentagon analyst. The entirely made-up Lieutenant Colonel Jewberg was frequently quoted in Russian and Ukrainian media (and by some of Rapoport’s Washington friends) as a real U.S. defense insider. Mostly in Russian, the posts were critical of the Obama administration’s insufficiently aggressive stances toward Russia and Facebook’s alleged pro-Russia bias.

“Dan is likely the most intelligent person I’ve ever met,” says Yuri Somov, who struck up a friendship with Rapoport in Washington. “And I’ve met people like Kissinger and Greenspan. I’m a professional interpreter. He was incredibly intense and very much larger than life, but in a good way.” Somov describes himself as apolitical, but says his friend was different: “He was a romantic. He believed things could be changed and he believed he could be a part of those changes.”

Washington, Somov says, was probably not Rapoport’s natural milieu. In 2016, after divorcing, he left town, moving to Kyiv, where the tumultuous scene might have represented an opportunity for someone whose first experience was in crisis-racked post-Soviet Moscow. His ex-wife and kids stayed here. “He was too different from the world of U.S. business,” Somov says. “He probably felt closer to home in Ukraine than in the U.S.”

Somov, who says he’s been devastated by Rapoport’s death, is among those who thinks the suicide story is completely plausible.

“Not every unexplained death in Russia is the KGB or the GRU bumping someone off,” says Fiona Hill, the former senior Russia specialist at the White House, who met Rapoport through Somov.

Rapoport had remarried in Kyiv to a Ukrainian virologist; they’d started a new family. After the war began, Rapoport relocated his wife and child to Denmark but stayed in Ukraine — and then came to Washington this summer, shipping his dog as well. Missing them, friends say, left him distraught.

“He was having to start over again for the third time in 10 years,” Somov says. “We did not meet up, which I will regret for the rest of my life because he probably needed me. When he asked me, ‘lunch tomorrow?’ after not seeing each other for several years, I should have read between the lines. I must have asked him something, but I remember the answer, which is still in my phone: ‘It has been a very difficult three months.’ From him, particularly, that’s saying a lot. More than notable, it was extraordinary. No matter how things worked, he kept up appearances.”

Ponomarev also says Rapoport didn’t seem great when they barbecued in Washington during a visit this summer. He said Rapoport had cut way back on drinking after his second marriage, but was drinking heavily when they met up. “It was very clear he was depressed that he was not with his family,” he says. Still, it didn’t seem desperate. “I cannot exclude that it was a suicide, but in general nothing pointed in this direction when we met. If I would feel like something like this could happen, I would talk to him more.”

But for a number of people in Rapoport’s anxious political circles, it’s hard to put stock in coincidences. “He was making plans for the future. He had plans for the next week and the week after,” says Jason Jay Smart, a Kyiv-based American political consultant who says he spoke weekly with Rapoport over the past half-decade. “It’s not something someone who was planning on jumping off a building would do.”

And there’s history to make Russian skeptics suspicious of Washington authorities’ investigative chops. In 2015, Mikhail Lesin, a former media aide to the Russian president, died in Washington’s Dupont Circle Hotel. Initially reported as a heart attack, the medical examiner later determined that he had died of blunt force trauma. But the report was later amended to say that the death had been an accident, the injuries sustained possibly from falling off a bed after he returned to his hotel room extremely drunk. Prosecutors closed the case. “That was outrageous,” Ponomarev says.

Closer to Rapoport — but further from politics — his partner in Soho Rooms died in an apparent suicide after his own fall from a building, in Moscow in 2017. One Rapoport friend speculated that foul play could be business-related rather than political, though Satter says the two aren’t so easily separated. “Even if it was just business interests, that doesn’t mean the Russian intelligence service wasn’t involved,” he says. “They often use these disputes.”

The Russian embassy did not respond to a request for comment by deadline.

The FBI says it does not comment about whether it is investigating alongside the locals. And the medical examiner’s report, alas, may not be here to clear things up anytime soon: All “unnatural” deaths, even open-and-shut suicides, get sent for a report. They can take up to 90 days.

In the meantime, people who find the death fishy — as well as people who merely find it heartbreaking — can probably see evidence in Rapoport’s final Facebook post, three days before his death. It was a photo of Marlon Brando’s Apocalypse Now character, accompanied by the character’s haunting last words: “The horror, the horror.”

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