It sounds like a premise out of Nabokov: Two Russian friends (or perhaps they are more than friends?) spend the weekend in England, motivated by a passion for Gothic architecture. Then, through a series of misadventures involving weather and train schedules, they are falsely accused of an international assassination plot. That is the story that Ruslan Boshirov and Alexander Petrov, the two men charged by the British government of poisoning former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter last March, are going with.
British authorities, who released CCTV images of the two men and charged them in absentia last week, say that Boshirov and Petrov are fake names and that the two are career officers of the GRU, the military intelligence agency that Skripal once worked for. President Vladimir Putin denied this on Wednesday, saying that the Russian government was aware of the identities of the two men and that they are civilians. Then, the two appeared for an interview on Russia’s state-funded RT network on Thursday to proclaim that they were just innocent tourists.
The timeline, established by CCTV footage and other records, doesn’t look good for the two. They arrived in London on the afternoon of Friday, March 2, and checked into a hotel. On Saturday, they took the train to Salisbury, where the Skripals live, staying for just an hour and a half. Then on Sunday, March 4—the day of the hit—they returned to Salisbury, and were caught on camera walking in the direction of Skripal’s house. This time they stayed in town for just over two hours, then flew back to Russia that evening. Traces of Novichok, the nerve agent that poisoned the Skripals, were found in their hotel room.
(The Skripals survived the attack and have been discharged from the hospital. A British woman who reportedly later found the nerve agent in what appeared to be a perfume bottle was not so lucky.)
But for Petrov and Boshirov, looking visibly nervous in an interview with RT editor-in-chief Margarita Simonyan, there’s a perfectly innocent explanation for all of this.
The two apparently had “planned to go to London and have some fun there” with a stopover in Salisbury. Why Salisbury? “Our friends have been suggesting for quite a long time that we visit this wonderful city,” says Petrov. Boshirov adds, “It’s a tourist city. They have a famous cathedral there, Salisbury Cathedral. It’s famous throughout Europe and, in fact, throughout the world, I think. It’s famous for its 123-meter spire. It’s famous for its clock. It’s the oldest working clock in the world.” Impressive recall!
Why did they go twice in one weekend? Apparently it was because it was snowing on Saturday, so “we spent only 30 minutes there. We were all wet.” Then the next day, the show had melted so they returned “to see this famous cathedral.” The two claim to have taken photos of the cathedral, and Simonyan offers to publish them, but none appear to be on the RT website for the moment.
Simonyan asks if the two were carrying a bottle of Nina Ricci perfume, the vessel that British authorities say was used to carry the nerve agent. Boshirov is incredulous, saying, “Don’t you think that it’s kind of stupid for two straight men to carry perfume for ladies? When you go through customs, they check all your belongings. So, if we had anything suspicious, they would definitely have questions. Why would a man have perfume for women in his luggage?”
Simonyan later asks if the two actually are straight, given that they seem to “spend so much time together.” (Never say RT doesn’t back up its “Question More” slogan.) They don’t answer, preferring not go into their private lives. Simonyan later tweeted: “I don’t know if they’re gay or not gay. They’re so stylish, as far as I could tell - with their beards and haircuts, tight pants. They didn’t come on to me.”
The two claim to be co-owners of a “mid-tier business” in the “fitness industry,” dealing with “vitamins and microelements.” They say they travel frequently to Europe but that this trip was just for fun.
The whole story seems juuust a tad suspicions. But then again, it does look like a lovely cathedral.