Institute Denies Its Director Was Killed by Poison

A Moscow scientific institute dismissed reports Monday that its deputy director, Svetlana Zheludeva, died of poisoning after opening a letter containing white powder of unknown origin.

"Zheludeva's death has nothing to do with the envelope," said Vasily Ryabchenkov, deputy director for science at the Shubnikov Institute of Crystallography, Interfax reported Monday.

"The letter was scientific correspondence. We receive dozens of such letters every day," he said.

Zheludeva, 59, died Saturday at Moscow's Sklifosovsky clinic, five days after being hospitalized. Her death sparked media reports that she might have been poisoned.

The Shubnikov Institute, part of the Russian Academy of Sciences, grows crystals for various scientific applications, including lasers.

On May 8, Zheludeva opened the letter containing the powder, which was addressed to institute director Mikhail Kovalchuk, according to media reports. After receiving the letter, the institute called police, and the powder was taken for analysis. Zheludeva fell sick five days later.

A hospital source told Interfax that Zheludeva had suffered multiple organ failure and that her liver, kidneys, lungs, heart and brain were severely damaged.

Kovalchuk, the addressee of the letter, directs the influential Kurchatov Institute, which developed the Soviet atomic bomb, as well as the Shubnikov Institute.

He is also a close friend of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, and his brother is the billionaire banker Yury Kovalchuk.

Last year, he received $1 billion to develop nanotechnology and turn the Kurchatov Institute into a nanotechnology research hub.

One longtime colleague of Zheludeva's said Monday that he did not believe she was poisoned. "It was just an unlucky coincidence," Pavel Fyodorov, a physicist who worked at the Shubnikov Institute for 33 years, said by telephone.

"I think she got an infection of some sort," Fyodorov said.

Russia's chief public health officer, Gennady Onishchenko, said Sunday that the white powder was a harmless substance. "We did the analysis of the powder and the results were negative," he said, Interfax reported.

Prosecutors have declined to open a criminal investigation.