It sounds like a medieval intrigue, happening in a small town in England, in the vicinity of a Gothic cathedral. On 4th March 2018, a Sunday afternoon, two persons were found unconscious on a bench next to a playground at the Avon river. The couple, father and daughter, both of Russian nationality, were in life threatening conditions. A police officer at the scene developed similar symptoms. It became clear shortly afterwards that the Russian couple had been poisoned. Chemical analyses in a military lab of the British Army revealed that it was the highly toxic nerve agent Novichok. The poison had been developed in Soviet era labs in Moscow. As father and daughter spent the day in the center of Salisbury, it became a possibility that dozens of unsuspecting guests in restaurants and pubs might also have been affected. Highly toxic is an understatement: In a chilling TV interview with one of the creators of Novichock, Vil Mirzayanov, now living in the U.S., it becomes clear that the poison is extremely vicious and so powerful, it could kill millions at a time.
What happened in Salisbury is therefore not merely a crime in a small English town which has a copy of the Magna Charta on display in its cathedral complex. And not a disobedient duke had to be eliminated by a suspicious king. Rather a former spy from the Cold War era, once swapped between Moscow and London and living ever since in Salisbury. The fact that a nerve agent such as Novichok was used as a crime tool sends a frightening signal: chemical weapons are around, in spite of all international treaties banning them. They could be used by anyone, not just state, but also non-state actors.
Salisbury couldn’t be more of an antipole to such scaring perspective. Though the middle ages were far from a peaceful and simple life – rather brutal in its own way. The „Black Death“ of the 14th century, for example, killed nearly half of the European population. But the small English town is an unlikely place where one would expect a man-made weapon of mass killing to occur, though „only“ in a milligram amount or much less.
Investigations are still ongoing and blames are exchanged, but the reminder of the killing power of chemical weapons has been shown again: This time not in far away Syria, but in a peaceful town so close to us. Among the many scaring developments of our time, Salisbury has just added another one.