German investigators probe riddle of the spy who fell from a window

It remains unclear whether the death is linked to 2019 Tiergarten attack

Berlin’s reputation as a city of spies has suffered since the end of the cold war, but a mysterious death at the Russian embassy has sparked a revival.

Three weeks ago, just after 7am on October 19th, Berlin police discovered the lifeless body of a man on the pavement of Behrenstrasse. Near the Brandenburg Gate, the street is dominated by the rear of the Russian embassy and adjoining residential compound.

The dead man, accredited as a second secretary at the embassy, appears to have fallen from a high window of the Stalinist embassy building.

Berlin investigators say they were unable to investigate further because of diplomatic protocol. Instead of carrying out a postmortem, the embassy intervened in what it called a “tragic death” and repatriated the remains back to Russia.


Though it declined to comment further “on ethical grounds”, that may not be the end of the story. A German investigative platform has identified the dead man as 35-year-old Kyrill Zhalo. Along with his wife, he moved to Berlin in June 2019, and they were accredited as diplomats with the German foreign ministry.

Der Spiegel and the Bellingcat investigative websites report the man was a spy with the FSB intelligence agency. Based on public records, Bellingcat says the dead man’s father is senior FSB general Alexey Zhalo, head of the second department, which has been linked to a spectacular murder from two years ago in Berlin’s Tiergarten park.

In August 2019, Zelimkhan Khangoshivili, a Georgian citizen and former Chechen rebel commander, was shot dead in the head at close range in broad daylight. The chief suspect, 55-year-old Vadim Krasikov, is now on trial in Berlin over the killing, which German intelligence say is linked to the highest echelons of the Russian government.

Park killing

Before the park killing, the chief suspect is reported to have trained at an FSB facility near Moscow and had extensive contact with Eduard Bendersky, a former Russian intelligence agent. The suspect arrived in Germany under a false identity hours before the killing and, German prosecutors believe, was assisted from within the Russian embassy. During the trial, they presented what they said was an elaborate escape plan developed for the alleged gunman, including both an electric bike and an e-scooter.

Investigators say they have found no evidence linking the late Kyrill Zhalo to the Tiergarten killing.

The question is whether the case is of a spy who fell from the window – or was he pushed? It remains unclear, too, whether his death was linked to the August 2019 Tiergarten attack, even as a revenge killing.

The dead man’s father, Alexey Zhalo, heads the directorate for the protection of constitutional order. It has been linked to other spectacular poison attacks, including on opposition politician, Alexei Navalny, and former military intelligence agent, Sergei Skripal.

Berlin has noted an upswing in Russian intelligence targeting of late, including several cyberattacks on the Bundestag, which officials say can be linked to Russian hackers.

Last month a German man was handed a two-year suspended sentence for passing on Bundestag floor plans to Russian agents.

Derek Scally

Derek Scally

Derek Scally is an Irish Times journalist based in Berlin