Doctor's poisoning stuns 'little Russia' in California

Along the strip of modest buildings that form the heart of this city's "Little Russia," the talk was of a popular neighborhood doctor believed poisoned in Moscow with a chemical favored by assassins.

Coming just months after last year's fatal poisoning of former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko, the sudden illness of Dr. Marina Kovalevsky and her 26-year-old daughter, Yanna, awakened memories in many immigrants of the KGB, the former Soviet Union's once-dreaded secret police. But at the same time, many were quick to add, they do not believe the organization, whose initials still invoke fear in many older Russians, is to blame.

"That's just nonsense," said Gary Mazin, who left the Soviet Union 20 years ago and runs the Spaulding Pharmacy across the street from Kovalevsky's clinic.

The doctor and her daughter, who were in Russia to attend a friend's party, are believed to have been poisoned with thallium. The chemical, although said to be the poison of choice of assassins, also has many everyday uses.

"They use the same thing to poison rats, so maybe they just went to Russia and somehow it got in their food," said Mazin, who added that the incident made him nervous nonetheless. He plans to visit his homeland in two weeks for a wedding.

"I use the same foods, the same Russian spices" as Kovalevsky does, he said.

Kovalesky, 49, and her daughter were hospitalized in Moscow after becoming ill late last month. They were flown to Los Angeles on Wednesday and immediately taken to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, where they were listed in fair but stable condition. Hospital officials said Thursday it was too early to determine exactly what sickened them.

"However, they are both being treated for presumptive thallium poisoning," Cedars-Sinai said in a statement.

U.S. and Russian officials were investigating.

"We're dealing with two American citizens and we're obligated to determine whether or not they were targeted," FBI spokeswoman Laura Eimiller said Thursday. "We will work in cooperation with the Russian authorities."

Meanwhile, the news roiled a bustling immigrant community that over the last 30 years has transformed from a collection of bars, strip joints and pawn shops into one of the region's largest Russian neighborhoods, the AP says.

"I just heard about it today from a woman who came in, but we don't know anything about it, how it happened," said a startled Svetlana Mogilevish as she set out special Russian treats at her delicatessen in celebration of Russia's International Women's Day, which was Thursday.

Down the street at the Genesee Pharmacy, which like most of the buildings along the boulevard is covered in English and Cyrillic lettering, the news had taken many people aback, said pharmacist Laura Fayman, who is also a patient of Kovalesky.

"She is a very good doctor," said Fayman, who left the Soviet Union 18 years ago. "I hope she will be OK. I hope she will be back soon."

When the KGB was brought up, Fayman said with a tight smile that it is a subject she does not discuss. A few doors away, a jeweler had abruptly walked away when the organization's name was mentioned, the AP says.

But like the others, Fayman said she believes Kovalevsky's poisoning was accidental.

"Everyone was shocked of course, but that's what I think. I think it was an accident," she said.

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