I've spent half a century writing for radio and print (mostly print). I hope to still be tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
Alexander Litvinenko was an officer with the Federal Security Service (known by its Russian initials, FSB) of the Russian Federation, formerly the KGB. The main focus of his work was organized crime.
In 1998, he and some fellow officers accused their superiors of ordering the killing of Boris Berezovsky, a leading businessman and opponent of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The accusation led to arrests and intimidation, and Litvinenko fled with his family to London, England, where he was granted asylum. He made his living as a journalist and consultant to the British intelligence services.
In two books, he accused Vladimir Putin of organizing the staging of terror attacks to enhance his election chances and of ordering the October 2006 murder of journalist Anna Politkovskaya.
A Fateful Meeting
Although there were death threats against him, Litvinenko mingled freely with Russian ex-patriots in London.
On November 1, 2006, Alexander Litvinenko met a couple of compatriots and former security agents, Dmitry Kovtun and Andrei Lugovoi, in the Pine Bar of the Millennium Hotel in Grosvenor Square, London. They had a pot of tea and shortly thereafter, Litvinenko fell ill.
Litvinenko's Death: The Perfect Murder Weapon
He arrived at hospital with gastrointestinal symptoms, and his health progressively worsened. His hair fell out and he developed pancytopenia (his red and white blood cell and platelet count dropped dangerously). His illness looked like radiation poisoning, but nothing like that showed up in standard tests.
More sophisticated testing found that Litvinenko had ingested a rare, radioactive isotope called Polonium-210.
According to the American Academy of Clinical Toxicology, Polonium-210 is considered one of the most hazardous radioactive materials. Gordon Corera of BBC News wrote that Polonium-210 has been “described as an ‘almost perfect murder weapon.’ ” And 97 percent of the substance comes from Russia.
But identifying the cause of Litvinenko’s critically compromised health came too late for him; he died on November 23, 2015. His slow, painful death was classified as murder.
A Radioactive Trail
Alexander Litvinenko’s widow, Marina, pressed hard for the truth about her husband’s murder.
When police started digging, they found a teapot from the Pine Bar of the Millennium Hotel that had high traces of Polonium-210. The two men whom Litvinenko met in the bar must have handled the radioactive substance because investigators discovered they left trace amounts of it wherever they travelled.
As the BBC reports, police were able to follow a radioactive trail the men left behind that “related to flights they took, bars they visited, the Emirates football stadium where they saw a game, Mr. Kovtun’s movements in Germany, and even a visit by them to the British Embassy in Moscow after the murder.”
About 700 people were thought to have had casual contact with traces of Polonium-210 left behind by the two Russian agents. All were tested but none became seriously ill.
(Polonium-210 is not necessarily lethal if exposure is casual. However, ingesting it means certain death.)
Where Does the Trail Lead?
There was no evidence that either man had a personal motive for killing Litvinenko, which suggests they were working on behalf of someone else.
Richard Horwell QC, a lawyer who appeared for London’s police at an inquiry into the Litvinenko murder, said, “The evidence suggests that the only credible explanation is that in one way or another the Russian state was involved in Litvinenko’s murder.”
Ben Emmerson QC, lawyer for Litvinenko’s widow Marina, was not so coy. He connected the evidentiary dots right into the Kremlin and the desk of Russian President Vladimir Putin. The inquiry into the murder came to the same conclusion.
Did Putin Kill Litvinenko?
Sir Robert Owen, who chaired the investigation, wrote: “I am sure that Mr. Lugovoy and Mr. Kovtun were acting on behalf of others when they poisoned Mr Litvinenko ... The FSB operation to kill Mr. Litvinenko was probably approved by [Director of the FSB] Mr. Patrushev and also by President Putin.”
A few days before he died, Alexander Litvinenko dictated a statement to a friend from his hospital bed: “You may succeed in silencing one man, but the howl of protest from around the world will reverberate, Mr. Putin, in your ears for the rest of your life.”
Of course, Vladimir Putin says the allegations are completely false, which brings to mind the old aphorism of political journalism that “Nothing is true until it has been officially denied.”
Putin's Critics Who Have Been Assassinated
According to Sky News, the following critics of President Vladimir Putin, in addition to those mentioned above, have been assassinated:
- Boris Nemtsov, opposition politician, shot in Moscow in March 2015.
- Sergei Magnitsky carried out unofficial investigations into government corruption. He died in police custody in 2009.
- Natalia Estemirova, a human rights activist, was found dead after being kidnapped in July 2009.
- Stanislav Markelov, a human rights lawyer was gunned down, and journalist Anastasia Baburova was also murdered when she went to Markelov’s aid in January 2009.
- Paul Klebnikov, an investigative journalist, was killed in a drive-by shooting in 2004.
- Sergei Yushenkov, co-chairman of the Liberal Russia movement, was murdered in 2003.
How many journalists have died under Putin?
In July of 2018, Manuela Tobias of Politico wrote: "In January 2016, we tallied journalists whose deaths were classified as homicides by authorities or watchdog groups since Putin assumed office in 2000. The updated count is 38.”
Other assassinations and attempts
In March 2018, former Russian military intelligence officer Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were poisoned by a nerve agent in Britain. They survived after a period of critical illness, although a British woman became an incidental and fatal victim. The attacks were almost certainly carried out by Russian agents.
- “Death by Polonium-210.” Robin B. McFee and Jerrold B. Leikin, American Academy of Clinical Toxicology, undated.
- “Litvinenko Inquiry: What We Know about the Case.” Gordon Corera, BBC News, July 31, 2015.
- “Who Killed Alexander Litvinenko?” Bob Simon, CBS 60 Minutes, 2007.
- “The Litvinenko Inquiry.” Sir Robert Owen, January 2016.
- “The Putin Critics Who Have Been Assassinated.” Sky News, March 3, 2015.
- “All the Times Donald Trump Sucked Up to Vladimir Putin.” Amelia Warshaw, The Daily Beast, July 25, 2016.
- “Chris Wallace Asked Why Vladimir Putin’s Critics End up Dead. Here Are the Details.” Manuela Tobias, Politico, July 19, 2018.
© 2016 Rupert Taylor