The Soviet Union had a long tradition of assassinating enemies, but following its collapse, under Yeltsin assassinations stopped and Moscow’s secret poisons laboratory was mothballed. However, under Vladimir Putin, these operations have resumed.
We all have our heroes. Mine is Marina Litvinenko, whose husband, Alexander (Sasha) Litvinenko, was murdered in London fifteen years ago on the orders of Russian President Vladimir Putin. The Kremlin, living in its own little world of “alternative facts”, has of course denied any involvement, but last week the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled that Russia was responsible for Sasha’s killing. Because of the nature and rarity of the radioactive material used in his murder, produced at the closed nuclear facility in Sarov just under 500 miles south-east of Moscow, only Putin could have given approval for its use in the murder.
Sasha was certain that Vladimir Putin had authorised his killing. In the transcript of an interview with him just hours before died, when asked who he thought had ordered his killing, he replied: “The president of the Russian Federation, Vladimir Putin. You of course know, while he’s still president, you won’t be able to prosecute him as that main person who gave the order, because he is the president of a huge country crammed with nuclear, chemical and bacteriological weapons. But I have no doubt that as soon as the power changes in Russia or when the first officer of Russian Special Services defects to the west he will say the same. He will say that I have been poisoned by the Russian Special Services on Putin’s orders.”
Marina, whom I have known for many years, didn’t wait for a power change in Russia. She has tirelessly and fearlessly sought justice for her husband month after month since he died on 23 November 2006. Despite an initial refusal by the British government to hold a public enquiry into the murder, which many believed was only because it might damage the UK’s relations with Moscow, Marina and her legal team persisted and an enquiry eventually started in January 2015. It lasted six months and concluded that “the operation to kill Mr Litvinenko was probably approved by Mr Patrushev (Director of Russia’s Federal Security Service, the main successor organisation to the Soviet KGB) and also by President Putin”.
The Litvinenko story surpasses any fictional thriller. It combines corruption, intrigue, skulduggery and poisoning with the desperate flight of a family from almost certain death. In addition to endless newspaper articles, the Litvinenko story has been a hit play in the London theatre, and even a highly acclaimed opera, performed for the first time this year.
It was in 1994 that Marina, a ballroom dancer and fitness instructor, met Sasha, a KGB officer specialising in counter-terrorism and infiltration of organised crime. Almost unique among KGB officers, Sasha had a strong moral conscience and hated organised crime, so prevalent in Moscow following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. This was to be his downfall. As the KGB morphed into the FSB, Sasha was promoted into the role of Deputy Head of the Seventh Section of the Directorate of Analysis and Suppression of Criminal Groups. In just a few months he discovered that most of the senior staff of the Directorate had close links with, and were benefitting from the mafia groups they were meant to “suppress”. They were providing “krysha” (roof), a Russian word describing people who protect your business.
In her book “Death of a Dissident”, co-written with family friend Alex Goldfarb, Marina uses her husband’s words to describe the system: “First it (krysha) was provided by the mob, then by the police, and soon even our guys realised what was what, and then the rivalry began among the gangsters, cops, and the FSB for market share. As the police and FSB became more competitive, they squeezed the gangs out of the market. However, in many cases competition gave way to cooperation, and the services became gangsters themselves.” Sasha had discovered what Russia was to become under Vladimir Putin, a State thoroughly corrupt from top to bottom.
Somewhat ironically in retrospect, Sasha took his report on corruption to the then head of the FSB, Vladimir Putin, who appeared distinctly unimpressed. He told Marina on his return “I could see in his eyes that he hated me”. In fact, Putin was greatly alarmed that his financial gravy train, the one that has made him allegedly a multi-billionaire, had been spotted and was under threat.
Four months later, in an act of desperation to get the message out, Sasha and four other masked “conscientious” FSB colleagues appeared at a press conference with Interfax, a Russian news agency, giving examples of State corruption. This was the final straw for the Kremlin and Sasha was immediately dismissed from the FSB and arrested. Although he was acquitted on the absurd charges of “exceeding the authority of his position”, he was re-arrested before the charges could be again dismissed. Sasha, who was on bail, realised that he had to leave Russia as quickly as possible, or face certain death. In defiance of an order not to leave Moscow and chased by the FSB, Sasha concocted a complex and dangerous journey for himself, Marina and their small son, Anatoly, to Istanbul, where they applied for asylum at the US embassy. They were turned down. However, with help of Alex Goldfarb they bought tickets from Istanbul to Moscow, via London, and in the transit lounge at Heathrow they sought, and were later given political asylum. On 13 October 2006, Sasha, Marina and Anatoly were granted British citizenship. The Kremlin’s revenge came weeks later.
It was no coincidence that months before Sasha’s assassination, a sinister law was passed in Moscow that permitted Russian agents “to commit lethal action abroad without investigations”. The Soviet Union had a long tradition of assassinating enemies, but following its collapse, under Yeltsin assassinations stopped and Moscow’s secret poisons laboratory was mothballed. However, under Vladimir Putin’s authoritarian regime, these operations have resumed and once again critics and enemies of the Kremlin are ending up dead. The latest attempt was in UK on Sergei Skripal and his daughter three years ago, which, unusually, failed. For Sasha, death came in a particularly nasty, prolonged and uncommon way—poisoning by a radioactive isotope polonium-210. The hitman in this case was Sasha’s former FSB colleague, Andrei Lugovoi, who set up a friendly business meeting with him in a smart London hotel close to the US embassy. There, Lugovoi murdered Sasha by deceptively popping some polonium-210 into his cup of green tea.
Lugovoi, of course, denies doing this, but the facts clearly show he is lying. Wherever he went in London on that momentous trip he left evidence of massive alpha radiation from the polonium he had carried: in the toilet cubicles and gents’ hand-dryer of the hotel; on the chairs where he sat; in the restaurant where he had his evening meal; in the two hotels where he stayed during the visit; in the strip club where he went that evening; and on his seat on BA875 flight to London from Moscow. Everywhere he went was contaminated with alpha radiation. On his return to Moscow, Putin was so delighted with his work that he awarded Lugovoi a medal for “services to the motherland”, yet bizarrely Lugovoi still insists that he had nothing to do with Sasha’s death. Putin also eased Lugovoi’s path to become a deputy in the State Duma, the lower house of Russia’s parliament, where he is immune from prosecution.
In the pursuit of justice for her husband, it was Marina who last November took the case to the ECHR, winning convincingly by six votes to one, the Russian judge, Dmitry Dedrov unsurprisingly being the only one voting against. Delivering their verdict last week, the ECHR also ordered Russia to pay Marina 100,000 euros in damages and 22,500 euros in costs. In a statement following the announcement, she said the ruling should mark a turning point in the appeasement of Putin. “It makes me very sad to say this, but the Russia I love no longer belongs to the community of civilised nations.”
The civilised world clearly agrees. On the basis of the two enquiries, the score to date is: Marina Litvinenko 2 Vladimir Putin 0.
John Dobson is a former British diplomat, who also worked in UK Prime Minister John Major’s office between 1995 and 1998.