ACTON, MA -- This is big. No, scratch that -- it's huge. Not since the heyday of the Cold War have we seen such a hot story of espionage, intrigue, and a bizarre murder through poisoning, with a slow, painful death. It had everything: a defector, a former spy with secrets, blaming the government of the country he escaped from for the most heinous crimes...add to that a bunch of shady rich men, and an extremely rare element - a hugely toxic, radioactive and elusive substance called polonium-210. It's like a huge dirty bomb exploding in the middle of a big city. It's a sensation like no other, and the scandal keeps growing without any signs of abating.
Even the Cold War didn't have this much excitement. One needs to go back at least to the days of the courts of Medici and Borgia. Who needs puerile "Da Vinci Code" conspiracies when you can have this?
And what about what's going on in the rest of the world -- you know, wars, bombings, murders, corruption, lies? Forget it! The increasingly hopeless and idiotic quagmire in Iraq looks like common banditry, devoid of imagination and suspense. Who cares that it killed roughly half a million Iraqis and thousands of Americans? Boooring!!! Can you imagine - once we were amazed that the thieves who ran Enron or WorldCom pulled off outrageous multi-billion-dollar thefts. How plebeian -- why would anybody but accounting bookworms remember this? Everything seems so quaint in comparison to the Litvinenko murder. It's like comparing Pong to the PS3 console. As for tens of billons of taxpayer dollars disappearing into the black hole of "Iraq reconstruction" - or into the pockets of Halliburtons and Bechtels and other Republican cronies - whoa, keep the change, bro, don't distract us from the really important stuff: all we want to know is, who killed the "former spy" with a tiny speck of polonium!
Just as the shocking murder of Anna Politkovskaya on October 9 was beginning to fade from the headlines, a new, vastly juicier intrigue emerged -- the prolonged, dramatic illness, the suspected poisoning and agonizing death of Alexander Litvninenko in London.
All I can say is that it's mind-blowing. Both killings were shocking, not the least because of their audacity and apparent senselessness. Why would anybody murder Politkovskaya, why now? Because Politkovskaya was dangerous to Putin's government, as the Western media almost universally decided? Puh-leeze! Perhaps she was a fairly significant nuisance for the government in the early years of the Putin era, probably up to 2004. But in the last couple of years she almost faded from the Russian headlines, failing to come up with significant new stories and scoops. For more than a year I haven't seen any references or discussions of her articles in Russian LiveJournal blogs -- the most up-to-date, no-holds-barred platform for political debates, gossips and all the latest trends in the Russian media. Politkovskaya was almost forgotten, a spent force. She kept writing for Novaya Gazeta and continued to be feted in the West, but even there only half-heartedly, almost by inertia. Her last article for the Novaya Gazeta, published after her death, supposedly implicated Chechnya's Russian-installed leader Ramzan Kadyrov in kidnappings and tortures. It was talked about for a few days but then forgotten.
But at least Anna Politkovskaya kept digging up new charges and powerful critiques of the Kremlin, theoretically making new enemies. Litvinenko, on the other hand, was less significant, although closer to the world of espionage and international intrigues. He was an operator in the network of Boris Berezovsky, the exiled Russian oligarch living in London for the last six years.
"Few had been more vitriolic and outrageous in their criticism of Putin and the Kremlin than Litvinenko," wrote The Sunday Times, exhibiting the kind of typical cluelessness you expect from a British newspaper, in an article titled, "The bastards got me" -- allegedly Litvinenko's own words regarding his poisoning.
This sort of line on Litvinenko-the-martyr was splattered all over the Western media: "fierce critic of Putin's regime," "Kremlin's most outspoken enemy," etc. Like most of what you've heard about this story in the mainstream media, this is complete bullshit.
It's true that Litvinenko strongly attacked of Putin's government. But the real question is how significant his criticism really was. The truth is that hardly anybody remembered Litvinenko over the past three or four years. In early 2000's, after defecting and coming to London, he published two books, both fairly short ones, blaming the Russian security services and the government for corruption, killing their own people, and pretty much every imaginable mortal sin. The first book was called The FSB Blows Up Russia, which alleged that the terrible apartment bombings in Moscow and several other cities in September 1999, at the very beginning of the Putin era, were the work of the Russian secret service and not Chechen terrorists. The book had very little in terms of new revelations, other than reiterating existing conspiracy theories about those apartment bombings, along with the well-known contradictions of the official version. Outside of the circle of the hard-core "democratic opposition" it was greeted mostly with yawns by Russia's chattering classes. It was published in New York and was (and still is) easily available on the web, and was sold in several bookstores in Moscow.
The second book was called The Criminal Order Lubyanka. It was published in Russia and, again, is available on the web and in some Moscow bookshops. It is more of a brochure rather than a book, and can be read in two or three hours. It made even less of an impression than the first one. This book contained a version of Litvinenko's autobiography, going back to late 80's -- his career in the security services, how he met the oligarch Boris Berezovsky, how he gradually became a member of his inner circle, how he became critical and suspicious of the whole Russian security establishment, how he was arrested and charged with abuse of office, and how finally he defected to England via Turkey. It also repeated a shortened version of his claims about the September 1999 apartment bombings, blaming it on the FSB and Putin himself, again to little effect.
After that Litvinenko almost disappeared from view. About the only time this defector's name surfaced again (before November 2006) was in 2003, when he went public with a sensational story that a Russian visitor, allegedly from the FSB, approached him in London and asked for his assistance in a plot to assassinate Putin. Litvinenko claimed he suspected that it was a provocation and he reported it to the police. British security detained the Russian man Litvinenko pointed to, but released him after brief questioning, apparently finding little substance to the story.
In fact Litvinenko wasn't even a "spy." His background was instead in what are called "convoy troops" -- a rather lowly division of the Ministry of Interior concerned with guarding the rail cargo, transportation of prisoners and such. In the early 90's he was transferred to another division within the same ministry, this time dealing with organized crime. In 1994 in Moscow there was an attempted assassination of Boris Berezovsky -- his car was blown up. Berezovsky himself was slightly injured, while his driver was killed (his head was torn off by the explosion), and his bodyguard was badly crippled.
Litvinenko was among the first police officers who came to the scene and this is how he became acquainted with Berezovsky. Soon they became much closer. And with that fortunate meeting, Litvinenko's career accelerated. After a while he found himself as the head of the organized crime unit which served as a sort of liaison between the Ministry of Interior and the FSB -- hence the often repeated, yet wrong claim in the Western media that Litvinenko was a "spy" and an "FSB agent." Many of his colleagues considered him instead to be one of Berezovsky's agents within the security services.
In late 1998 Litvinenko staged a press-conference in Moscow (appearing, bizarrely, wearing a ski mask -- as if his identity was a secret to many people who knew him), in which he claimed that his superiors at the FSB asked him to participate in a plot to assassinate Berezovsky. Not many of his colleagues found that believable. There is nothing unusual, of course, about an assassination plot in contemporary Russia, but it's a bit strange to consider the possibility that the FSB sought assistance from a man who already showed a flair for insubordination and was widely viewed as Berezovsky's crony. After the infamous press conference Litvinenko was fired from his job and soon was charged with abuse of office. The charges were probably concocted, but at least he wasn't dealt with too harshly: after spending a few months in jail he was acquitted and released. Soon, fearing new charges and probably sensing shifting winds and the rapidly diminishing powers of his sponsor Berezovsky, Litvinenko slipped away from Russia on a ferry to Turkey and then flew from Istanbul to London seeking a political asylum. His flight was almost simultaneous with Berezovsky's own exile to London in November 2000, fleeing from charges of theft and corruption. Litvinenko lived there on the oligarch's largesse ever since.
One thing is practically certain in Litvinenko's case: he wasn't killed for something that he knew and was about to reveal. He had many years (and a lot of money put in by Berezovsky in his anti-Putin crusade) to make any sensational revelations he could, and the results were underwhelming. His murder could be revenge, of course, but was more likely a message. The use of an outlandishly exotic material -- the radioactive polonium -- also points in this direction. Damn, could it possibly be any more dramatic? Who committed it and who was the target? It is an almost perfect Agatha Christie detective story: so many possible suspects, so many motives, and in each case so many factors both for and against.
The murder is a huge setback for Putin, of course, especially in the wake of Politkovskaya's killing. Both murders occurred just before important international summits with his participation, and both of them didn't go well. Much of Britain and the rest of Europe call him now a bloody murderer. In short -- the negative fallout has been vastly greater than any small gains he might have made by eliminating a couple of his detractors. This doesn't mean Putin can be fully absolved in these cases. One could at least imagine the killings as a sign of steely resolve: we'll show these bastards who is in charge, and damn the torpedoes (or international condemnation). I would consider this a stretch, but it merits at least some plausibility. Several variations on this theme are also plausible: a personal of warning to Berezovsky and other prominent anti-Putin emigres, telling them that they are vulnerable too (this can explain the elaborateness of the murder, using polonium to exact a slow, painful death). Another version: the "party of the third term," the alleged group of "siloviki" trying to make Putin a hostage of their clique and force him to ran for the third term against the constitutional provision. This is also far-fetched, but so is almost everything about this case.
In Russia by far the most popular is an opposite conspiracy -- that Litvinenko (and perhaps Politkovskaya) were killed by Berezovsky's agents to discredit Putin. It is much more logical than the version implicating Putin -- at least this has direct and major benefits to the exiled oligarch, striking hard at Putin's reputation, while suffering little losses, since both Politkovskaya and Litvinenko were of limited future use, aside from their martyrdom. Yet this version has important weaknesses too. First, Polonium is hard to come by, even with Berezovsky considerable resources. It is also very risky -- if the British police would manage to solve the case, Berezovsky would be finished. Also, some of his associates might suspect they would be next, and would help the British or Russians in outing him.
A day after Litvinenko's death his "last statement" surfaced, in which he puts blame squarely on Putin's government. This makes the story even more incongruous than it had been before. The letter was seen in only one form: a typed, stylistically correct English text, bearing what seems to be his signature. The problem is that Litvinenko hardly spoke English at all, even after living in England for some five years. If he dictated the letter to Alex Goldfarb (another close associate of Berezovsky), as the latter alleges, no doubt it had to be in Russian. Yet no Russian version of the letter (or any audio records of his speaking) appeared. There is little doubt that the "dying letter" is a work of Goldfarb and others from Berezovsky's circle, not Litvinenko himself. This doesn't necessarily mean that Litvinenko disagreed with the letter's message, but it shows the unsavory political machine behind the story.
The FSB (as the successor of the KGB) claims that it had not been involved in targeted killings in foreign countries since the 1959 murder of Stepan Bandera, a western Ukrainian separatist leader and the former Nazi ally. This is bullshit, of course. Assassinations are rare, but still done. In February 2004 the former Chechen rebel leader Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev was blown up in his car in Qatar. It was a crude and inept affair. Two Russian agents were quickly arrested and convicted for Yandarbiyev's murder. But a year later, in a sign of Russia's rising international clout, Moscow managed to secure the release of the agents and their deportation back home.
Poisoning could also be used in less than lethal doses. In September 2004 Anna Politkovskaya was taken to a hospital with acute stomach pain while on her way to Beslan, where Chechen terrorists took more than a thousand hostages in a local school. She blamed the Russian secret services for trying to kill her. Most likely they were involved -- it wasn't an assassination attempt but rather a way to prevent Politkovskaya from appearing in Beslan, where her presence was regarded as unhelpful -- more of a re-transmitter of rebel propaganda rather than of a bona-fide negotiator. Therefore some nasty stuff inducing a stomach disorder was used on her (think Tom Cruise making the CIA guy puke for half an hour in Mission Impossible).
The Litvinenko story is full of deja-vu and weird coincidences. Consider this, for example: In 1957 the KGB tried to kill a prominent dissident Okolovich, living in Germany. The agent Khokhlov, sent to kill him, defected instead and told Okolovich about the plot (somewhat similar to what Litvinenko claimed regarding his relations with Berezovsky). Soon after, Khokhlov himself was poisoned with radioactive thallium, although he survived. Interesting, isn't it?
Another one: the element polonium was discovered by Marie Sklodowska-Curie and named after Poland, her home country. And it is Poland today that's brings about by far the most obstacles to relations between Russia and Europe. In fact Poland has done all it could do to scupper the recent Russia-EU negotiations on economic and security cooperation, culminating in the failed summit in Finland last week. How's that for symbolism? Or do we have to dig up the wily and rather sinister character Polonius from Shakespeare's Hamlet (interestingly enough, in Russian the words "polonium" and "Polonius" are spelled the same). Oh, and another thing: Litvinenko reportedly received his British citizenship papers on the day of the Politkovskaya murder. All this is beyond weird.
Poor old England. In many respects she brought these things on herself by allowing such a scorpion's nest to take shape on her soil -- shady corrupt oligarchs, sleazy political operatives, Chechen terrorists... One could finish with a warning from a very old Brit himself -- Father William from Eco's The Name of the Rose: "This will not be the last dead body within these walls, and the dead will have black tongues and black fingers. Or may be something that glows in the dark. Alas, such a glow doesn't bring us closer to the solution of these mysteries so far. Interesting times, indeed."