By Atharva pandit
Edited by Namitha sadanand, Associate Editor, The Indian Economist
Two weeks into the month of November, 2006, images of a balding Alexander Litvinenko surfaced in newspapers and internet pages around the world. In those images, Litvinenko, who had suddenly been catapulted into fame, looks at the camera with ghoulish, tired eyes and medical instruments strapped all around him. He seemed like anybody but a man in his early forties. A week or so later, he was dead. But Alexander Litvinenko’s story doesn’t end there- in fact, it starts with his death.
The man was an ex-FSB officer at the time of his death, and a somewhat marked one at that (at least he liked to think so) because of his sudden descent into the chaos of Russian dirty politics, when he took the risk of revealing a little too much about the Russian secret service, and paid the cost of doing so. He was born in the city of Voronezh in 1962, and always harbored the hope of joining the secret service, which he fulfilled by graduating from an officers’ school in the year 1985 and then serving as a platoon commander. He began his spy career in earnest by becoming an informer for the KGB and joined them in 1988. But to be completely honest, Litvinenko was nothing more than a “thug”, someone who did what the cops did, going around busting Russian Mafia gangs in corners of the cities. Basically, Litvinenko did what other such agents were supposed to do, and although his wife claims that he could have been made a General, there is little to suggest that he carried with him the capabilities. Commander or not, Litvinenko was sure to be granted fame in the coming days, especially after he was blessed with his meeting with Boris Berezovsky, the Russian mathematician turned oligarch, and one of the richest persons in the 90’s. Litvinenko’s fortunes turned around with an explosion- quite literally.
In April 1994, Berezovsky was travelling in one of his many sedans when a bomb exploded close enough to blow his driver’s head off. The target of that bombing, however, was miraculously saved. In the aftermath of that bombing, Litvinenko was assigned to investigate the case, and he interviewed the multi-millionaire oligarch a couple of times, becoming a close friend in the process- albeit not close enough by FSB standards. In the 90’s, the Russian secret service was trying to bring in line the oligarchs which had racked up money during the Soviet rule, and the FSB asked Litvinenko whether he could get close enough to Berezovsky so as to get rid of him. Litvinenko then did something which would turn his life around- he told all of this to Berezovsky, thus saving his life and forming a bond which would come to be of his help in the future he would lead as a dissident.
After the incident, Litvinenko, who had begun doubting his agency’s choices and decisions, decided to present to Putin, the new head of the KGB, a detailed dossier on the corruption in the secret service. Putin, however, decided to toss it aside, thus prompting Litvinenko to hold a Berezovsky-sponsored public press conference. One could see Litvinenko stand out amongst all, as the only one who sat revealing his face in full. Others with him sat sporting ski masks and sunglasses so as to cover their identities. In the conference, Litvinenko revealed to the press the line of assassinations undertaken by the KGB, and the corruption inside its circles.The KGB’s reaction was swift, as they dumped Litvinenko in a prison for the next eight months. After he was released, and after Berezovsky himself had settled in London, he was left with allies minus one and foes plus hundred, Litvinenko decided that it was time he followed suit. One day in mid-2000, he told his wife that he was going to visit his ‘dacha’ outside the Moscow city and criss-crossed onto the Ukrainian border by dodging the KGB trailers. Calling his wife from there, he instructed her to come to Spain for a “surprise vacation”. When she landed in Spain, Litvinenko, still in Ukraine, informed her that they would never be going back to Russia again. She protested for a little while, but knew all too well the political atmosphere in a new, rapidly changing Russia; they agreed to meet in Turkey, from where Litvinenko called up Berezovsky- it was time to return the favor.
Berezovsky pay-rolled Litvinenko’s stay in a town house at Muswell Hill, London. Here, the now-dissident bonded with the Chechen leader Akhmad Zakayev, and also wrote a book on the Moscow apartment bombings along with Yuri Felshintsky. Named “Blowing Up Russia: Terror from Within”, the book essentially accuses Putin of engineering the bombings as a pretext to the war in Chechnya, so that he can up his nationalistic image in the Russian public’s mind. This would remain his hallmark- anything wrong with the world; Putin is to be blamed (although he might have been bang on about the arms trade theory. Read: Syria). Soon, Litvinenko, depressed by the failure of his books, and by the feeling of being ignored by other dissident circles, fell to boring anybody who would care to listen to the fallacies of Putin’s Russia. He, however, was not a man to be bogged down. He began to look for investment into the security business which was booming at that period of time- that of being an inside source, a know-it-all for the concerned agencies, providing them with a detailed overview of the Russian individual or company which the Western investors were interested in. This background checking provided the inside sources a hefty sum. But Litvinenko, against his illusions about himself, was not all that important a dissident. He was a spy alright, but not as important as some of the other dissidents crowding around the pubs in London. So, Litvinenko tried to roll in his own company, but by this time Duma, the Russian parliament, had quietly passed a law which allowed the KGB to assassinate Russia’s enemies on foreign soils. That brought Litvinenko to a halt, more so after the brutal killing of Anna Politkovaskaya on 7th of October 2006. He attended her memorial service, and commented that as he looked at it, this was a pattern- the Russian government was to become a serial killer in the coming days, and he certainly was a target. From that day onward, he became paranoid, but also adamant to bring to book the killers of his journalist friend. Two weeks later, however, he found himself in a bathroom, vomiting all through the night; the sickness wasn’t normal, he was vomiting something grey. He was vomiting poison.
The next day, Litvinenko was rushed to a local hospital, but a few days later was shifted to a private one. In hospital, Litvinenko struggled as his white platelets began to drop. His morale was down, but he kept on repeating that Andrei Lugovoi, his business partner, a man whom he considered to be his friend, was the one who poisoned him, and that eventually, his real killer was Vladimir Putin. Litvinenko had two appointments before his poisoning- the first one was with the Mitkhorin Commission consultant Mario Scarmela, who looked into the involvement of the KGB in Italian politics, and the second was with Lugovoi, along with another ex-KGB Dmitri Kovtun. By 22nd November, 2006, Litvinenko’s spirits had waned and his health was failing. He was temporarily happy, he had achieved what he wanted all his life- fame. Reporters were flocking in to cover his story, but it was too late now. On the night of November 22nd, he suffered a cardiac arrest which pushed him into a coma, and on November 23rd, an hour after doctors announced that he had been poisoned by polonium 210 (not something the Russians would generally use, since it’s very costly, but something which they would most certainly prefer) he was dead. On his deathbed, Litvinenko converted to Islam and was lowered in a coffin a few days later.
Eight years after Litvinenko died, leaving many unanswered questions and speculations, the British intelligence services have decided to reopen a file gathering dust all this while, and it took a plane to be shot down for that. This comes at a time when the relations between Russia and Britain have turned cold in the wake of Russia’s entry into European geopolitics. Putin not just entered into Europe, but also knocked it out, and continues to, while the West and Europe can do nothing but to start threatening sanctions and open cases biting dust all this while. Litvinenko’s suspected murderers, Lugovoi and Kovtun both enjoy special positions in Russia, and, if proved guilty, Putin would be all but ready to hand them over to the British authorities. Such as it may be, at least the British authorities have retrieved one important file from the reign of dust as a response, and rest assured, the Litvinenko case is a vital one, where an investigation in the right direction could, effectively, strike the right cord.