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Editor, The Konformist
Who killed Litvinenko?
By Cahal Milmo
Published: 25 November 2006
Alexander Litvinenko was a man who could be taught little about the
seamy side of modern Russia. A KGB agent for 18 years, he occupied a
world where intrigue, betrayal and ruthless trickery were the tools
of working life.
But even a man whose job was to fight organised crime and counter
subversion in the name of the Kremlin would have been surprised at
an event as mired in low chicanery, high drama and cold-blooded
cunning as his own passing. The spy novel saga of the life and death
of the 43-year-old secret agent turned vehement critic of Vladimir
Putin entered its most extraordinary phase yesterday when it was
revealed that he died from exposure to a radioactive poison.
Last night, the Government was dealing with a public health alert
and diplomatic crisis after traces of polonium 210, a by-product of
uranium, were found at Mr Litvinenko's home as well as a sushi
restaurant and London hotel he visited on 1 November.
The Health Protection Agency (HPA) confirmed that traces of the
heavy metal, which is lethal if ingested in tiny quantities, were
found in Mr Litvinenko's urine.
Until he died from heart failure on Thursday night, doctors had
failed to pinpoint the cause of symptoms that reduced a man who ran
five miles every day to a "ghost" with a crippled immune system and
a useless liver. A post-mortem will not be carried out until it is
deemed safe for hospital staff to do so.
Scotland Yard, whose anti-terrorist branch is leading the
investigation, said it had closed the Itsu sushi restaurant and part
of the hotel in Mayfair after HPA experts found traces of the
chemical element polonium.
In a sign of the potential damage to relations between London and
Moscow, the Foreign Office said it had asked the Russian government
to provide " any information" that would help Scotland Yard's
investigations. A spokesman said: "We've obviously raised it and it
is a serious matter."
It is believed that Mr Litvinenko somehow ingested a small amount of
polonium 210 on or around 1 November. Although harmless to the outer
skin, the heavy metal, in quantities no larger than a pinch of salt,
destroys internal organs by causing severe radiation poisoning.
The HPA described the risk of contamination to others who had come
into contact with Mr Litvinenko on 1 November and subsequently
as "minimal" .
But the agency confirmed it was drawing up lists of staff at the two
London hospitals where the Russian, who recently gained British
citizenship, was treated and "tens" of staff would have to undergo
screening for exposure to radioactivity. Staff at the sushi
restaurant would also be assessed, the agency said.
Professor Pat Troop, chief executive of the HPA, said: "What we know
is that this man had a high dose of radiation and our responsibility
is to say: 'Has that caused a risk to others?'
"For somebody to have this level of radiation they would have to
have eaten it, inhaled it or taken it in through a wound. It is not
yet clear how this entered his body."
The answers to that question lie in the events of 1 November and Mr
Litvinenko's 18-year career in the KGB and its successor, the FSB.
It brought Mr Litvinenko into contact or opposition with some of the
most powerful figures in Russia during the break-up of the Soviet
Union and the emergence of Mr Putin as a political leader admired
and feared in equal measure.
It ended after encounters with a set of characters who could have
been drawn from a James Bond film, ranging from an Italian academic
and KGB expert once targeted by the mafia to a football-mad
businessman who once guarded the Russian Prime Minister. But it was
Mr Putin whom Mr Litvinenko chose to blame for his demise. Aware
that the substance in his body was killing him, the former spy,
along with his supporters, had the presence of mind to dictate a
statement four days ago in which he made clear who he blamed for his
In a statement released yesterday, Mr Litvinenko wrote: "As I lie
here, I can distinctly hear the beating wings of the angel of death.
I may be able to give him the slip, but I have to say my legs do not
run as fast as I would like."
He continued: "You have shown yourself to be as barbaric and
ruthless as your most hostile critics have claimed. 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."
The response of the Russian President, attending a European Union
summit in Finland, was blunt: "There is no ground for speculation of
this kind. A death of a man is always a tragedy and I deplore this
and send my condolences to the family."
Last night, legislators in Moscow suggested Mr Litvinenko's death
was part of a plot against Russia. "The death of Litvinenko for
Russia, for the security services means nothing," Valery Dyatlenko,
a former head of the FSB, said on state-run Channel One television,
contending that neither the Kremlin nor Russia's intelligence
agencies would have had reason to kill him.
Police are now investigating the contacts which Mr Litvinenko made
in London as he established a reputation as a strident critic of the
Kremlin, in particular its policy in Chechnya.
Known as Sasha to his friends, he had come to Britain in 2000 after
turning whistleblower on the FSB, claiming he had been ordered to
assassinate the virulently anti-Putin oligarch and his subsequent
patron Boris Berezovsky. He was quickly submerged into Berezovsky's
circle of influential emigrés.
The exiled agent settled in Muswell Hill, a respectable corner of
north London, in a large modern house owned by Mr Berezovsky.
Shortly afterwards he was joined by his wife, Marina, 41, and their
12-year-old son, Anatole. Across the road lived Akhmed Zakayev, the
foreign minister of the exiled Chechen government.
All this came to an abrupt halt on 1 November. Mr Litivinenko held
two meetings on that Wednesday. It was the sixth anniversary of his
arrival in Britain as a political refugee, having been an agent in
the FSB unit tasked with countering organised crime gangs in the
The first, at 10am, was at the Millennium Mayfair Hotel in central
London with Sergei Lugovoy, a former KGB bodyguard and businessman
who runs a security company in Moscow. Mr Lugovoy said he had been
in London to watch a football match between Arsenal and CSKA Moscow.
Also at the meeting were two other people unknown to Mr Litvinenko
Dmitry Kovtun, the business partner of Mr Lugovoy, and another
friend and partner named as Vyacheslav Sokolenko. Friends of Mr
Litvinenko insist that he drank tea during the meeting.
Mr Lugovoy, former bodyguard to a Russian Prime Minister, Yegor
Gaidar, who claimed to have renewed his 10-year relationship with Mr
Litvinenko only recently, said last night that his business contact
had taken no food or drink.
He said they had held a "very constructive" meeting, but Mr
Litvinenko had cancelled a second breakfast meeting the next day
after falling ill. The businessman denied any involvement in the
death. He said: " I'm surprised by how hysterically some are trying
to tie me to this." By 3pm, Mr Litvinenko had moved from Mayfair to
the elegant façades of Piccadilly, where he met Mario Scaramella,
another long-standing contact who had called him out of the blue
saying he wanted to bring forward a meeting planned for 10 November
to discuss important documents. The Italian examining magistrate
who, among his many job descriptions, includes the titles of
environmental campaigner and law professor, told Mr Litvinenko that
he had received a death threat aimed at both of them. They met for
35 minutes in the basement of a branch of Itsu, a sushi restaurant
chain. Mr Scaramella said last week that, while he himself drank
only water, Mr Litvinenko bought food and drink from a chiller
The documents they discussed, seen by The Independent, accused both
men of being part of a conspiracy to besmirch the name of the FSB
and there was a " necessity to use force" to silence them. The
papers also purported to name a retired KGB agent who was
responsible for planning the murder of the dissident journalist Anna
Politkovskaya at her Moscow apartment in October.
Mr Litvinenko, a friend of the reporter, had been very public
perhaps dangerously so about whom he believed to have been
responsible for the murder. Thirteen days earlier he had stood up in
front of an audience journalists and campaigners at London's
Frontline Club and accused Mr Putin of being involved.
The motivation of those who may have somehow slipped polonium 210
into Mr Litvinenko's food or drink remains unknown. Theories abound,
from an officially sanctioned "hit" by the FSB against a man seen as
a traitor in Moscow, to an attempt to besmirch Mr Putin and his
administration by rogue opponents, or a macabre suicide by Mr
Litvinenko himself. The last scenario was described by one friend
last night as "utter rubbish".
But what happened to the Russian agent following those meetings on 1
November is not in dispute a ghastly slide by a former pentathlete
from rude health into a man with the appearance and demeanour of a
Initially, Mr Litvinenko spent 10 days at Barnet Hospital in north
London. Staff put his extreme vomiting down to a violent stomach bug
before moving him to a cancer ward when his white blood cell count
dropped to zero. Poisoning was only investigated when he was
transferred to University College London Hospital on 17 November and
toxicology tests revealed small traces of thallium, known as
the "secret agent's poison" it is odourless, tasteless and lethal
in small quantities.
What had thus far been only reported on a single pro-Chechen website
suddenly became worldwide news. Alex Goldfarb, the eloquent human
rights campaigner who had arranged Mr Litvinenko's escape from
Moscow in 2000, emerged as the official spokesman for his friend.
Behind the scenes, the exiled oligarch and arch-critic of Mr Putin,
Boris Berezovsky, called in his PR agency, Bell Pottinger, to handle
media inquiries. It was Bell Pottinger which distributed what will
become the defining image of Alexander Litvinenko a photograph of
his shrunken and yellowed features taken in his hospital bed with
wires to a bank of medical machines trailing from his chest.
Such pictures of high political drama were a long way from the
provincial backwater of Nalchik, the town in the far south of
Russian where Mr Litvinenko was born in 1963, the son of a doctor.
Described as "bright and principled", a 20-year-old Alexander joined
the KGB in 1983 and rose through the ranks to become a lieutenant-
colonel in the section dealing with organised crime.
It is understood that he had special responsibility for countering
attempts by the Russian mafia to infiltrate the security services.
In 1998, he declared his failure at this task. At a press conference
he accused the FSB, then headed by Mr Putin, of ordering him to
assassinate Mr Berezovsky. In turn charged with corruption by
Moscow, Mr Litvinenko fled to London and continued his onslaught
with a book, The FSB Blows Up Russia, in which he accused his former
employers of murdering 300 people in 1999 by demolishing apartment
blocks with explosives and blaming the attacks on Chechen rebels.
A series of further allegations were made, some of which such as
the claim that the Kremlin had ordered the Beslan massacre were
seen as undermining his credibility.
Amid reports of a tape recording which supposedly implicates senior
Kremlin figures in a sex scandal, it is clear that Mr Litvinenko
made enough enemies in enough places who could now make it on to the
list of suspects for what the Yard was last night calling
his "unexplained death".
But, yesterday, it fell to his father, Walter, to summarise a life
and death far out of the ordinary. Dressed in a leather jacket and
an orange scarf, Mr Litvinenko choked back tears and anger as he
spoke to reporters outside University College London Hospital. He
said: "My son died yesterday and he was killed by a little, tiny
"He faced his last hours with dignity. He was very courageous when
he met death and I am proud of my son."
The leading players in an espionage drama
The Russian president was accused by Mr Litvinenko of sanctioning
his murder. The Kremlin has rejected the claims, but the death of
the former agent will add to the perception that the FSB security
service is running an assassination policy.
The Italian academic and KGB expert met Mr Litvinenko at a sushi
restaurant on the day he fell ill. There is no suggestion that Mr
Scaramella was involved in the poisoning. He said he had met his
friend to discuss a death threat aimed at them.
The Moscow-based businessman and former KGB bodyguard held a meeting
with Mr Litvinenko at a hotel on 1 November. Mr Lugovoy had tea with
Mr Litvinenko and two other men. Mr Lugovoy said the meeting had
been to discuss business and he had been in London to see a football
The exiled Russian oligarch had become an ally of Mr Litvinenko. Mr
Berezovsky, a critic of Mr Putin, is thought to own the house in
north London where Mr Litvinenko was living and financed his book,
which levelled corruption and murder allegations against the FSB and
The former actor and foreign minister of the Chechen government in
exile was a visitor to Mr Litvinenko's bedside. The two men were
neighbours. He accused the Kremlin of exporting "gangster politics"
Lord Tim Bell
Bell Pottinger Communications, of which Lord Bell is chairman,
includes Mr Berezovsky among its clients. The company handled media
calls about Mr Litvinenko and arranged for the distribution of
photographs taken of him in hospital.
The biochemist is director of a human rights group set up by Mr
Berezovsky in 2000. Mr Goldfarb has put forward the allegation that
the Kremlin is responsible for Mr Litvinenko's death.
The leading toxicologist claimed that thallium was to blame for Mr
Litvinenko's condition. But the hospital said he had made his
remarks without seeing test results. The professor said he has
withdrawn from the case.
Countdown to tragedy
Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya is shot dead in Moscow.
Litvinenko begins to investigate her murder.
Litvinenko meets former KGB officer at Millennium Hotel, London,
then meets Italian academic Mario Scaramella at Itsu sushi bar in
Leicester Square. Later admitted to Barnet General hospital.
His condition worsens and he is transferred to University College
Reports emerge that he has been poisoned with thallium.
Litvinenko moved to intensive care. Scotland Yard say they are
treating it as a suspected deliberate poisoning. Kremlin dismisses
allegations of involvement.
As his condition worsens, doctors rule out thallium and radiation
After suffering a heart-attack overnight, doctors say he is
critically ill. Later that night, statement is issued saying he is
It emerges that radioactive material is found at hotel and
restaurant which Litvinenko visited. His family release statement
from former spy in which he tells Vladimir Putin "may god forgive
you for what you have done".
Was he sacrificed to embarrass Putin?
By Caroline Davies
Last Updated: 28/11/2006
Conspiracy theories have abounded since the death of Alexander
Litvinenko as detectives struggle to make headway in this
unprecedented case. Some point to President Putin and the Kremlin,
others to Litvinenko's dissident allies, some even suggest suicide
or, perhaps, an accident. Here are some of the most popular theories.
Alexander Litvinenko and Boris Berezovsky
1. It was Putin
Litvinenko, in his death-bed statement, pointed his finger at
President Vladimir Putin, former member of the FSB, the Russian
security service. Kremlin officials deny any involvement. Russia's
media pour scorn on the theory that Putin ordered Litvinenko's
elimination. He was simply too unimportant, a small-time fantasist
it was easier to put up with than to bump off, they say.
The idea Putin would order his death particularly this drawn-out,
agonising death guaranteed to attract world-wide attention and
risk an international furore is seen as preposterous. Such a slow
and public assassination could only play into the hands of those who
wished to compromise Russia in the world arena.
2. Putin's enemies
advertisementThe most popular theory in Moscow is that Litvinenko
was "sacrificed" in order to embarrass Putin. This is the second
time Putin has been embarrassed by an opponent's death just before a
major international meeting.
The death of outspoken journalist Anna Politkovskaya, who was shot
outside her Moscow apartment block, overshadowed Putin's German
visit. Litvinenko's public death-bed agonies came just before a
major summit meeting between Russia and the EU in Finland.
Putin himself powered this view following Politkovskaya's death,
saying in a statement then: "We have information, and it is
reliable, that many people who are hiding from Russian justice have
long had the idea of sacrificing someone in order to create a wave
of anti-Russian sentiment".
3. Putin's enemies outside
Boris Berezovsky has not escaped suspicion in Russia's papers. An
academic turned businessman who made a fortune after the fall of
communism, he was an ally of Putin until they fell out. He fled to
Britain from where he has battled extradition. Opposed to Putin's
regime, he has helped other exiles and was giving Litvinenko
financial support in Britain.
Litvinenko, when with the FSB, once saved Berezovsky's life by
warning him of an assassination attempt and the two became friends.
Those close to both men believe it is ludicrous to suspect
Berezovsky of harming the man who saved him from a possible
"Boris owes his life to Litvinenko and would never do anything to
harm him," Oleg Gordievsky, friend and KGB defector is reported as
4. Putin's enemies inside
Of the main factions within the Kremlin, one is a group of
nationalistic and hardline elements in the military and security
forces dubbed the "siloviki". Some of them are said to believe Putin
is dangerous for Russia because the country is collapsing and Russia
is losing control of parts of its territory like the Caucasus.
Embarrassing Putin could help as they battle for control with
Putin's term due to end in 2008, say some.
5. Putin's friends
"Dignity and Honour" are said to be a group of ex-KGB spies waging
their own war on dissidents trying to embarrass Putin.
One theory is he was killed by a veteran of Russia's Spetsnaz
special forces - dubbed "Igor the Poisoner" by one paper - and named
in a hitlist passed to Litvinenko by Italian academic Mario
Scaramella on the day he was poisoned, and then to the police. Apart
from Litvinenko, the list is said to include Berezovsky,
Politkovskaya and Scaramella.
6. Enemies beyond
Litvenenko was known to have plenty of enemies beyond the Kremlin.
In the late 1990s, he had accused two of his bosses at the FSB of
He also wrote a book claim the FSB were behind the blowing-up of
several apartment blocks in Moscow, then blaming it on Chechneya. A
rogue enemy from his security service past, perhaps? Or was he the
victim of a mafia plot from enemies made whilst working for the FSB?
Perhaps the most desperate theory, but, one still touted in Moscow
by those who would depict Litvinenko as a man who so detested Putin
he was willing to end his life in this appalling way in a last
attempt to discredit him.
8. An accident
There has long been a black-market trade in radioactive materials
being stolen from poorly protected Russian nuclear sites. The
International Atomic Energy Agency estimates about 40kg of weapons-
usable uranium and plutonium were stolen from facilities in the
former Soviet Union between 1991 and 2002.
Did Litvinenko somehow come into contact with smuggled radioactive
material? According to one expert, pure polonium 210 cannot be
contained in ordinary glassware and could not be administered in
liquid form as the drink would bubble and the heat would be too