The Magazine

Putin, in London, with Poison

Who killed Alexander Litvinenko?

Dec 11, 2006, Vol. 12, No. 13 • By JEFFREY GEDMIN
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts


Among the thousands of customers at the Piccadilly branch of their restaurant in recent weeks, there had not been a single instance of illness. That's what Itsu's website was reporting last week--"with the exception," Itsu noted parenthetically, "of Mr. Litvinenko." Alexander Litvinenko was the ex-KGB man who, after dining at the London sushi restaurant on November 1, fell ill, lost his hair, and died.

I passed by Itsu a couple days ago. It's down the street from the famous tea shop Fortnum and Mason. There wasn't much to see, as the place had been boarded up by the time I arrived. At the Millennium Hotel at Grosvenor Square, on the other hand, the lobby was bustling. There was seasonal music. Staff members were putting up Christmas trees. It was late afternoon and the bar was full. "Be careful what you eat in there," my cab driver had advised.

This is another location where British investigators suspect Litvinenko might have been poisoned. Authorities may be reluctant to call it a murder investigation--it's still classified as an "unexplained death" as we go to press--but it does not seem unreasonable to suspect foul play. Litvinenko apparently ingested or inhaled polonium-210, a radioactive material that emits highly hazardous alpha particles. It is considerably stronger than cyanide and in the right dosage quickly damages tissues and organs. The British tabloid the Sun calls it a case of "From Russia with Lunch."

By now everybody has his own theory about Litvinenko's sudden death. Since I arrived in London, police have found traces of polonium-210 at 12 different locations including two British Airways planes. As authorities continue to collect clues, it is already evident that observers of the case tend to fall into one of two camps.

To the first camp belong those who see Russian president Vladimir Putin and Moscow's security services as prime suspects. The 43-year-old Litvinenko, a onetime colonel in the FSB, the KGB's successor organization, was a fierce critic of Putin's. Litvinenko fled to Britain in November 2000 after claiming that he had been ordered by superiors to assassinate exiled Russian oligarch Boris Berezovsky. Since that time, the former agent, who had begun to work for Berezovsky in Britain, never stopped being a thorn in the Kremlin's side.

At the time of his death, Litvinenko was investigating the murder of another Putin critic, journalist Anna Politkovskaya, whose body was found in October in the elevator of her apartment building in central Moscow. She had been shot four times, including once in the head, in what appeared to be a contract killing. In 2002 Litvinenko coauthored a book (with pal Yuri Felshtinsky) titled Blowing up Russia: Terror from Within, in which he argued that Putin was behind the 1999 blasts in apartment blocks in Moscow that killed 300 and were blamed on Chechen separatists. The incident triggered the second Chechen war and helped to propel Putin into office.

The logic driving "Camp I" seems compelling. Putin's regime has engaged in a fairly robust crackdown on independent journalists, trouble-making NGOs, and other critics the last few years. This past summer the Russian parliament, the Duma, passed legislation granting the government authority to take action through the use of "special forces" against enemies of the state abroad.

If Putin himself was not directly involved in signing the order to eliminate Litvinenko, it is not difficult to imagine that FSB agents, perhaps with the Kremlin's tacit approval, wanted to liquidate him. Artemy Troitsky, one of Russia's leading music and cultural journalists, considers this a plausible scenario. Troitsky writes in the current issue of the New Statesman that "the FSB . . . considers punishing traitors a basic principle." I phoned ex-dissident Natan Sharansky at his home in Jerusalem earlier this week to chat about the case and see what he thinks. Sharansky concurs. If the Russian security services were behind this, he told me, then "this was about discipline."

There is a second camp, though. To this camp belong those who espouse a hodgepodge of theories, from the speculation that Litvinenko was a victim of rival Chechen factions to the assertion peddled by Kremlin circles and Russian media that Berezovsky himself was behind his employee's death. According to this theory, Berezovsky had Litvinenko killed so that the Kremlin would be implicated and Putin's image would be dealt a vicious blow.

A variation on this theme has been introduced by the Independent. The paper has suggested that Litvinenko may have killed himself, convinced that Putin would be suspected of ordering the hit. From his death bed at University College Hospital, Litvinenko explicitly accused Putin of the poisoning.