A widow says Vladimir Putin was behind her husband’s death
A widow says Vladimir Putin was behind her husband’s death
As Vladimir Putin blustered about nuclear missiles at the G8 last week, fallout from another Russian nuclear event—the poisoning via polonium-210, a radioactive isotope, of former KGB officer turned dissident-in-exile Alexander Litvinenko—continued to accumulate. In England, The Guardian reported that since Litvinenko’s death in London last November, more than 3,000 government staff have worked on the ensuing public health crisis, which involved testing hundreds of people for radiation exposure and cleaning up traces of radioactive contamination in multiple sites. And in Cannes, a documentary impli-
cating the Kremlin in Litvinenko’s murder, as well as the murder of journalist Anna Politkovskaya, premiered to acclaim.
Putin dismissed as “stupidity” British authorities’ request for the extradition of ex-KGB officer Andrei Lugovoi to stand trial for the killing, while Lugovoi protested his innocence and blamed first the British intelligence service for the hit and then his own one-time boss—and Putin’s sworn enemy—oligarch Boris Berezovsky. Berezovsky and Litvinenko were close: while still in Russia, Litvinenko had publicly exposed a plot to assassinate Berezovsky, who became his patron and, after both were granted asylum, his landlord in London.
Already replete with more slippery characters and improbable twists of fate than a spy novel, l’affaire Litvinenko has a new chapter this week, with the publication of Death of a Dissident, authored by Litvinenko’s widow,
Marina, and Alex Goldfarb. The Litvinenkos met in Moscow in 1993 and married shortly thereafter; they fled Russia in 2000 along with their son Anatoly, now 13, with the help of Goldfarb, a dissident scientist who runs a foundation for human rights activists that was set up by, yes, Berezovsky.
Alex Goldfarb and Marina Litvinenko talked exclusively to Maclean’s from London about the man they called “Sasha,” whose remains are still so radioactive they cannot safely be cremated for 28 years.
Q: How well did Alexander Litvinenko know Andrei Lugovoi?
AG: They met on several occasions back when Alexander was in Russia, but they were never close. [About a year ago, they] started talking about business ventures. Lugovoi owns a very big security company in Moscow, and Sasha was working here [in London] as a consultant to a couple of large British companies involved in private security, risk assessment, and so on. He initially became the go-between for Lugovoi and British security companies, then they even started discussing maybe opening their own security company in London. That was the pretext for those meetings that ended up with his poisoning.
Q: Marina, how long did it take your husband to realize he had been poisoned?
ML: Actually, when Sasha became extremely sick on the first night he told me, “It’s not simple sickness, it looks like somebody tried to poison me.” But of course for me it was very difficult to believe. Even when he was in hospital and we tried to ask medical staff to check him for poisoning, they didn’t believe us. Just in the second week and a half of his illness was the first test when they found some heavy metal in his blood and started to talk about poisoning.
Q: Was it your decision to release to the press the photos of Sasha when he was dying, and what has the effect been on you and your son?
ML: It was very difficult for me because I’m quite a private person, but I was very happy with a quiet life here in England. It will never again be the same, how it was. When [the poisoning] happened, and Sasha was in better condition and everyone was asking for pictures in the hospital, he refused. He still had hair but he already looked not very well, and he said, “Marina, probably it’s not a good idea to take any pictures in hospital because when I recover it will upset me to see how I used to look.” And I agreed with him. But when he became worse, Sasha said, “People should know, they should see what they did to me.” You could see in the pictures
how he’d changed completely, from a normal, good-looking, handsome man to how he looked in the last days.
Q: On his deathbed, he accused Putin of ordering his murder. Why did he think the president of Russia wanted to kill him?
AG: Well, first of all because he knew him! [Laughs] Second, because over the past five or six years, Sasha was actively involved in investigating various crimes which with various degrees of probability were attributed to the Russian secret services, like the 1999 apartment bombings in Moscow [which killed more than 200 civilians, and which Putin blamed on Chechen extremists]. Regardless of whether it’s true or false, this allegation, he was one of the most vocal saying the evidence points to the Russian security services. The major piece of evidence that points to the Russian government being responsible for Sasha’s murder is of course polonium. As a murder weapon, it’s a smoking gun.
Q: Because Lugovoi wouldn’t have had any other way to get it?
AG: Polonium is produced by the government in nuclear labs and weapons labs. The
technology’s very similar to the technology of producing, say, weapons-grade plutonium, where you have to do nuclear reaction and then an enrichment step and so on, so it’s not something you can easily make. And this material is as toxic as anthrax and as suitable for making a massive terrorist attack as any chemical or biological weapon, so presumably it should be tightly guarded and available only to government sources. But apart from that, although there is pretty convincing evidence in the hands of the British police that the poisoning was done by Lugovoi, he didn’t have a motive. When he says, “Why would I kill Litvinenko?” he has a point. He didn’t have any personal or political or financial motive to kill Sasha, and he’s not a hired assassin, he’s worth $30 million at least. All of that suggests the Kremlin is behind Sasha’s assassination.
Q: You can’t have much confidence at this point that Lugovoi’s actually going to stand trial in the U.K., given Putin’s refusal to extradite him.
AG: I am skeptical not so much because of the legal arguments—the Russians say the constitution prohibits extradition—but because nobody would want Lugovoi to talk. He would explain where the polonium originated and who sent him on this mission. I don’t personally see this whole affair as a cause of worsening of relations, I see it as a symptom of relations which started to worsen five years ago when the Russian security services hijacked
the Russian state and started to dismantle democracy in Russia and institute a xenophobic anti-Western mood in the country through the media that they took control of. It’s a wake-up call. Putin’s regime feels threatened by the very existence of free and liberal societies. But Marina has a different view.
ML: Maybe more emotional, because I believe in English justice and I hope the trial is going to be here in England, because [the polonium attack] happened not just against my husband but against British people on
British soil. It’s not only Sasha’s death, but other people who suffered because of polonium.
Q: Do you fear for your own safety as a result of having written this book?
AG: It’s a little bit too late, I guess. I take the attitude not to think about it, because if everything ends up well it would come out that there was no point in worrying. Rationally, I believe that Sasha’s assassination was a botched operation. The intention was that the cause of his death would never be found. The polonium, that actually led to Mr. Lugovoi and ultimately I believe to the Kremlin, was discovered just by accident. It was not supposed to be discovered. Under the circumstances it’s really unlikely that they would do another hit or operation of that sort. But in the long run, you can expect any dirty tricks, because these people are obviously
murderers, and Sasha’s is the most famous but of course not the first political assassination which may be attributed to the Kremlin. Some of them are suspected, some of them are proven, such as the assassination of the former Chechen president, so you can expect anything from these people.
Q: Did Sasha’s death have any meaning or greater purpose, or was it just a senseless act of terrorism?
AG: Sasha’s assassination, I believe, was meant to look like some sort of internal assassination by the London group [of Russians who have been granted asylum], the aim was to frame Berezovsky and the Chechen group, and this is what definitely would have happened had polonium not been discovered by the British authorities. But if you talk about a higher purpose, if you think in those terms, Sasha, by his death, has managed to demonstrate quite convincingly what many good people tried to do without much success, himself included, over the past eight years: that what’s happening in Russia is very different from the picture we get from our leaders here, that there’s democracy and reform. Quite the contrary. I think that now, to a large extent because of Sasha’s sacrifice, they begin
to understand that what they’re dealing with is extremely dangerous and potentially threatening to the security of the Western world.
Q: Do you think there’s a connection between Putin’s refusal to extradite Lugovoi and his recent Cold War rhetoric regarding the proposed American missile defence shield in Europe?
AG: He appears to believe, and this is actually confirmed by those who know him, that there is a conspiracy which unites Western governments—or, as they say, reactionary circles—with the CIA, MI6, the Chechens, Boris Berezovsky, the media, and some elements of the Russian democracy movement, to keep Russia in a subdued and subservient state. This is the siege mentality Putin displays in his statements and actions when he loses composure. He believes the West is out to destroy, diminish and humiliate Russia, and I think that this attitude in him is sincere. So yes, in that sense, there is a connection.
Q: Marina, what do you miss most about your husband?
ML: When you meet a person you believe is your other half, finally... it’s very difficult now. I feel, “How strange to be without him.” Of course, I’m a normal person, I don’t think, “One day he’ll be home.” I understood completely what happened, but emotionally, it’s very, very difficult. I still have the feeling of him, the smell of him. M
‘WHEN SASHA BECAME ILL HE TOLD ME, “IT’S NOT SIMPLE BODY TRIED TO POISON ME’”
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