They could easily have planted a bomb in Litvinenko's vehicle, or just shot him to death in a dark alley somewhere in London. No, they chose to give us all a 'show,' a morbid spectacle, as we watched an enemy of the Russian state slowly wither away into nothingness. This act has yet again shown us all just how bold Moscow has become as of late.
Russian Ex-Spy Lived and Died in World of Violence and Betrayal
The tangled tale of Alexander V. Litvinenko, the maverick Russian K.G.B. agent turned dissident who died of radiation poisoning last week, has seized the headlines recently, but its roots can be traced to a late spring evening in Moscow in 1994. At just after 5 p.m. on June 7, Boris A. Berezovsky, one of Russia’s most powerful oligarchs, was leaving the offices of his car dealership in a chauffeured Mercedes 600. According to Russian news accounts at the time, he and his bodyguard were sitting in the rear seat behind the driver. As the car drove by a parked vehicle, a remote-controlled bomb detonated, decapitating the driver but somehow leaving Mr. Berezovsky unscathed.
As a high-ranking officer in the organized crime unit of the F.S.B., the successor to the K.G.B., Mr. Litvinenko “was the investigating officer of the assassination attempt,” said Alex Goldfarb, a Berezovsky associate and a spokesman for the Litvinenko family, in an interview conducted, fittingly, in the rear seat of a parked Mercedes in central London with a heavyset driver at the wheel. “They became friends.” It was a friendship that was to shape Mr. Litvinenko’s career, which began in the roller-coaster politics and self-enrichment of post-Soviet Russia, spanned his desperate flight from Russia through Turkey and then on to Britain to seek asylum. It ended spectacularly and mysteriously, with the British police saying the only thing they knew for sure was that he was dead, poisoned after ingesting an obscure radioactive isotope called polonium 210.
Although the precise circumstances of his death remain hidden, Mr. Litvinenko lived the last years of his life as a public critic of President Vladimir V. Putin and the Russian government. Assigned to investigate the assassination attempt on Mr. Berezovsky, he ended up accusing the F.S.B. of involvement in a later conspiracy, a charge that severed his ties with the agency. Once in exile in London, his contacts with Mr. Berezovsky and a circle of other Russian émigrés and former agents flourished, even as his criticism of Mr. Putin grew more vigorous. In the weeks before his death, he had begun looking into the shooting death in Moscow of the journalist Anna Politkovskaya, a fierce critic of Mr. Putin and his policies in Chechnya.
Mr. Litvinenko began his lingering decline on Nov. 1, when he met an Italian academic, Mario Scaramella, in a sushi bar and linked up with former K.G.B. colleagues in a five-star hotel. Then he fell ill, wasting away over 22 excruciating days from a muscular, almost boyish figure to a gaunt shadow. Investigators followed a radioactive trail around London and, through British Airways planes found to have traces of radiation, to Moscow. British Airways said 221 flights, carrying 33,000 people, might have been affected. In a bizarre sideshow, a former Russian prime minister, Yegor Gaidar, a quiet critic of the Kremlin, fell ill with symptoms of poisoning.
The episode left Britain’s relations with Russia strained: no matter how much Mr. Putin denied it, British officials faced a barrage of newspaper speculation that a supposedly friendly power, or its disaffected agents, had reached onto the streets of London for nefarious purposes. From his deathbed, Mr. Litvinenko accused Mr. Putin of responsibility for his plight, but that conclusion was far from certain. One thing, though, was abundantly clear: Mr. Litvinenko’s death matched his life in a world of conspiracy and betrayal as a former spy.
“I brought him to the U.S. Embassy at the end of October in Ankara,” said Mr. Goldfarb, by his own account an American citizen who fled the Soviet Union 31 years ago and spent many years in exile working for, among others, the financier George Soros. “We just walked in and said here’s the F.S.B. colonel, and they are not interested.”
Finally, Mr. Litvinenko left Turkey using a ticket allowing him to transit, but not stay, in London. In November 2000, he arrived at Heathrow airport, surrendered to the British police and claimed asylum, according to accounts by Mr. Litvinenko and in the British press. But he was still not treated as a high-level defector. Mr. Suvorov, an agent from Russian military intelligence, G.R.U., who defected in 1978, said: “I raised the question, ‘Look, there’s a man who has lots of information about organized crime’ — no one else had so much information — but no one questioned him about it, British, French, Americans. He had incredible knowledge.” Neither Turkish nor American officials confirmed this account. But, to judge from what happened later, Mr. Litvinenko was determined to put his knowledge of Russia’s intelligence networks to use.
Émigrés in London
From the minute he landed in Britain, Mr. Litvinenko resumed his association with Mr. Berezovsky, who had arrived some months earlier also seeking asylum. From a modest row house in white-collar Muswell Hill in north London, he appears to have moved easily in security and former espionage circles, frequently visiting Mr. Berezovsky’s offices in Mayfair — one of London’s most upscale districts. He was part, too, of a population of an estimated 300,000 Russians in London, including political émigrés, old-time defectors and wealthy tycoons who spend their time in nightclubs and boutiques and buying up real estate and soccer clubs. He was granted British citizenship earlier this year.
But he also maintained contact with his former F.S.B. colleagues, like Mikhail Trepashkin, who was jailed in October 2003 for betraying state secrets while investigating apartment bombings in Moscow and elsewhere in 1999 that killed scores of people. Those bombings formed the basis of a book published in English the same year by Mr. Litvinenko accusing Russia’s security services of staging the bombings as a pretext for the second Chechen war. In a letter released Friday and dated Nov. 23, Mr. Trepashkin said in a reference to the F.S.B., “Back in 2002, I warned Alexander Litvinenko that they set up a special team to kill him.” But Mr. Litvinenko also registered increasing concerns about his safety. “A secret service is designed to fight another secret service,” he told The New York Times in a telephone interview in 2004 during the inquiry into the poisoning of Viktor A. Yushchenko, then a Ukrainian presidential candidate. “When a secret service goes after an individual, they have no chance.”
Mr. Litvinenko said his supporters arranged for him to address British legislators, whom he told that members of the Russian secret services were “getting more aggressive, threatening my relatives.” He said he knew of 32 Russian spies working in England. “They follow us and prepare provocations and our liquidation,” he said. In September 2004, two weeks after his appeal to Parliament, Mr. Litvinenko said in the interview, bottles containing burning liquid were thrown at his apartment at 1 a.m. Some of his associates bridled at the idea that he was Mr. Berezovsky’s personal agent or go-between. “He was not just someone who came from Russia and said to Berezovsky: give me some money,” said Mr. Suvorov, the former G.R.U. agent.
But Mr. Litvinenko nonetheless displayed a knack for confidential business. According to a report in The Times of London in November, he traveled to Israel weeks before he died to hand over a dossier on the Yukos oil affair — in which the company’s former chairman, Mikhail B. Khodorkovsky, has been imprisoned for tax evasion — to Leonid Nevzlin, an exiled oil tycoon. Mr. Nevzlin was quoted as confirming the article. On the fateful day when he first took ill, the radiation trail of his movement led to the offices of Erinys, an international security company in Mayfair.