Moscow’s Long Black Arm

The British Inquiry into the Poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko

/ by Edgar Tijhuis

Investigating a murder case before the victim has actually died. Not the subject of a literary thriller, but the work of the doctors, researchers and security professionals handling the poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko (1962 -2006). The Russian former KGB and later FSB (Federal Security Service) agent, turned Putin critic and British citizen, suddenly fell ill on 1 November 2006. Three weeks later, he died at University College Hospital London, as a result of what was established to be poisoning with rare Polonium 210, normally only available in nuclear reactors. The piercing image of a bald and moribund Litvinenko lying in his hospital bed will forever be attached to his name and to present-day Russia.


It took almost eight years before a Public Inquiry into the death of Litvinenko was set up, in July 2014, although there had previously been a police investigation and inquest. These earlier investigations partly answered the question of how Litvinenko died, and who had administered the deadly substance, but left many other questions unanswered. A request to set up an Inquiry had been refused by the Home Secretary. She subsequently agreed to do so, after her refusal had been successfully challenged in the High Court by Alexander Litvinenko’s widow, Marina Litvinenko. The Inquiry was led by Sir Robert Michael Owen, a high court judge, and led to a lengthy report of 329 pages that is now available online, together with links to all underlying documents, amounting to thousands of pages of evidence. This report will be used here to discuss the Litvinenko case. Furthermore, we will go beyond that and discuss the literary legacy of Litvinenko, as well as some books that were written about his life. Finally, a number of other cases will be briefly drawn upon to place the Litvinenko case in a broader perspective.


From KGB to Persona Non Grata


To understand the death of Litvinenko, his professional life in Russia has been reconstructed as much as possible, starting when he left school. At that point, he decided to go to military college, choosing a training center for Interior Ministry forces, located in a city in North Ossetia. He spent five years training there, till he graduated as a lieutenant, around 1985. Litvinenko then served in the Dzerzhinsky Division of the forces of the Interior Ministry, between 1985 and 1988. His duties appear to have included intelligence work relating to the protection of trains carrying gold bullion. In 1988, he was recruited to join the KGB. He underwent a period of intelligence training at a KGB facility in Siberia, and in 1991 was posted to KGB headquarters in Moscow. He was assigned to the Economic Security and Organized Crime Unit, and continued to work there until about 1994. He began to investigate the Tambov criminal group, engaged in smuggling heroin from Afghanistan, via Uzbekistan and St Petersburg, to Western Europe. He became convinced that there was widespread collusion between the Tambov group and KGB officials, including both Vladimir Putin and Nikolai Patrushev.


In 1994, he was transferred to the Anti-Terrorism Department of what had by then become the Federal Counterintelligence Service (FSK). He allegedly had considerable involvement in the Chechen conflict, although not for the main part in combat operations. According to Litvinenko’s wife, as well as Akhmed Zakayev, experiences in Chechnya caused him to start to change his views about the rights and wrongs of the Chechen War. He began to compare the Chechen defense of their country to the heroic actions of the Russian army, including those of his grandfather, in the Second World War. Years later in the UK, Litvinenko and Zakayev, the former deputy prime minister of the unrecognized Chechen Republic of Ichkeria, would become good friends and neighbors.


In the summer of 1997, Litvinenko was transferred within the FSB to the Department for the Investigation and Prevention of Organized Crime, known as URPO. In his police interview, Litvinenko described URPO as a “top secret department of the KGB whose role was killing politicians and high businessmen…without a verdict.” By the end of 1997, Litvinenko received several tasks which he deemed illegal, among them the killing of Boris Berezovsky, a business oligarch who later moved to the UK and was granted asylum in 2003. He filed an official complaint about the tasks, but in October 1998, the case was closed, after it was concluded that no crimes had been committed. Meanwhile, the FSB got a new leader in June 1998, when Vladimir Putin was installed as head of the organization.


On the 13th of November 1998, Boris Berezovsky published an open letter to Putin in the Russian media. The letter made a clearly-worded request to Putin to reform the FSB. A few days later, on 17 November 1998, Litvinenko went public with his criticisms of the FSB, at a press conference in Moscow that was attended by the world’s media. After the press conference, Litvinenko’s position deteriorated quickly. In December, both he and the other officers involved in the press conference were dismissed from the FSB. In March 1999, Litvinenko was arrested and detained for eight months. When the trial eventually took place before the Moscow Regional Military Court, on 26 November 1999, Litvinenko was acquitted of all charges. Now Litvinenko was charged with mishandling suspects and stealing goods during an operation at a Moscow market, in which he had been involved several years previously. Litvinenko was again detained, but released on bail in mid-December 1999. The case collapsed as Litvinenko provided evidence that he had not been at the market on that particular day.


A third set of proceedings was then brought against Litvinenko, claiming he had planted evidence on a suspect. This time he was not arrested, but his passport was confiscated, and he was told not to leave Moscow without permission. This third set of proceedings was still in train when Litvinenko left Russia in October 2000. On a flight from Moscow, he used a stop-over in London to ask the first British officer he saw for asylum.


A Deadly Cup of Tea


Litvinenko was granted asylum in 2001, and became a British citizen in October 2006. He was a journalist and author, strongly critical about Putin’s Russia and its security apparatus. He wrote several books that linked Russian organized crime with the state leadership—these will be discussed later. Furthermore, he was involved in the Chechen cause. He also undertook investigatory work, including preparing due diligence reports on Russian individuals and companies. Besides that, the report extensively looks at the claim that Litvinenko was working in some capacity for the British Secret Intelligence Service, usually called MI5. Both his killers and his wife supported this claim. Finally, the report describes the evidence that Litvinenko worked with the Mitrokhin Commission in Italy, and with the Spanish security services.


On the night of 1 November 2006, Litvinenko fell suddenly ill and started vomiting. His situation deteriorated and, on November 3rd, his wife called an ambulance. The paramedics examined Litvinenko but thought he was probably suffering from a flu or bug and should stay at home. Later that same day, he started to complain of pain, and to experience bloody diarrhea. An ambulance came again and now took him to Barnet Hospital, where he was admitted immediately.


A range of examinations followed, while Litvinenko’s condition got worse and his hair started to fall out after a few days. Though his wife pointed out the possibility of poisoning, this was initially dismissed. After three days, the doctors nevertheless concluded that the diagnosis should be “suspicious thallium poisoning;” and treatment with Prussian blue was started that evening. The next day, Litvinenko was transferred to University College Hospital. Though his condition seemed to improve a bit as a result of the Prussian blue, he started to vomit blood and had an irregular heartbeat. Dr Nathwani, one of the doctors, felt that he and his colleagues were in “uncharted territory” with the suspected thallium poisoning, and Litvinenko was transferred to an intensive care unit on November 19. Dr Nathwani remained puzzled by Litvinenko’s clinical presentation, and was concerned that it did not fit squarely with a diagnosis of thallium poisoning. Dr Dargan, a professor of toxicology, advised that Dr Nathwani investigate whether radioisotopes could be a potential cause, and the Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE) was contacted. The blood and urine samples arrived at AWE in the early evening of 21 November. Tests were conducted overnight. The next day, the results revealed that polonium was present in Litvinenko’s urine. However, it was thought that this was an anomaly caused by the plastic bottle in which the sample had been stored. A second sample was taken and on November 23, and the results confirmed polonium contamination. That same night, Litvinenko died as a result of multiple organ failure, including progressive heart failure.


When Litvinenko was examined after his death, special safety precautions were taken, because of the radioactivity that was then still present in his body. According to the report, Dr Cary, who carried out the examination, even stated that the procedure had been “one of the most dangerous post-mortem examinations ever undertaken in the Western world.”


The polonium trace led to a meeting that Litvinenko had with Andrey Lugovoy and Dmitry Kovtun, in the Pine Bar at the Millennium Hotel in London. Both Russians were former members of the KGB, as well as businessmen. Luguvoy is also a politician in Russia. During this meeting, Litvinenko drank from a teapot and it was this teapot that turned out to be the source of an extremely strong presence of polonium. Furthermore, the polonium trail coincided with numerous places Kovtun and Lugovoy had been. In fact, they had tried it before, on October 16, when they’d had an earlier meeting with Litvinenko, but had failed to administer a sufficient dose of polonium, merely making their victim feel ill.


At the end of the report, Sir Owen summarizes his findings on the most important issue: the perpetrators and the question of whether the Russian state, and its head, were involved. He concludes:


I am sure that Mr Lugovoy and Mr Kovtun placed the polonium 210 in the teapot at the Pine Bar on 1 November 2006. I am also sure that they did this with the intention of poisoning Mr Litvinenko (...) I am sure that Mr Lugovoy and Mr Kovtun were acting on behalf of others, when they poisoned Mr Litvinenko. When Mr Lugovoy poisoned Mr Litvinenko, it is probable that he did so under the direction of the FSB. I would add that I regard that as a strong probability. I have found that Mr Kovtun also took part in the poisoning. I conclude, therefore, that he was also acting under FSB direction, possibly indirectly through Mr Lugovoy, but probably to his knowledge. The FSB operation to kill Mr Litvinenko was probably approved by Mr Patrushev and also by President Putin.


The Literary Legacy of Litvinenko


According to the official report, perhaps the most significant pieces of Litvinenko’s campaign work were the two books that he co-authored during his early years in London. The first, published in Russian in 2001, was subsequently published in English as Blowing Up Russia. The second, which Mr Litvinenko wrote in 2001 and 2002, was never published in English, but its Russian title translates as The Gang from the Lubyanka.


Blowing Up Russia deals with the 1999 apartment bombing campaign that preceded Russia’s second war in Chechnya and Putin’s rise to the presidency. Litvinenko’s argument is that the bombings were, in fact, orchestrated by the FSB, instead of Chechnyan terrorists. It furthermore describes in detail the failed Ryazan bombings that showed the involvement of the FSB. The head of the FSB later claimed that the whole operation had been an exercise. According to the expert heard in the Inquiry, the authors had “credibly investigated” the issue and, although their contentions about it had not been “proved 100 percent,” he considered they were more likely than not to be accurate.


In The Gang from the Lubyanka Litvinenko describes the alleged transformation of the Russian security services into criminal and terrorist organizations. It also alleged that Putin was connected to the Tambov-Barsukov organized crime group, and that Putin had managed to ensure that the FSB kept its political influence under Yeltsin.


A License to Kill?


With all the sinister plots around Alexander Litvinenko, one could easily forget one very important thing. Despite his cruel death and the involvement of the Russian authorities, maybe even more important to note is the fact that his murder is “just” one in a long list of others. In fact, a tradition of killing opponents, when necessary even those hiding abroad, is one of the things the old Soviet system and Putin’s Russia seem to have in common. And poisoning is among the favorite modus operandi, applied regularly.


The most notorious such example is the killing of Trotsky with an ice pick in Mexico City by a Soviet agent in 1940. But poison seems to be the preferred method.


Two old examples are the poisoning of Lev Rebet and Stephan Bandera in Munich, by a Russian KGB agent Stashynsky, who later voluntarily surrendered to the West German authorities. Rebet was a former nationalist statesman from the Ukraine during the 1940s, serving as prime minister before he was arrested and sent to Sachsenhausen concentration camp. He survived and lived in exile in Munich, where he was assassinated by Stashynsky with a poison atomizer mist gun, in October 1957. Two years later in 1959, it was Bandera’s turn. The Ukrainian fascist, who preferred to see the Ukraine turned into a one party dictatorship, was killed by Stashynsky while living in Munich.


Another example in fact comes from London. Georgi Markov, a Bulgarian writer and broadcaster living in exile, was allegedly killed by a poisoned pellet fired from an umbrella, on Waterloo Bridge in central London in 1978. According to recent research findings, the poison for the murder came from the KGB. Another alleged poisoning was that of Yuri Shchekochikhin, an investigative journalist, writer and liberal lawmaker in the Russian parliament. He investigated the apartment bombings of September 1999 that were directed by the FSB, according to Litvinenko and Shchekochikhin, while the official Russian version of events claimed that Chechnyan terrorists were responsible. In July 2003, just a few days before he would depart for the US, planning to meet with the FBI, Shchekochikhin fell ill and the symptoms of his illness fitted the pattern of poisoning by radioactive materials. Two months before, Sergei Yushenkov, vice chairman of a commission investigating the apartment bombings, was shot dead near his house in Moscow. He had obtained the registrations needed for his Liberal Russia party to participate in the elections, just hours before he was killed.


In 2004, Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev was blown up in Qatar by two Russian intelligence agents. Yandarbiyev had been the president of the unrecognized Chechen Republic of Ichkeria, as well as a writer. Two Russians were initially arrested and later convicted, but released and returned to Russia. A recent example from the UK that may fit into the same category, is the death of Alexander Perepilichny. He was an investment banker who worked on the case of Sergei Magnitsky, a Russian accountant who investigated a huge fraud involving Russian state officials, and died in prison. Perepilichny was found dead in November 2012 on the road near his Surrey home. In his stomach, traces of a deadly poison were found, known to be used in Chinese and Russian assassinations.


In a recent article in the influential journal Foreign Affairs, the publication of the Litvinenko Report was seized upon to elaborate on the Kremlin’s long history of assassinating opponents, using some of the examples mentioned above as well as others. It comes to a dramatic conclusion that the Russian security services can de facto act with impunity in the UK, or in other words have a license to kill. Russia allegedly is too important to hassle with a killing nine years ago, given the Russian prominence in Syria, in London’s financial district, in the high end of its real estate market and in the oil and gas industry.


Literature on Litvinenko


The report of the official British inquiry offers the most comprehensive analyses and summary of the poisoning of Litvinenko and the most important circumstances around this bizarre murder case. Several books have been written, however, that offer more detail about Litvinenko’s life in Russia, three of which will be mentioned here.


In The Death of a Dissident, Michael Goldfarb and Marina Litvinenko give an inside look at his life as a KGB and FSB agent in Russia and his life in Britain. It portrays Russia under Putin, with its tight control over the media and the world of espionage. Though it reads like a thriller, the story is more bizarre and frightening than any work of fiction can offer. Goldfarb himself is also a Russian dissident, and helped Litvinenko to escape from Russia. He heads the International Foundation for Civil Liberties that was established by the Russian tycoon Boris Berezovsky in November 2000.


Long before the official report came out this year, Alan Cowell’s The Terminal Spy, chronicled both the murder and the Russian security apparatus that’s behind this murder and many others. With its very detailed account of events, it not only helped to come to grips with the Russian system, but also points in the same direction regarding the way Litvinenko was murdered, though it lacks the clear conclusions of the 2016 official report.


Finally, Martin Sixsmith, former BBC correspondent in Moscow, wrote The Litvinenko File. A journalistic account of the death of Litvinenko and the events that led up to it. In a summary of the book, the whole case is strikingly portrayed as “Russia’s war with itself spilled over onto the streets of London and made the world take notice.”


If anything, the Litvinenko Report has successfully provided this war with an official document that has forced the world to take notice, and will remain a lasting memory of the death of Litvinenko, and many others over the last two decades.

Edgar Tijhuis

studied Political Science, Law and American Studies at the University of Amsterdam. He received his Phd from Leiden University. His dissertation was published by Wolf Legal Publishers and is standard reading on transnational crime and art crime. Edgar Tijhuis is a visiting scholar at the Institute of Criminology in Ljubljana and regularly publishes in a range of journals.