On November 1st, 2006, Alexander Litvinenko (pronounced lit-vin-yen-ko) met two former Russian FSB agents for tea at a hotel room in London. Six hours later, back with his wife and young son, he would begin vomiting violently. He sought immediate medical attention. Later, he claimed the continued vomiting sessions contained pieces of his stomach lining. By November 23rd, 2006, the otherwise healthy forty-four year old was dead. In what would turn out to be an extremely dangerous autopsy, it was determined that he had died of poisoning by nuclear substance, Polonium 210 to be precise. The attending pathologist ticked the box for homicide as cause of death for Mr. Litvinenko.
Alexander Litvinenko had come to London in 2000. He had fled his home country in fear of his life. The UK had granted him asylum shortly after his arrival at Heathrow Airport and, after sponsorship by a wealthy Russian oligarch (Berezovsky) also on the run from Russia, he took up British citizenship.
The British police had an international intrigue on their hands. They soon discovered a trail of Polonium 210 throughout Europe that pointed directly to a suspect. The first trace was a ‘hot’ teapot at the hotel where the meeting took place. Found only after his death, it can be quite safely assumed that other people had consumed tea from the same teapot that sent Geiger counters buzzing into the red zone. The crime was the first case where nuclear material had been used to murder someone. Since Polonium emits alpha particle radiation, as a weapon it is quite dangerous to the murderer as well as the victim. It may cause other, unintended victims too. Furthermore, it leaves a trail much like a magic marker under a blue-light. Anything the handler of this material touched would begin to glow hot for a while, and the murderer himself had better not ingest particles coming off his hands. Po 210 has a half-life that lasts an average 135 days; that is to say it’s half as radioactive 135 days after it’s first created, and then half again after another 135 days. Quite obviously, it poses many dangers to the handlers who use it as a weapon, but more about that later. The next place the British Bobbies found it was at the office of the oligarch who had sponsored Litvinenko’s flight from Russia over six years before. It’s possible his killer had obtained much needed contact information there. Also, Litvinenko had a meeting with Berezovsky later that day and may have brought traces of it with him. Lastly and crucially, it was found irradiating a hotel room in Germany where our prime suspect had stayed while in transit back to Russia.
Having some 30 isotopes, Polonium 210 is quite a rare substance and has almost no known commercial uses. It can be used to dampen down static electricity in the textile industry, but its principle use is in nuclear triggers to atomic weapons. We won’t get into all that, and our lack of knowledge on the topic will help make a point later on. Just accept that it isn’t a readily available industrial metal found other than in a government facility to produce it through nuclear fission. Now you can understand why its use as a murder weapon began to interest, not only the British Police, but the UK security service as well. Needless to say, other powerful international security organizations will want a carbon copy of the final report on their desks as soon as available too, because it highlights an alarming lack of security in the transportation across international borders of radioactive material. If it’s possible in small amounts, it’s also possible to accumulate small amounts until they become adequately significant. Better get on the ball there, they mutter to themselves.
Now back to the victim. Mr. Litvinenko liked to tell stories. His former employer, the FSB, an offshoot of the KGB after the collapse of the Soviet regime concerned with domestic policing, wanted him to stop telling stories. First they arrested him and charged him with acting above the powers of his position. The judge threw out the case. So they threw out the judge and charged him again. He was released anew and this time he decided to flee the country before the FSB found a judge that owed them a favor.
What stories did he tell? Litvinenko was a member of the military after graduating high school. Then he joined the KGB. When the Soviet system collapsed and morphed into a mafia-run oligarchy with a tipsy president as its titular head, Litvinenko became a policeman with the FSB in charge of an organized crime unit. According to his boss he was quite good at his job, effective, reliable and honest. The story that he told the press in the nineties was that his employers came to him and his section and asked if they would be prepared to murder people on behalf of the State. A group of about 15 police officers held a press conference, some with masks, some with sunglasses to protect their identity, and declared they were part of a corrupt system in which they were asked to frame undesirables by planting evidence, create trumped-up charges, kidnap, extort, beat-up, threaten, intimidate, and even murder suspects that the establishment deemed worthy of special treatment. Think ‘Serpico’ to the power of ten. In this, Litvinenko had collaboration for his accusations against the state with the colleagues who refused to go along in the corruption of justice. Litvinenko also claims he was asked to murder his part-time benefactor, the oligarch Berezovsky. His superiors in the FSB dismissed all the dissenters and began their persecution. Putin stated that it wasn’t Litvinenko’s job to make such accusations in public, that he should have raised them within the system so as not to scandalize the force. Based on the leader’s declaration to the Press, the persecution had either explicit or tacit approval. It’s at this juncture that Litvinenko became diametrically opposed to the state and its titular head.
Russia hasn’t changed modus operandi after the collapse of the Soviets – by all appearances they have merely erected a new sign over the door that says ‘Under New Management’. The faces are different but the methods appear to be the same. In addition, during the transition away from totalitarianism, Russia descended into a mafia-run anarchy, with criminal gangs gaining the upper hand. There were common occurrences of extortion, kidnappings, underworld assassinations, and armed gangs jockeying for supremacy in a new Wild West show. At stake were billions of dollars and power for the successful who managed with drug money and extortion to grab a share of formerly state-owned oil companies, manufacturing plants, gas and electric utilities, media empires, real estate, and so on. To call it a democracy is wishful sophistry from our Foreign Affairs ministries and State Departments, an extremely liberal use of the word; more PR spin than fact. Russia is an oligarchy with fifty to one hundred newly-minted billionaires in control of a state apparatus that still uses Soviet-style governing techniques – a mafia with a totalitarian regime that holds elections for Mutt and Jeff, and then four years later for Jeff and Mutt. The true opposition to this power equation is simply murdered.
The Fourth Estate in any democracy is the press. But without a legacy of truthful reporting, the press and media in Russia has an uphill battle to establish itself as a pillar of democracy. It’s no surprise then that one of several things happen when a Russian journalist exposes a corrupt official or ruling oligarch, 1) no one believes it, the Press is full of crap 2) no one cares if it’s true, it’s business as usual or 3) it’s true, but for personal safety, you’d better stay quiet. It’s also no surprise then that a true opposition to corrupt governance has not materialized. The regime in Russia, whether run by Putin and a supportive state apparatus, or by nefarious back-room oligarchs with Putin as its poster boy, have learned that suppression of the opposition begins with the media, which explains the high number of murdered journalists. When Litvinenko and his colleagues publicly declared themselves against the corruption in their midst, they did so naively in the hopes that open and wide public knowledge would save them from harm. Perhaps they felt their own sacrifice was worth the benefit, giving birth through their pain to a new and equitable democracy where wrong-doers are punished, the honest rewarded.
Litvinenko, after his dismissal and subsequent flight to the UK, then wrote a book which accused the current regime of blowing up Moscow apartment buildings in order to engineer a war with separatist Chechnya. This happens to be about the same as accusing George Bush of engineering the 911 disaster in order to invade Iraq. It’s a conspiracy theory, with lots of innuendo and unsupported ‘evidence’. Another unfortunate legacy engendered by the Soviet-style justice system is that you didn’t need concrete evidence to convict someone of wrong-doing, all you needed was a plausible accusation and a right-wing judge put in place by the right people. Convictions with unfabricated corroborating evidence isn’t a cultural norm. It’s a petard that blows up as many who throw them as those who receive them. While Litvinenko learned his policeman’s job under the Soviet system, he didn’t learn to support accusations with proof that was incontrovertible. Lacking in his accusations are fingerprints, DNA, photos, undercover work, voluntary witness statements from Granny Gulch with nothing to gain, wiretappings where the accused says ‘I did it’, evidence that would have Mother Theresa in the docket sweating with a jury of devoted Catholics each knobbing the rosary.
In this vein he made many accusations against Putin and his former FSB bosses, probably egged on by his benefactor Berezovsky who held a grudge against Putin. Litvinenko had started moonlighting as a security consultant for the oligarch in order to augment his meager policeman’s salary, but then, after Berezovsky spent $130,000 to spirit him out of Russia and then paid him a $6,000 per month stipend, Litvinenko was in his pocket, so to speak. One accusation was that Al-Zawahiri, bin Laden’s number two man, was trained by the FSB before he joined Al-Qaida, which is generally supported by testimony from others. But other, unsupported accusations came out that were aimed directly at the Russian head of state, which were obviously targeting his reputation, the worst and most spurious was that he was a pedophile. This one apparently surfaced after Litvinenko witnessed TV footage of Putin kissing the stomach of a child handed to him during a presidential campaign walk-about. At this juncture it would seem Litvinenko had stooped too low.
The intricacy of the case brings to mind another unsolved murder which took place in London in 1978, when a Bulgarian defector died of Ricin poisoning, a nerve agent. A tiny titanium pellet was shot by umbrella into his leg. Upon inspection the pellet contained traces of Ricin. An opening to the pellet was covered with a sugary gel which melted at 37 degrees Celsius. All of this engineering and complexity with specially engineered Ricin pellets and umbrellas that shoot by secret mechanism suggests state involvement. Other murderers are more economical with their time. If organized crime wishes to murder someone, they very often want to dispose of the murderer too, so they care little about the methods used and would certainly not employ laboratories to engineer such equipment. States who murder need to re-use the murderer. That’s why there is so much effort spent in developing a time lag between the event and the suspicion, it allows them to recover the agent who will presumably be re-employed, and gives them plausible deniability, hence the craftiness built into the methods. But it gives away the perpetrator to the logically minded. It is, how should we say, the art counterfeiter’s many brushstrokes that give him away.
The Russians enacted a law that allows the state to ‘take action’ against terrorists within Russia or without. Therefore, it is within the power of the president to order the execution of an individual who undermines the state. Litvinenko, and others may have pressed the right buttons to cause their own deaths. Journalists, conscientious policemen, and opposition politicians take note – the revolution, first begun in 1905, is still causing casualties today and may do so for years to come.