The shame of silence

<strong>Death of a Dissident: the Poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko and the Return of the KGB</stron

I knew Sasha - as all his close friends called him - for more than five years. And after reading this intimate portrait by his widow, Marina, and his colleague Alex Goldfarb, the whole world can know him too, and understand why the finger of suspicion for his horrific poisoning last year points so directly at the Russian secret services and beyond to the Kremlin itself.

The political dynamite at the heart of this intensely moving testimony is not only evidence for the widely accepted belief that the FSB, the successor to the KGB, received a direct order from President Vladimir Putin for the assassination. It also demonstrates that the motive was Litvinenko's part in the worldwide dissident movement to bring to global attention the truth about the current Russian regime. This means many others are also in danger.

The text, which took four and a half months to write, records a conversation in 1999 between Putin and the oligarch Boris Berezovsky, before their fallout over a struggle for influence, in which the then head of the FSB wondered aloud about how "to get rid of" Litvinenko and the then prosecutor general, Yury Skuratov. The authors may be driven by a recent and very raw wound, but they are hardly the first to notice the parallels with the brutal shooting of the brave campaigning journalist Anna Politkovskaya - another friend of mine and a severe critic of the slide to vicious authoritarian nationalism in Putin's Russia. And, of course, there have been so many others - journalists, human rights campaigners and ordinary citizens - who have suffered in the dark where the spotlight of media attention does not fall.

This biography traces Litvinenko's life from when he joined the KGB at the moment that the Soviet Union was poised to collapse, and is especially personal in the account of how Goldfarb first met the Litvinenkos, when he helped them to escape to Britain via Turkey. From such a privileged perspective, the authors reveal that Litvinenko was a key witness to the FSB's role in both the 2002 Dubrovka theatre siege, when 129 hostages were killed, and the 1999 Moscow apartment bombings, in which 300 people were slaughtered. It was this outrage that provided the excuse for Putin to launch his violent crusade against the people of Chechnya.

In all the global news coverage of Litvinenko's poisoning last November, and now the attempts by the British authorities to extradite and bring to justice Andrei Lugovoi, the former FSB officer who is alleged to have administered the poison, the story of the oppression of Chechnya has received little prominence. Yet Chechnya is at the core of all the burgeoning problems that the west faces with Russia today, all too visible at the G8 summit in Germany earlier this month.

Since 1999, hundreds of thousands of Chechens have been displaced and more than 100,000 killed - most of them civilians. Disappearances, torture, rape, extrajudicial killings and the silencing of independent journalists and human rights defenders have been carried out daily, both by Russian forces and by the militia of Putin's puppet president there, Ramzan Kadyrov. Just 12 months before Litvinenko's murder, the United Nations Committee Against Torture expressed grave concerns about "reliable reports of unofficial places of detention in the North Caucasus and allegations that those detained in such facilities face torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment". This year, the Council of Europe commissioner for human rights publicly deplored the continuing torture, and the European Court of Human Rights ruled in favour of the applicants in its first ever torture case from Chechnya, brought by the brothers Adam and Arbi Chitayev. Meanwhile, the Russian Supreme Court was denying an appeal against the closure of the Society for Russian-Chechen Friendship, an NGO based in Nizhny Novgorod, which has publicised many abuses against civilians throughout the Chechen conflict.

Those of us campaigning for human rights, peace and reconciliation in Chechnya can only hope that the high-profile publication of this work will help shed some light on the forgotten problems of our land. It should play a part in shaming the west out of its silence and its appeasement of a regime that challenges the very essence of our humanity.

This matters not just for Chechnya, but right now for the people of Kosovo, where Russia is blocking their claim to independence from Serbia, and of course the people of Russia itself, who must also have heard the rumours that Putin is currently plotting to extend his period in office, which should by law end in May next year.

Perhaps the tide is turning at last - or at least there appears to be growing interest. Columbia Pictures has already acquired the rights to turn Sasha's story into a Hollywood movie, with Johnny Depp in the lead role, which will bring the crime to a wider audience still. Maybe a good test is whether this important book finds a publisher in Russia.

Akhmed Zakayev is foreign minister of the Chechen government-in-exile

This article first appeared in the 25 June 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Israel, Gaza and a summer of war?

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Bohemian rhapsody: Jeanette Winterson’s “cover version” of The Winter’s Tale

 Jeanette Winterson's The Gap of Time is full of metaphorical riches.

Shakespeare – that magpie plunderer of other people’s plots and characters – would undoubtedly have approved. The Hogarth Shakespeare project invites prominent contemporary writers to rework his plays in novelistic form and this is Jeanette Winterson’s reimagining of The Winter’s Tale. Like the original, it shuttles disturbingly between worlds, cultures and emotional registers. It has never been an easy play, for all its apparent focus on reconciliation, and Winterson handles the gear-changes with skill, moving between the offices of Sicilia, a London-based asset-stripping company, and New Bohemia, a New Orleans-like American urban landscape (with interludes in both a virtual and a real Paris).

Her Leontes is a hedge-fund speculator, Polixenes a visionary designer of screen games (the presence of this world echoes the unsettling semi-magic of Shakespeare’s plot). They have a brief and uncomfortable history as teenage lovers at school and Polixenes – Xeno – has also slept with MiMi (Hermione), the French-American singer who eventually marries Leo.

The story unfolds very much as in the play (though Winterson cannot quite reproduce the effect of Shakespeare’s best-known deadpan stage direction), with Leo using advanced surveillance technology to spy on Xeno and MiMi, and Perdita being spirited away across the Atlantic to the US, where her guardian, Tony, is mugged and killed and she is left in the “baby hatch” of a local hospital – to be found by Shep and his son and brought up in their affectionate, chaotic African-American household. Perdita falls in love with Zel, the estranged son of Xeno, discovers her parentage, returns to London and meets Leo; Leo’s PA, Pauline, has kept in contact across the years with MiMi, a recluse in Paris, and persuades her to return secretly to give a surprise performance at the Roundhouse, when Leo is in the audience, and – well, as in the play, the ending is both definitive and enormously unsettling. “So we leave them now, in the theatre, with the music. I was sitting at the back, waiting to see what would happen.”

That last touch, bringing the author into the narrative in the same apparently arbitrary way we find in a text such as Dostoevsky’s Demons – as a “real” but imperfect witness – gently underlines the personal importance of the play to this particular author. Winterson is explicit about the resonance of this drama for an adopted child and one of the finest passages in the book is a two-page meditation on losing and finding: a process she speculates began with the primordial moment of the moon’s separation from the earth, a lost partner, “pale, lonely, watchful, present, unsocial, inspired. Earth’s autistic twin.”

It is the deep foundation of all the stories of lost paradises and voyages away from home. As the moon controls the tides, balances the earth’s motion by its gravitational pull, so the sense of what is lost pervades every serious, every heart-involving moment of our lives. It is a beautifully worked conceit, a fertile metaphor. The story of a child lost and found is a way of sounding the depths of human imagination, as if all our longing and emotional pain were a consequence of some buried sense of being separated from a home that we can’t ever ­remember. If tragedy is the attempt to tell the story of loss without collapse, all story­telling has some dimension of the tragic, reaching for what is for ever separated by the “gap of time”.

Winterson’s text is full of metaphorical riches. She writes with acute visual sensibility (from the first pages, with their description of a hailstorm in a city street) and this is one of the book’s best things. There are also plenty of incidental felicities: Xeno is designing a game in which time can be arrested, put on hold, accelerated, and so on, and the narrative exhibits something of this shuttling and mixing – most effectively in the 130-page pause between the moment when Milo (Shakespeare’s Mamilius, Leo’s and MiMi’s son) slips away from his father at an airport and the fatal accident that follows. In the play, Mamilius’s death is a disturbing silence behind the rest of the drama, never alluded to, never healed or reconciled; here, Milo’s absence in this long “gap of time” sustains a pedal of unease that has rather the same effect and the revelation of his death, picking up the narrative exactly where it had broken off, is both unsurprising and shocking.

Recurrent motifs are handled with subtlety, especially the theme of “falling”; a song of MiMi’s alludes to Gérard de Nerval’s image of an angel falling into the gap between houses in Paris, not being able to fly away without destroying the street and withering into death. The convergence and crucial difference between falling and failing, falling in love and the “fall” of the human race – all these are woven together hauntingly, reflecting, perhaps, Shakespeare’s exploration in the play of Leontes’s terror of the physical, of the final fall into time and flesh that unreserved love represents.

A book of considerable beauty, then, if not without its problems. MiMi somehow lacks the full angry dignity of Hermione and Leo is a bit too much of a caricature of the heartless, hyper-masculine City trader. His psychoanalyst is a cartoon figure and Pauline’s Yiddish folksiness – although flagged in the text as consciously exaggerated – is a bit overdone.

How a contemporary version can fully handle the pitch of the uncanny in Shakespeare’s final scene, with the “reanimation” of Hermione, is anyone’s guess (the Bible is not wrong to associate the earliest story of the resurrection with terror as much as joy). Winterson does a valiant job and passes seamlessly into a moving and intensely suggestive ending but I was not quite convinced on first reading that her reanimation had done justice to the original.

However, weigh against this the real success of the New Bohemia scenes as a thoroughly convincing modern “pastoral” and the equally successful use of Xeno’s creation of virtual worlds in his games as a way of underlining Shakespeare’s strong hints in the play that art, with its aura of transgression, excess, forbidden magic, and so on, may be our only route to nature. Dream, surprise and new creation are what tell us what is actually there, if only we could see. Winterson’s fiction is a fine invitation into this deeply Shakespearean vision of imagination as the best kind of truth-telling.

Rowan Williams is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book is “The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language” (Bloomsbury). The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson is published by Vintage (320pp, £16.99)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide