Putin’s breadcrumbs: tracing the last days of Alexander Litvinenko

A Very Expensive Poison: the Definitive Story of the Murder of Litvinenko and Russia’s War With the West by Luke Harding reviewed.

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It is rare for murder victims to name their murderer. Usually they are dead long before they have the chance. But that is what Alexander Litvinenko did on 21 November 2006 as he lay dying in a London hospital bed from radioactive poisoning. In an extraordinary statement, drafted by his lawyer but endorsed, dated and signed by Litvinenko in a by then feeble hand, the Russian exile said:

You may succeed in silencing me but that silence comes at a price. You have shown yourself to be as barbaric and ruthless as your most hostile critics have claimed. You have no respect for life, liberty or any civilised value.

Just as remarkable as the accusation was the person against whom it was made: Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president. “You may succeed in silencing one man but the howl of protest from around the world will reverberate, Mr Putin, in your ears for the rest of your life,” Litvinenko wrote. Two days later, the former Russian secret-service officer and MI6 informant was dead.

A Very Expensive Poison, by the Guardian reporter Luke Harding, is a pacy and impassioned account of how and why Litvinenko was murdered. It draws heavily on the 16,000-page report from the official inquiry into the case conducted by Sir Robert Owen in 2015 and is filled out by Harding’s own research. It builds an overwhelming case that two Russian agents, Andrei Lugovoi and Dmitry Kovtun, killed Litvinenko at the Pine Bar of the Millennium Hotel in Mayfair by poisoning him with polonium-210,
which they slipped into his green tea. Even though Litvinenko took only a few sips, he was found to have 26.5 micrograms of polonium in his bloodstream. Less than a microgram would have been enough to kill him.

The polonium, which could not be picked up by a Geiger counter and was therefore supposed to be undetectable, left radioactive traces on the aeroplanes that the suspects used and at every location they visited in Hamburg and London. In the words of one lawyer, the traces were “almost as sure as the path of breadcrumbs left by Hansel and Gretel”. The weight of evidence suggested that the polonium came from a state-owned nuclear reactor and production facilities in Russia.

The two accused men – and the Kremlin – continue to deny complicity in the murder and have spun any number of alternative theories to explain events. As Harding writes, Kremlin propagandists believe there is no such thing as truth, only narrative and counter-narrative, and they scatter as much chaff as possible to confuse the public: “In this cynical relativistic world of swirling rival versions, nothing is really true.”

Even so, Kremlin officials have scarcely concealed their delight at Litvinenko’s death. In their view, he had betrayed Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) and his country by fleeing Moscow, consorting with exiled Chechens and snitching to the British and Spanish security services about the collusion between Russian state officials and criminal gangs.

Harding paints deft portraits of the tragicomic duo suspected of carrying out the crime. Lugovoi was the smoother one, an English-speaking former KGB officer with a liking for the fiction of Arthur Conan Doyle. Kovtun was the heavy-drinking, hapless loser, a one-time army deserter who allegedly confessed to a friend in Hamburg that he was going to kill Litvinenko using a “very expensive poison”. One London hotel manager and his staff laughed at the conspirators’ inappropriate, eastern European gangster dress code, which made each of them look like a “donkey with a saddle”.

A Very Expensive Poison is very much a journalist’s account, which has its strengths and weaknesses. The book is highly readable and Harding’s acquaintance with many of the leading players adds colour and immediacy. At times, however, he resorts to slapdash journalese, with sparse sourcing for some of the more extreme accusations. Proper footnotes would have bolstered the book and made it more solid.

Harding also often draws his characters in black and white, when the only colour recognisable in Russia is grey. In real life, the oligarch Boris Berezovsky, who supported Litvinenko in exile, was a far more sinister figure than depicted here.

In spite of the exhaustive police investigation and all that has been written on the subject, there are still gaps in the story. Some of the more curious angles on the case are not explained fully in Harding’s account – perhaps because they are unknowable. What did Litvinenko tell MI6 that prompted such fury in Moscow? Why exactly did his father recant and exonerate Lugovoi? And, intriguingly, why did Litvinenko convert to Islam on his deathbed? Akhmed Zakayev, the exiled Chechen separatist leader who had befriended Litvinenko, visited the patient every day and talked to him about his Muslim faith. According to Harding, the dying man told Zakayev he wished to be buried in Chechen ground, which could happen only if he converted to Islam. An imam performed the ceremony at the hospital. When Litvinenko told his father of his conversion, he replied: “It doesn’t matter; at least you’re not a communist.” The burial in Chechnya did not happen. His grave lies in Highgate Cemetery, north London.

The Owen inquiry report was not as ­definitive as Litvinenko in apportioning ultimate responsibility for the murder. He concluded it was “probable” that Lugovoi and Kovtun were acting under the direction of the FSB, then led by Nikolai Patrushev. “The FSB operation to kill Mr Litvinenko was probably approved by Mr Patrushev and also by President Putin,” Owen wrote. Given that probability, the UK government does not emerge with great credit. It took nine years for the truth to emerge in the inquiry, after a series of bureaucratic wrangles. Even then, the reaction of government ministers has been muted. David Cameron said that he was shocked by Litvinenko’s murder but stressed that it was essential to continue working with the Kremlin to bring stability to Syria – even if it was with “clear eyes and a very cold heart”.

Harding advances the argument that a terrorist act carried out by a state actor is regarded as less serious than one conducted by a non-state actor. Imagine the public hysteria – and the government response – if an Isis operative had killed a British citizen with radioactive poison in the heart of London. The howl of protest against Putin, predicted by Litvinenko on his deathbed, has been hard to hear in the winds.

John Thornhill is a former Moscow bureau chief for the Financial Times

A Very Expensive Poison: the Definitive Story of the Murder of Litvinenko and Russia’s War With the West by Luke Harding is published by Guardian Faber (432pp, £12.99)

Luke Harding will appear at the Cambridge Literary Festival on 9 April

This article appears in the 17 March 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Spring double issue