Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. Long reads
27 November 2006

Sasha, Boris, Rupert and me

Knowing Alexander Litvinenko

By Ivor Gaber

It all started with a phone call: was I available to undertake a quick, but intense, research and writing project? A few hours later I was sitting with Alexander Litvinenko in a London hotel. Alexander, or Sasha as he was known to his friends, was a stoical Russian with a story to tell.

His story was about his life in the FSB, the organisation he joined as an enthusiastic patriot but which was now, he feared, out to destroy him. He had just fled Russia and was seeking asylum in the UK. I was being asked to help him with his application; this involved drafting a document outlining his case: why he had grounds for fearing that if he returned to Russia he risked arrest, torture or death.

Thus began a week of in-depth interviewing of Sasha, through an interpreter. I made him go through every detail of his life, personal and professional. Sitting in a basement room in a solicitor’s office in the City, Sasha recounted (in the sort of detail that only a trained agent could muster) virtually every case he’d been involved with. He told me about his work in provincial Russian cities, where he tracked the criminal gangs that were booming in post-Soviet Russia.

He told me of his growing disillusionment as he observed corruption rampant among FSB officers at all levels. He recounted how he believed the pledges of the new head of the FSB, one Vladimir Putin, and sent the boss detailed allegations of FSB corruption. From that moment on, his career began to disintegrate as he faced one charge after another and intermittent periods of imprisonment.

A few years earlier, when Boris Yeltsin was in power, Sasha had been assigned to the now almost forgotten Commonwealth of Independent States. He was bodyguard to Russia’s representative – Boris Berezovsky. When Putin first came to power, Berezovsky was close to him, but like so many others, he rapidly fell out of favour – so much so that his erstwhile bodyguard’s final act of defiance was to tell a shocked Moscow press conference that fellow FSB officers were plotting to assassinate Berezovsky. Shortly after, Sasha joined Berezovsky in exile in London.

Select and enter your email address Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. A weekly newsletter helping you fit together the pieces of the global economic slowdown. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. The New Statesman’s weekly environment email on the politics, business and culture of the climate and nature crises - in your inbox every Thursday. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A newsletter showcasing the finest writing from the ideas section and the NS archive, covering political ideas, philosophy, criticism and intellectual history - sent every Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.
  • Administration / Office
  • Arts and Culture
  • Board Member
  • Business / Corporate Services
  • Client / Customer Services
  • Communications
  • Construction, Works, Engineering
  • Education, Curriculum and Teaching
  • Environment, Conservation and NRM
  • Facility / Grounds Management and Maintenance
  • Finance Management
  • Health - Medical and Nursing Management
  • HR, Training and Organisational Development
  • Information and Communications Technology
  • Information Services, Statistics, Records, Archives
  • Infrastructure Management - Transport, Utilities
  • Legal Officers and Practitioners
  • Librarians and Library Management
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • OH&S, Risk Management
  • Operations Management
  • Planning, Policy, Strategy
  • Printing, Design, Publishing, Web
  • Projects, Programs and Advisors
  • Property, Assets and Fleet Management
  • Public Relations and Media
  • Purchasing and Procurement
  • Quality Management
  • Science and Technical Research and Development
  • Security and Law Enforcement
  • Service Delivery
  • Sport and Recreation
  • Travel, Accommodation, Tourism
  • Wellbeing, Community / Social Services
Visit our privacy Policy for more information about our services, how New Statesman Media Group may use, process and share your personal data, including information on your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications.
THANK YOU

While I was interviewing, my advice to his solicitor was to keep the case low profile. It wouldn’t help his application, I argued, to turn it into a major incident. Thus, when in the middle of the interviews the Sun newspaper appeared with a front page splash about Sasha, suggesting that he was at that very moment being “debriefed by MI6 officers in a safe house in Southern England”, I was amused but also disconcerted. I asked the solicitor what was going on. “I don’t know,” he said, “but I know a man who probably does.” A few hours later I was asking Berezovsky if he knew how the story had leaked to the Sun. He radiated innocence and shared my concern. Then, with the smallest twinkle in his eye, he said: “I did have dinner the other night with my old friend Rupert . . . does he have anything to do with the Sun?”

Content from our partners
What are the green skills of the future?
A global hub for content producers, gaming and entertainment companies in Abu Dhabi
Insurance: finding sustainable growth in stormy markets

The Sun notwithstanding, Sasha’s asylum application went through remarkably smoothly and he, and his family, settled down to a new life in England. But he remained close to Berezovsky, and his interest in Russian politics remained undimmed. “I am a patriot,” he kept reassuring me during our conversations. “I love my country.” Of that there can be little doubt, but the question for now is: has that love proved to be a fatal attraction?