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.
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?”
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?