By Mary Jordan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, June 10, 2007
LONDON -- Before Alexander Litvinenko, the former Russian intelligence agent fatally poisoned in London last year, sought asylum in Britain, he first tried to flee to the United States, according to a new book that also offers fresh details of his uneasy life and relationship with the former KGB agent now accused of murdering him.
According to "Death of a Dissident," written by Litvinenko's friend Alex Goldfarb and his widow, Marina, to be published Tuesday by Free Press, Litvinenko nearly won a new life in the United States when he fled Russia in 2000. But at the last minute, he was told that officials in Washington had "changed their mind" and would not give him a visa. Litvinenko then fled to Britain, where he was killed in November at age 43, poisoned with a lethal dose of the rare radioactive isotope polonium-210.
The book recounts that in late October 2000, Goldfarb, a former Russian biologist who had become a U.S. citizen, flew from New York to Turkey, where Litvinenko had gone with his wife and their 6-year-old son, Anatoly, after they fled Russia. Goldfarb took them to the U.S. Embassy in Ankara, where Litvinenko was questioned for four hours by a man identified only as Mark, who Litvinenko believed was an American intelligence agent. Litvinenko was then told to go back to his hotel to await the decision from Washington as to whether he would be given the visa he needed to enter the United States.
Litvinenko had many foes in Russia, especially after he publicly accused some of his superiors in the Federal Security Service, a successor agency to the KGB, of planning assassinations, including apartment building bombings in 1999 that resulted in hundreds of deaths.
As Litvinenko waited for Goldfarb's cellphone to ring with news from the U.S. Embassy, he spotted a man he believed was a Russian agent watching him. After pretending to go up to their hotel rooms, Litvinenko, his family and Goldfarb got into a car and sped to Istanbul, more than 200 miles away. Goldfarb said he turned off his cellphone "because I was afraid that we could be tracked somehow."
When Goldfarb switched on his phone and finally talked to Mark, who had left many messages, he said: "Good news, pal, we're taking them. Twenty minutes, we'll pick them up."
But then Goldfarb told him they were in Istanbul.
"Istanbul? Why in the world did you go there?"
"Someone was watching at the hotel, so we ran."
"I see. Well, that's a complication. Is anyone watching you now?"
"I don't think so."
"Okay, keep your phone on. I'll get back to you."
When Mark called again, his voice was different: "Bad news, pal, they've changed their mind. We are not taking them."
No explanation was given for why the decision was reversed, though Goldfarb and Marina Litvinenko said they assumed that helping Litvinenko couldn't be done quietly. U.S. officials did not want to risk aggravating Russian President Vladimir Putin, who had recently taken office.
In an interview at a rooftop restaurant in central London not far from the hotel bar where police said her husband was poisoned, soft-spoken Marina Litvinenko said she wasn't angry or disappointed that the United States had not taken in her family in 2000. "I was so frightened of everything that had happened" in Turkey, she said. "I was just focused on what to do next."
But Goldfarb, seated beside her, said he believed U.S. officials "essentially dumped" Litvinenko after he had given them all the useful information he had. He said he believes Litvinenko would not have met the same fate if he had gone to the United States instead of Britain: "I am 100 percent sure that if he went to the States, Russians would not do polonium in Washington."
During his hours at the U.S. Embassy, Litvinenko had given the Americans a name they had eagerly sought, according to the book, though the name is not disclosed. In the interview, Goldfarb said it was the name of an American based in Germany who had frequent business dealings in Russia.
When rejected by the United States, the Litvinenkos and Goldfarb then bought tickets to fly to Moscow via London. Since the flight was only stopping over in London to meet the connecting flight, Litvinenko did not need a visa to enter the United Kingdom. But once at Heathrow Airport, he sought asylum, which was eventually granted.
Last month, British prosecutors accused Andrei Lugovoy, a former KGB agent who met Litvinenko on Nov. 1 in a London hotel, of murdering him by slipping polonium into his tea. According to the book, Litvinenko had first met Lugovoy in 2005 at a rented castle outside London at the 60th birthday party for Russian billionaire Boris Berezovsky, a fierce foe of Putin who lives in exile in London.
Marina Litvinenko said her husband met Lugovoy "many times" after being seated at the same table at that party, though she said she would not characterize them as friends. She said that her husband was looking for a job and that the two had "a business relationship." Immediately after Litvinenko began feeling ill Nov. 1, she recalled, he told her that he suspected Lugovoy of poisoning him with the tea.
British officials have asked that Lugovoy be extradited to London to stand trial, but Russian officials have said that their constitution forbids sending citizens abroad for trial.
Goldfarb said Litvinenko, on his deathbed, told him to write a note "in good English . . . to name Putin as the man behind his poisoning."
"You may succeed in silencing one man. But a howl of protest from around the world will reverberate, Mr. Putin, in your ears for the rest of your life," Goldfarb wrote in the statement, which created a sensation in Britain and Russia. Kremlin officials have said that a dying man could not have composed such a note. But Goldfarb said he read the note to Litvinenko, with Marina present, in English and Russian. He said Litvinenko said, "I agree with every word of it," and signed it. Police have custody of the note, which is believed to be contaminated with radiation because Litvinenko had held it.
Marina Litvinenko said British authorities have told her, "We know exactly who did it, where and how." According to the book, Lugovoy "was shedding radioactivity" before Litvinenko was poisoned, and the "levels and spread of radioactivity left behind suggest that Lugovoy handled polonium directly."
Because such a rare poison was used to kill Litvinenko, it took British doctors more than two weeks to determine that he had been poisoned, and even longer to figure out what type of poison had been used.
Goldfarb said he believes that the Kremlin hoped to pin the murder on Berezovsky, a former ally of Putin who has publicly stated his desire to see Putin removed from office. But Goldfarb contends that the Kremlin plan was complicated by British authorities identifying the poison, which is extremely rare but found in state-run nuclear labs in Russia.
Russian authorities call those suggestions ridiculous. They argue that Russia's reputation, and Putin's, have been smeared -- which they said benefits no one more than Berezovsky. The exiled billionaire has denied any role n Litvinenko's death.
Berezovsky remains a central character in the drama. Goldfarb runs a foundation financed by Berezovsky. The tycoon at various times has employed both Litvinenko, the victim, and Lugovoy, the alleged killer, who worked for a television station Berezovsky controlled.
It was Berezovsky who placed a pre-dawn telephone call to Goldfarb in October 2000, asking him to fly to Turkey to help Litvinenko.