Murder Most Foul
Following a deadly polonium trail from London back to Russia.

Reviewed by Thomas de Waal
Sunday, July 27, 2008


A True Story of Espionage, Betrayal, and Murder

By Alan S. Cowell

Doubleday. 432 pp. $26.95

The gruesome murder of ex-KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko in London in November 2006 transfixed the world. The photograph of a recently vigorous man rendered gaunt, haggard and hairless appeared in newspapers and on television everywhere. By the time he died, Litvinenko, 44, had been virtually eviscerated by a tiny dose of polonium-210, a rare radioactive substance that had never before been diagnosed as a poison.

It is a compelling story that has inspired four books (Alan S. Cowell's The Terminal Spy is hot on the heels of Steve LeVine's Putin's Labyrinth, Martin Sixsmith's The Litvinenko File and Alex Goldfarb's and Marina Litvinenko's Death of a Dissident), a documentary that aired at the Cannes Film Festival and a forthcoming feature film starring Johnny Depp. All share the same cast of characters: the maverick agent; his patron, exiled Russian tycoon and political schemer Boris Berezovsky; the chief suspect, KGB agent turned businessman Andrei Lugovoi; and another KGB officer who knew all three men in the 1990s and then rose to become president of Russia, Vladimir Putin.

Cowell, who was London bureau chief of the New York Times at the time of the murder, has done an excellent job of reconstructing Litvinenko's last days, the police investigation and the background to the case. We follow Litvinenko to his fateful meeting with Lugovoi and at least two other Russians in the busy Pine Bar of the Millennium Hotel in central London. There, he drank green tea with honey and lemon from a pot that was so irradiated that both the bar and several of its employees were contaminated; among the worst affected was a staff pianist who apparently drank from the same teacup, even after it had been through the dishwasher. We then follow the traces of radioactivity backward across Europe, through London hotel rooms and a soccer stadium, Hamburg apartments and British Airways planes that fly to and from Russia. The trouble is that Cowell's dogged reporting -- like pretty much all the work of Western journalists on this story -- gets him only so far before the trail disappears in a blizzard of evasions and denials in Moscow.

Deprived of a satisfying end to his quest, Cowell infuses his story with a thriller atmosphere that sometimes seems forced. As a Londoner, I laughed at his depiction of parts of Muswell Hill, the very ordinary district in which Litvinenko lived, as some kind of grimy netherworld worthy of "The Third Man." We are also led down many detours of dubious relevance: A whole chapter, for example, covers the story of the maverick Italian security analyst Mario Scaramella, who met Litvinenko on the day of his death but was later discounted as a suspect.

I ran into Litvinenko a couple of times at Russia-related events in London but did not regard him as a trustworthy source. He seemed to be a manic personality who loved trading in lurid stories in the service of Berezovsky's feud with President Putin. Over the years, Litvinenko's allegations became ever more incredible: By 2005 he was accusing the FSB, the KGB's successor agency, of having links to al-Qaeda and of colluding in that summer's London subway bombings.

He also had a taste for public theatrics uncharacteristic of a secret agent. In Cowell's book we meet him in a succession of costumes ranging from Russian combat fatigues to a padded prison jacket he borrowed from former dissident Vladimir Bukovsky. On the day he won British citizenship, Litvinenko posed for a picture in front of a Union Jack wearing a Scottish tam-o'-shanter and KGB-issue fingerless gloves, brandishing a double-handled Chechen sword.

Litvinenko shot to prominence in November 1998 with one such act of theater, when he and a group of intelligence officers held a press conference in Moscow in which he was the only one not disguised; all the others wore ski masks. The group trumpeted allegations of a plot to assassinate Berezovsky and of corruption high up within the FSB, and the ensuing publicity may have embarrassed the new head of the agency, Vladimir Putin.

Cowell concludes that the quest for a motive for Litvinenko's murder "defied easy answers." But the 1998 press conference does suggest a plausible motive: revenge for the treachery of a comrade who spilled the secrets of the brotherhood. As Russians say, there is no such thing as a " former chekist," or intelligence officer.

If so, on whose initiative was he assassinated? Sixsmith, a former BBC correspondent in Moscow whose book on the Litvinenko case came out in 2007, is slighter on reporting but more insightful about the way Russia works. He cites a tradition of "initiative from below" in which subordinates liquidate enemies to please their superiors. The prominent critic of the Kremlin's human rights record, Anna Politkovskaya, for example, was murdered on Putin's birthday in what may have been a grotesque attempt to please "the boss."

Yet Litvinenko's murder was committed on foreign soil and with a weapon that only a select few could obtain. The use of polonium suggests two different but equally disturbing conclusions: Either the murder was authorized at a high level, or lower-level killers were able to lay their hands on an extremely dangerous substance manufactured in some of Russia's most secret military establishments.

This leads us back to the mystery of Andrei Lugovoi, a man who, according to all the available evidence, carried polonium across half of Europe and sat with Litvinenko in the hotel bar as he was poisoned, but whose actions do not fit those of an assassin. Lugovoi is a millionaire who had no obvious reason to get involved in this operation: He had plenty of money; he seemed to be on good terms with both Litvinenko and Berezovsky; he traveled to London with his wife and three children. Was he also set up or perhaps aiding a third man?

Lugovoi's reward for his notoriety was his election to the Russian parliament, but he is now effectively unable to travel to the West because he faces arrest in any country that has an extradition treaty with the United Kingdom. And he is likely to keep his silence on this hideous murder until long after many other books about it have been published. ยท

Thomas de Waal is a London-based journalist and writer who worked in Moscow in the 1990s.

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