The murder in London this week of KGB defector Alexander Litvinenko takes us back to the horrible memories of Soviet murders during the Cold War. Millions were murdered within the Soviet Union, but well-planned selected murders took place in the free world. We hoped that with the collapse of the Soviet Union this sort of thing would end.
An interesting statement was made by a representative of the Russian intelligence service who denied responsibility for the Litvinenko murder. He claimed that the last killing they did abroad was of Stepan Bandera, the leader of the anti-communist Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN). Bandera was assassinated in Munich, Germany, in 1959. He was killed by an exotic poison fired into his face by a KGB assassin. That was the last time the KGB was caught committing a murder. But, there were other strange cases.
In 1978, also in London, the Bulgarian Georgi Markov was killed by a poison pellet fired from an umbrella. The Soviets were suspected, but only after the collapse of the Soviet Union did all the details come out. Former KGB General Oleg Kalugin publicly admitted that he was present when the Bulgarian Communist intelligence service requested that the KGB supply the weapon and the poisons to murder Markov. Kalugin, who opposed the idea, was overruled by his superiors, who provided the murder weapon from the KGB laboratory. We learned then that the laboratory was still in existence producing exotic poisons almost twenty years after the murder of Bandera.
When Litvinenko first became sick, the cause was unknown. More than week went by when toxicology tests revealed small traces of thallium, a lethal poison. After his death the doctors discovered polonium 210, a radioactive substance, in his body. It is possible that nothing could have been done even had he been diagnosed earlier.
In 1957, a KGB defector named Nikolai Khohlov was poisoned in Frankfurt, Germany. Although he was poisoned with radioactive thallium, he survived. He was immediately rushed to a US Army hospital in Germany where he was treated. Possibly the KGB laboratory learned more in the intervening years, and now their poisons are not treatable. Khohlov had been sent to Germany by KGB in 1953 to murder one of the leaders of the Russian anti-communist organization NTS. Instead of carrying out his assignment, he defected to NTS and helped them in their anti-communist work. The attempted assassination was KGB payback.
Khohlov had some of the same symptoms as Litvinenko, extreme weakness and loss of hair. When I met him in 1959, two years after the assassination attempt, much of his hair had grown back and he had regained much of his strength. He was lucky. Litvinenko was not.
Litvinenko had publicly opposed the Russian leader, Putin. He had also denounced the criminal gangs that control the Russian government. The Russian word for these gangs is Mafiya (similar but not exactly the same as the Mafia criminals we know in the West). Russia is ruled by mafiyas that grew out of the organizations of the old communist rulers of Russia. There is a KGB mafiya, a Communist Party mafiya, a Young Communist League mafiya, and even one based on the former Soviet trade unions. Sometimes the mafiyas work together, at other times they have shoot outs on the street. Sometimes they kill one another in the shoot outs. Sometimes innocent people get in the way of their bullets.
Journalists, politicians and others in Russia and parts of the former Soviet empire, who speak out against Russian organized crime or the excesses of the Russian government, have also been murdered.
The Russian government announced that it would cooperate with the British in the investigation of this murder. However, the Russians also said they wouldn’t extradite any suspects from Russia to Britain. Western governments and businesses should think twice before trying to deal with these people.