Tempest in a Radioactive Teapot

When the Cold War ended, the spy story industry was kaput.  Or so we thought.  Scenes featuring  James Bond seducing an alluring KGB agent or hijacking a Soviet tank and running it down the streets of Saint Petersburg, quickly became quaint  reminiscences of  a bygone era.  But then came Vladimir Putin, who fueled a 21st century renaissance of script ideas for 007 and his colleagues. These truths are faster than fiction. Ill winds are   blowing up stormy relations between Moscow and London.  At  the center of the tempest sits an iconic British teapot.

In early November 2006  former FSB agent Alexander  Litvinenko  fell ill in London after dining in a fashionable restaurant.  It emerged later that he was poisoned by a radioactive substance which had been infused into his tea.  FSB is the acronym for Russia’s  post Soviet  Federal Security Service. It is the heir to three dreaded   Soviet  entities ,  the  Cheka , the NKVD , and  the KGB.   As the Russian saying goes, “once KGB, always KGB.” 

“Sasha” Litvinenko  had  being living in the city since 2000, when he received  political asylum from  the British government.  By the late 1990s, he already faced multiple counts of prosecution for divulging state secrets, but after  he co-authored  (with exiled Russian historian Yuri Felshinsky)  an explosive tell-all  book about the inner workings of  Putin’s  security forces, fleeing his homeland became imperative.  The book has inspired a  documentary  which was shown at the Cannes Film Festival in late May (about which more later).   It also proved to be Litvinenko’s self-penned death warrant. 

"Blowing Up Russia: Terror From Within" chronicles events  which took place in 1999.  The authors assert  that the FSB, with the full knowledge and approval of Vladimir Putin, had carried out  “Black Ops” bombings of two residential apartment buildings in Moscow. A third attempt was foiled.  The blame for these two explosions was placed on rebels from the breakaway Republic of Chechnya, said the authors, so that President Putin could claim justification for starting a second Chechen War. 

The first Chechen War (1994-1996) had ended very badly.  Russia was defeated and Chechnya was left in ruins.   7500 Russian military  and  4000 Chechen combatants lost their lives.  Figures for the number of civilian casualties  range from 35,000 to 100,000.  Half a million people were displaced   by the conflict.  Though Russian forces had military superiority, the Chechnyans  prevailed and won  de facto independence  (as  the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria)  after Boris Yeltsin signed a peace treaty in 1997.

The residential terror bombings in Moscow did, indeed, strike fear among the Russian populace and the Second Chechen War commenced  on August 26, 1999,  one month after  Putin became the Prime Minister of Russia.  It continues to this day, although a 2007 poll indicates that  only 16% of Russians favor continuing a military campaign. Russian  Army conscripts these days sometimes commit suicide rather than serve.

For his part, Vladimir Putin has consistently denied all the claims made in Blowing Up Russia,  especially that the Moscow apartment bombings were a black ops job. People were inclined to believe him after Chechan rebels  did  make  hostages of  the entire audience in a Moscow theater  in 2002, and  slaughtered the children  in  a school in Beslan in 2004. 

But Litvinenko went beyond  making accusations against others.  In the book he confessed  that  he was ordered  to assassinate Boris Berezovsky,  a Russian oligarch who had fallen out of favor with Putin.  Berezovsky  had been given political asylum by the British government which then refused to extradite him when he was charged with fraud and corruption in Russia.  Keep that extradition idea in your focus. It plays an important part in the Litvinenko affair.

On October 7, 2006, the Russian investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya  was  fatally shot in her Moscow apartment.  She had been writing provocative articles against the war in Chechnya.  Livinenko   accused Putin of personally ordering her death. The community of Russian political exiles in London, including Berezovsky, seconded that assertion.

At some point  on November 1st, Litvinenko had a cup of tea.  Inside the teapot  were  tea leaves, water, and apparently a radioactive substance known as Polonium 210. The diagnosis of Polonium poisoning set  Britain’s best detectives on a rather ominous search. They back tracked  Litvinenko’s  steps and those with whom he met on that fateful day (two Russians and one Italian.)  The dossier reveals that   Mario Scaramella, an Italian academic, met with Litvinenko   for lunch  at the Piccadilly Itsu restaurant. He gave Sasha documents on Miss Politkovskaya’s death informed him that he has an email, thought to be from Evgueni Limanov, a KGB defector, saying that they are both on a Russian hit-list.   At 4pm,   Mr Litvinenko  met with the Russians, Mr. Kovtun  and  Mr.  Lugovoy,  in the Millennium Hotel, at Grosvenor Square,. They were  joined by Vyacheslav Sokolenko, an associate of Mr Lugovoy.   Some time afterwards, Mr Litvinenko  became terribly sick and was admitted to the hospital with a diagnosis of gastroenteritis. Would that it was that simple.  By the 25th of  October, British intelligence  and Sasha’s doctors determined that a quantity of the radioactive poison polonium  was killing Litvinenko and that the substance had been smuggled into London from Moscow on a British Airways flight. Ernst Stavro Blofeld would have approved.

After a much publicized decline, the 41 year old Litvinenko succumbed to the effects of his poisoned ‘cuppa’  tea.   The former  FSB  colonel died at 9:21 p.m. on November 21.
In his final days, ghastly pale and virtually hairless, Litvinenko was captured by a photographer, looking out from his hospital bed with a fierce accusatory stare.  Through his wife, Litvinenko released a  statement  to President Putin.   "You have shown yourself to be as barbaric and ruthless as your most hostile critics claimed."  

That image of a dying Litvienko, has now made   him the poster boy for a new version of that old game — spy versus spy. 

Last  week things  “hotted-up.”  The Crown Special Prosecutor  issued a request for Lugovoy to be  extradited  (told you to remember that word) back to the UK to stand trial for murder.  This  prompted Russia’s top prosecutor to offer a deal.  Russia would prosecute the chief suspect if  Britain sent all the evidence against him to Moscow.  The British sent regrets. Lugovoy  had to be tried in England they replied.  It was a stand-off. And then things really started getting ugly…..

As June dawned,   Mr.Lugovoy held a press conference in Moscow. He said that Mr. Litvinenko was a double agent for England and he knew this because he, too, had been recruited by MI6.  All Litvinenko’s claims had to be seen as a product of intell disinformation.  Yes, the  (0)07 version of spy v. spy is in full bloom.

But you can always count on the Royals for a bit of a laff.  In tandem with the Lugovoy press conference, came  the news that the Queen’s cousin, Lady Elizabeth Anson, had just returned  from Moscow where she was on quite a special mission. It seems that some very  important  senior Russian officials had engaged Lady Anson in her  professional capacity as — wait for it — a  party planner.   Perhaps the lessons included how to serve a proper British tea – without the radioactive bits.