A very expensive poison, a book review

“The reception room in the building of the Federal Security Service.” RIA Novosti archive, image #98400 / Vladimir Fedorenko / CC-BY-SA 3.0 [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Luke Harding’s, A Very Expensive Poison, describes how Russian security services murdered dissident Alexander Litivenko in 2006. While the study of the assassination itself is detailed, riveting, and depressing, the true horror is the picture that the book paints of the Russian state. According to Harding’s detailed and well-sourced account, Russia’s senior leaders -including Vladimir Putin himself- are deeply involved in corruption and organized crime. As such, the book is not the story of one man’s death, but also an indictment of an entire government.

The FSB is the successor agency to the much feared Russian KGB. Litvinenko had served as an agent within the organization, and even briefly met with Putin itself. Disillusioned with the FSB’s criminality he defected to the West with the aid of a Russian oligarch, and began to work for the British intelligence service, M-16.

The Russian state had many secrets to keep. I’ve made an academic study of conspiracy theories related to everything from the 2009 H1N1 “Swine flu” pandemic, to (with my colleague Leopoldo Rodriguez) the death of Argentine prosecutor Nisman. This man died hours before he had been scheduled to testify before Congress regarding the 1994 AMIA bombing. Conspiracy theories are interesting, because sometimes conspiracies do happen. Whether a narrative represents an accurate depiction of facts, or is part of an irrational worldview characterized by paranoia, is always a judgement call. In the case of Russia, there are numerous examples of conspiracy narratives of uncertain validity. For example, Harding discusses (50-51) the apartment bombings that provided the justification for the Russian invasion of Chechnya. Litvinenko argued in a book, Blowing Up Russia, that the Russian FSB itself had undertaken this attack as a false flag event. To the best of my knowledge no important new information to support this argument has emerged since the book’s publication, and the truth of this assertion is unclear. Given the seriousness of this allegation, however, it’s unsurprising that Litvinenko would fear Russia’s security services. Still, what drew him to Russian attention, Harding suggests, was not his work with M-16, but rather Spanish intelligence services. The Spanish state was investigating Russian organized crime’s activities (money laundering, bank fraud, real estate purchases, etc) in their own country. The Spanish authorities found evidence of close collaboration between Russian criminals and government authorities in their home country.

“Russian Federation (orthographic projection) – Crimea disputed” By FutureTrillionaire (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
It was after Litvinenko’s work with the Spanish government that the Russian authorities seem to have made the decision to eliminate him. After reading Harding’s book, one has to wonder if such a major crime has ever been carried out by such an incompetent couple of assassins as Mr Lugovoi and Mr Kovtun. One of the men was an utter failure in life, who repeatedly fantasized about making money by starring in porn with his German ex-wife. These men were not the master spies of a Le Carré novel. But their murder weapon was rare enough for Bond himself: polonium (atomic number 84), an obscure and short-lived element. While the assassin’s intent had been to use an undetectable poison, Harding describes how this poison left a radioactive trail that began with their seat of their plane, continued to the site of the poisoning, and then ended in a the sink trap of their hotel room. The polonium allowed the British investigators to track the mens’ every move. Without a doubt, polonium was not a poison available to anyone without high-level contacts within a major nuclear power, which would have to sanction its use. The poison was worth tens of millions of dollars (p. 343). Harding suggests (p. 171, 189) that the polonium likely came from the Mayak nuclear complex in Ozersk, Russia. The use of this poison also suggested an incredibly callous and careless killing. The teapot filled with the poison was allowed to go back to a dishwasher, and was later reused. How many British citizens were exposed to toxic radiation? The Russian officials must have known of the risks that this poison posed to many other people than their target when it chose to use it. The forensic pathologist who did the autopsy, Dr. Nathaniel Cary, had to wear two protective suits while doing his work (p. 352).

Harding describes the events that led to the poisoning, Litvinenko’s own statements after he realized that he was

Leon Trotsky, who was murdered in Mexico City on Stalin’s orders. Published by Century Co, NY, 1921 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
dying, and the efforts of the Russian state to end any investigation. In some respects, this is an unusual case, in there can be very little mystery about who ordered Litvinenko’s death. It must have come from senior members of the Russian security service, if not Vladimir Putin himself. Interestingly, Wikileaks revealed differing views on the matter. One U.S. official believed that Putin had been behind the crime, while the French thought it might be the work of “rogue officers” (243). The book concludes with the detailed British inquest to find the truth of what happened.

Harding does an excellent job providing the context for the Russian government’s decision to eliminate this dissident. For me, as the moment approached when Litvinenko was poisoned, the tension increased greatly, even though the outcome was clear from the outset. While Harding traced the lives of the two killers as they moved closer to the target, I couldn’t help but be amazed at the sheer amount of detail available regarding their actions, from their restaurant receipts to video footage. In the aftermath of the poisoning, what was most stunning was the extent to which the Russian state allegedly sought to pressure Britain not to hold an inquiry, such as by flying Russian bombers near British airspace (p. 345). During the inquiry, Vladimir Putin awarded Andrei Konstantinovich Lugovoi a presidential citation (p. 357).

For all people interested in the history of espionage, or those who want to understand modern Russian foreign policy, this book is a must read. Harding has lived in Russia, and had his own disturbing encounters with the security system (p. 220). He describes the murder of other Russian dissidents and journalists (including one who was poisoned in Britain with a rare Chinese fern, p. 273-274, 286) with a sense of outrage. He paints a convincing picture of a country in which the rule of law is weak (p. 273), and the FSB lives up to its predecessors’ reputation. With Harding’s attention to detail, understanding of Russia, and deep research, the book is a convincing account of a terrible crime. Strongly recommended.

Are you curious to see a copy of the report from the public inquest into the Litvinenko’s death? You can find it online here. The final line of the summary of conclusions states: “The FSB operation to kill Mr Litvinenko was probably approved by Mr Patrushev and also by President Putin” (p. 246).

There is currently extensive discussion in the popular media regarding Russian involvement in U.S. affairs. Julia Ioffe has a great article at The Atlantic, “Why Does the Kremlin Care So Much About the Magnitsky Act?” This essay explains the origin of U.S. sanctions on Russian leaders, and the terrible violence visited upon one honest Russian lawyer. This coming year I’m also teaching an online course, “The U.S. and the World,” which will examine U.S.-Russian relations. One of the resources that I’m using for the class (thanks to the Streaming Video offerings of the PSU library) will be Icarus Films, The World According to Russia Today, 2015. In this well done documentary, film-maker Misja Pekel examines how RT functions as an instrument of Russian state propaganda. This film would be a wonderful choice for any international relations or global communications class.

Shawn Smallman, 2017

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