Five years ago a little-known Russian dissident met two friends in a hotel in London’s Mayfair. His name was Alexander Litvinenko. Litvinenko sat with his companions, businessmen Andrey Lugovoi and Dmitry Kovtun, in the Millennium Hotel’s Pine Bar. (The room is a bit pokey. Litvinenko’s alcove table no longer exists; a large piano has been tactfully parked there instead.)
What happened next is the stuff of cold war fiction. According to Scotland Yard, Lugovoi slipped polonium-210 – a rare isotope – into Litvinenko’s tea. Litvinenko drank the green tea, or at least some of it. Later that evening he felt violently ill. At first his symptoms resembled E coli. Then the truth emerged: he had been radioactively poisoned.
The infamous Pine Bar meeting happened on 1 November 2006. Litvinenko’s painful death three weeks later sparked headlines around the world and a major crisis in British-Russian relations. From his deathbed, Litvinenko accused Russian president Vladimir Putin of plotting his murder; the Kremlin reacted angrily, complaining that London was “politicising” the situation.
Detectives, meanwhile, made an extraordinary discovery: a trail of polonium billowing across central London. Whoever came up with the murder plot must have calculated that the obscure isotope was untraceable. In fact, investigators found the equivalent of footprints in the snow. They tracked polonium to Lugovoi’s hotel room, to his plane seat, and to northern Germany, where Kotvun stayed before he flew on to London. The clues pointed in one sinister direction: Moscow.
Five years on, Litvinenko’s widow Marina is no closer to achieving any form of justice for Sasha, as she calls her murdered husband. The British authorities requested Lugovoi’s extradition back in May 2007. Since then they have got nowhere. Lugovoi remains in Moscow, protected by the Russian state and, it seems, by Putin personally. He is a deputy in Russia‘s Duma, the lower parliament – a sign of Kremlin patronage – having made an unlikely CV leap from alleged assassin to anti-British, nationalist politician.
Last week, however, Marina came a significant step closer to solving the mystery of Litvinenko’s death. She persuaded a London coroner, Dr Andrew Reid, to accept a full, wide-ranging investigation into the evidence, rather than the more limited hearing a nervous Foreign Office wanted. Litvinenko’s inquest will take place next year. There will be a jury and a senior level judge. It will hear testimony for the first time that the assassination – successful but disastrously bungled – was carried out by the Russian state.
“It’s important to take things to its logical conclusion,” Marina tells me. She adds: “It’s four years now since Lugovoi has been identified as the chief suspect. All this time he has refused to come to London. He repeatedly asserts that [the UK’s extradition request] is a political diversion. But this isn’t only about the murder of my husband. It’s about a radioactive terrorist attack.”
Marina’s legal bill could run to £1m
We meet in the basement cafe of Waterstone’s in Piccadilly. It is two days before the pre-inquest into Litvinenko’s death. Now aged 49, and resident in London since 2000, Marina says she is “proud” to live in Britain. We chat in Russian then switch into English in which she is flawless; she is friendly and sympathetic; she sips a flat white. When another customer sits puzzlingly close to her, we quietly move seats.
Last weekend Marina launched a public appeal to fund her forthcoming litigation battle. A full inquest into Litvinenko’s death similar to the 7/7 hearings or the Princess Diana inquest could drag on for weeks, if not months. Potentially, her legal bill could run to £1m. She is also taking Russia to the European court of human rights in Strasbourg – another costly step.
As things stand, the fight is rather one-sided. She points out that the Russian state has unlimited resources to promulgate its own mud-throwing version of events – that Lugovoi is a blameless victim, and that Litvinenko probably killed himself. “In these proceedings the evidence collected by the Metropolitan police will be weighed against the story presented by Sasha’s accused murderer and his sponsors,” she says.
Her husband’s murder isn’t the only painful anniversary around this time. It’s five years since the crusading journalist Anna Politkovskaya was gunned down in the lift of her Moscow apartment building. (Several people have been arrested. But the Kremlin has so far failed to uncover who ordered the contract killing.) Another memorable date is 16 October 2006 – the day the Litvinenkos were awarded British citizenship.
Marina says she has been encouraged by British government support. There had been suspicions the Conservative-led coalition wanted to bury the Litvinenko case, in order to improve relations with Moscow, and emulate the “reset” between Russia and the US. David Cameron travelled to Moscow last month. It was the first visit by a British prime minister for four years. He even held talks with Putin who, as a former lieutenant-colonel in the KGB, was Litvinenko’s old boss.
Predictably, on the question of Lugovoi’s extradition, Cameron hit a brick wall. President Dmitry Medvedev, citing Russia’s constitution, told him bluntly that Lugovoi “will never be extradited”. But Marina says that on the eve of Cameron’s trip William Hague telephoned her. The foreign secretary assured her the government would under no circumstances drop the case, she says: “He told me: “It can’t be forgotten’.”
Whitehall sources say they still regard the use of polonium in central London as incredibly serious – “an act of war”. For her part, Marina says she has no doubt that the Russian state or its security organs ordered her husband’s murder. “I don’t have any problem believing Lugovoi was behind this. But someone had to give him the polonium. Someone had to plan this operation. We have to know who this was.”
There is compelling evidence that the operation was “state-organised”, she claims. For a start, Russia produces 97% of the world’s legally made polonium. “It’s a very special substance. It has to be freshly made. You can’t steal it and use it five years later.” Leaked diplomatic communiques suggest the US thinks Putin probably knew about, and personally authorised, the plot. Marina agrees. “People are afraid to do anything in Russia without permission,” she argues.
Last month Putin, now Russia’s prime minister, announced that he was standing for president next year, in a job swap with the hapless Medvedev. Putin now looks set to stay in power until 2024. This means there is little prospect that the truth concerning Litvinenko’s murder will emerge. Marina says she met Lugovoi, the chief suspect, in 2006 at a gathering with Boris Berezovsky, Litvinenko’s patron. “Lugovoi was sitting with us at the same table, with a group of Russians. He was quite a faceless person,” she recalls.
Lugovoi’s superiors badly miscalculated, she believes. They expected Litvinenko to die immediately but he didn’t. “He was very strong physically. Even in prison he was doing gymnastics,” she says. And they underestimated the reaction from the British authorities. “When they planned to kill Sasha they didn’t think they were killing a British citizen. They thought he was just some Russian whom nobody cared about. They made a big mistake. They killed a British citizen on British soil,” Marina says.
Slim, attractive, an economist and a ballroom dancing teacher, Marina met Litvinenko at her 31st birthday party. Both had been married before. She knew he was a career agent. But she says: “I thought, he can’t be an FSB officer. He doesn’t look like that! Sasha was different. He was funny. He didn’t drink at all. And he looked like a 17-year-old boy.” They married in 1994 and Marina fell quickly pregnant with their son Anatoly.
Litvinenko had broken the agency’s code of silence
By 1997, however, Sasha had fallen out with his FSB bosses – refusing to take part in an operation to kill Berezovsky, the most influential oligarch in the murky court of the then Russian president Boris Yeltsin. After Litvinenko exposed the plot, his situation worsened, Marina says. First there was surveillance (“They didn’t even try to disguise it. But they knew Sasha was a good guy.”)
Then there was imprisonment – in Lefortovo, the KGB’s notorious Moscow detention centre. There was also a meeting with Putin, at the time Berezovsky’s protege and the new chief of Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB). “When Putin said he never knew Litvinenko it’s a lie. I saw in Sasha’s archive a lot of papers named directly to Putin,” Marina says.
After eight months in prison, Litvinenko was freed on appeal. On 1 November 2000, he quietly fled to Britain. “At Heathrow airport, Sasha said: ‘I’m a KGB officer.’ We were released after four hours,” she recalls.
Russian officials insist Litvinenko was a figure of little significance – someone not worth squashing. But in Britain, Litvinenko worked feverishly to discredit the Putin regime. He accused the FSB of blowing up Moscow apartment buildings as a pretext for war in Chechnya. He gave information to Spanish investigators probing Russian mafia bosses and their Kremlin backers. In the eyes of his former FSB colleagues he had broken the agency’s omerta, or code of silence. He was, in short, a traitor.
Marina says that in the aftermath of his father’s murder Anatoly suffered greatly, but that in recent years he has blossomed. He is in the sixth form of a private London school and hopes to study English literature at university. He reads Russian novelists in the original – at the moment short fiction by Turgenev. Anatoly has decided he wants to use his father’s surname, rather than his English nom de plume. “We have been all the time very close,” Marina says.
Of herself, Marina says that she isn’t pessimistic. She has a wide circle of friends, British and Russian. She has not been back to Moscow since she fled. But last year she took the brave step of going to the Russian embassy in London to collect a new Russian passport.
“Theoretically I can go to Russia,” she explains. The Foreign Office has pointed out that if she does return she remains a British citizen, and can expect to be treated accordingly.
Marina is still close to Berezovsky, who encouraged Litvinenko to go to London, and fled there himself after falling out with Putin. Earlier this month she turned up to support Berezovsky in his colourful legal battle against fellow oligarch Roman Abramovich. Berezovsky, who is suing his former friend for more than $5bn, accuses Abramovich of forcing him to sell his share of the Russian oil giant Sibneft at a knockdown price. Abramovich denies the claim.
The litigation battle is London’s most entertaining private dust-up – with a cast including star lawyers, shades-wearing bodyguards, and young Russian women dressed demurely in black. So far, Berezovsky has had several uncomfortable moments in the witness box. Abramovich will give evidence and be cross-examined early next month. Marina describes Berezovsky as a “fighter”. Of Abramovich she comments: “He was never smart. But he was very good at making people like him.”
Abramovich remains close to Putin. While Berezovsky ended up in exile, the still loyal Abramovich is free to move between London and Moscow. Marina remarks that Putin has previously slapped down some oligarchs for tastelessly displaying their wealth. He has never said anything about Abramovich, though, she notes. “Abramovich can buy all these yachts, buy Chelsea, and buy paintings from Freud’s grandson. He’s allowed everything.”