Alexander Valterovich Litvinenko

Born at Voronezh in Russia on the 30th August 1962 Alexander Valterovich Litvinenko was drafted into the Soviet Army, rose to the rank of lieutenant-colonel before transferring to the KGB in 1988. When the Soviet Union collapsed into its constituent republics and the KGB became the FSB Litvinenko was appointed deputy head of 7th Section, responsible for investigating corruption within the service. He was later thrown out of the FSB in 1998 after going public with the claim that the FSB had ordered a hit on Boris Berezovsky, a close friend of Boris Yeltsin and Secretary of the Security Council, and subsequently made further claims that he had personally disregarded orders he'd received to carry out kidnapping and murder operations directed against other individuals. Litvinenko eventually fled from Russia in 2000 and claimed political asylum in the United Kingdom, being granted British citizenship in October 2006.

Litvinenko became one of the leading critics of the Vladimir Putin regime, wrote a book Blowing up Russia: Terror from Within (2002), in which he alleged that the FSB was responsible for the Moscow apartment block bombing which the Russian authorities blamed on Chechen terrorists and used as a justification for the Second Chechen War. As such Litvinenko was naturally interested in the events surrounding the death of the Russian journalist and fellow Putin critic Anna Politkovskaya, shot dead in Moscow on the 7th October 2006, and was believed to be conducting his own investigation into her murder.

Of course, at this time few people in Britain would have been aware of the existence of Alexander Valterovich Litvinenko, but all that was to change with the unfolding of the increasingly bizarre tale of the poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko.

"The bastards got me but they won't get everybody"

On the 1st November 2006 Litvinenko had a breakfast meeting at the Pine Bar of the Millennium Hotel in Mayfair with two Russian men, since identified as being the former KGB bodyguard Andrei Lugovoi and his business associate Dmitry Kovtun. Later that same day he had a lunch appointment at the Itsu sushi restaurant in Piccadilly where he met an Italian academic named Mario Scaramella, who claimed to have information about the killing of Anna Politkovskaya. According to Litvinenko, Scaramella gave him "some papers which contained some names - perhaps names of those who may have been involved in the murder of Anna Politkovskaya". Although according to Scaramella, the reason for the meeting was to discuss a dossier he'd received that suggested both he and Litvinenko were on a 'hit list' and about to suffer the same fate as Politkovskaya. In any event, within hours of that meeting Litvinenko began to "feel sick" and later that same day was admitted to Barnet General Hospital in north London.

Initially the doctors thought he was suffering from food poisoning, and it was only when he simply refused to respond to treatment that they concluded otherwise. By the 11th November it was reported that Litvinenko was in "very bad shape" and that he had been the target of a "serious poisoning". Thereafter his condition worsened and on the 17th November he was transferred to the University College Hospital in central London where he was placed under armed police guard. Naturally the news that a former member of the KGB had been poisoned in the middle of London aroused some media interest and a great deal of curiosity as to how and with what Litvinenko had been poisoned.

On the 19th November the matter appeared settled. Professor John Henry, a clinical toxicologist at the University College Hospital, had no doubt that Litvinenko had been poisoned with thallium sulphate. According to the good professor, "I can tell you he's ill. He is quite seriously sick. There's no doubt that he's been poisoned by thallium, and it probably dates back to 1 November, when he first started to get ill." Litvinenko was indeed ill, as on the following day he was moved to intensive care, on the same day as it was announced that the police investigation of the case had been handed over to the counter-terrorism unit at Scotland Yard, who confirmed that they were treating it as a case of "deliberate poisoning".

It was on the 21st November it became clear that the matter was far from settled, as Doctor Amit Nathwani, the consultant at University College Hospital who was in charge of Litvinenko's treatment, cast doubts on the previous diagnosis. Whilst he could not "completely exclude" thallium poisoning, he also claimed that it was "possible he may not have been poisoned with thallium". Professor John Henry then came forward to explain that Litvinenko had now developed some additional symptoms which could not be explained by thalium alone. As he went on to say, "Something other than thallium is involved. There are several possibilities as to what this something is. One is a that he was given thallium plus a second cytotoxic drug, the second is that he was given thallium plus a different radioactive compound, the third is that he was given radioactive thallium. At this stage radioactive thallium seems the most likely cause"

Matters became even more confused when it was revealed that there was an X-ray which showed three unusual objects lodged in Litvinenko's digestive system. There was a brief flurry of speculation regarding the nature and source of these mystery objects, before it became known that these 'dark shadows' were of no medical significance whatsoever, and had nothing to do with Litvinenko's illness. A Doctor Geoff Bellingan, director of critical care at University College Hospital, then emerged to specifically rule out thallium as the cause of his sickness, and also claimed that "radiation poisoning is unlikely". The hospital trust however issued a statement which asserted that whilst "Thallium sulphate poisoning is an unlikely cause of his current condition" they could not "rule out the possibility that Mr Litvinenko's condition was caused by a radioactive material", which put a slightly different spin on what was essentially the same information.

In the meantime Litvinenko's condition had deteriorated and he was now said to be "critically ill". He suffered a heart attack overnight on Wednesday the 22nd November, and later died at 9.21pm on the following day. According to his friend Andrei Nekrasov, his last words before he fell unconscious for the final time were "The bastards got me but they won't get everybody."

At the time of Litvinenko's death, no one was quite certain what had killed him. Thallium, radioactive thallium or indeed some unspecified cocktail of drugs had all been suggested with varying degrees of authority. But it was only after his death on the 24th November that it was revealed that a large quantity of alpha radiation emitted from polonium 210 had been detected in Litvinenko's urine, which indicated the presence of a "major dose" of the material in his body; it has since been suggested that he may have ingested as much as one hundred times the lethal dose of polonium 210.

What is Polonium 210?

Polonium is a naturally occuring radocative material first discovered by Marie Curie and named by her after her native Poland. As radioactive materials go, Polonium 210 is not that dangerous as the alpha radiation that it produces can't penetrate the skin. According to the official advice, "It can only represent a radiation hazard if it is taken into the body - by breathing it in, by taking it into the mouth, or if it gets into a wound." However if taken into the body in sufficient quantities polonium 210 will rapidly spread throughout the body leading to major organ breakdown and death.

The crucial point in this case being that since it emits alpha radiation it can't be detected with a geiger counter; which explains why it took so long for the doctors at University College Hospital to identify it, as although Litvinenko was displaying signs of radiation poisoning they where using a geiger counter to test for the presence of radioactivity. (To test for alpha radiation you need a scintillation detector, which is a quite different device.) It also means that polonium 210 can be safely carried around the world in a glass vial or some other suitable container without setting off the radiation detectors at airports.

Although polonium 210 does have some limited commercial applications such as powering satellites and is also used in industrial plants to prevent the build up of static electricity, it appears to be a comparatively rare and little known substance. All the usual experts dragged out by the media appeared to be united in their ignorance of exactly how dangerous a material it was; The Independent on Sunday claimed that it was "several million times more deadly than cyanide" whilst The Daily Mail asserted that it was "250 billion times deadlier than cyanide" and The Guardian was telling its readers that polonium 210 was "so toxic that there may never be a post mortem examination of Mr Litvinenko's body".

Although it has been claimed that it is not that easy to get hold of supplies of polonium 210, there is at least one online source in the United States which supplies polonium 210 to the general public priced at $79.95 for 0.1 microcurie. Although this is a long way short of the 100 microcuries which is generally regarded as a fatal dose, it suggests that acquisition of sufficiently toxic quantity of the material might not be that difficult for a determined buyer. In any case there are also various quantities of nuclear material floating around the former republics of the Soviet Union; back in 1993 the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists was reporting that some ten kilograms of polonium had 'disappeared' from the Russian nuclear facility at Sarov.

"Nothing like this has ever happened before. We are in uncharted territory."

What initially appeared to have been a simple, if somewhat exotic case of poisoning soon escalated into a major health scare when it was announced that traces of polonium 210 radiation had been found at the Itsu sushi restaurant in Piccadilly, the Pine Bar of the Millennium Hotel in Grosvenor Square and at Litvinenko's home in Muswell Hill. The Health Protection Agency then became involved, and although they announced that the risk of contamination to other people Was low, as "a precautionary measure" it advised anyone who had been at the Itsu or the Pine Bar on the 1st November to call the NHS Direct service. Within days more than a thousand people duly called the hotline.

It was soon revealed that traces of polonium 210 had been found at two further addresses in London; being No7 Down Street where Boris Berezovsky had his offices and secondly on the fourth floor of No 25 Grosvenor Street, the headquarters of Erinys, a security and risk management company - both addresses having been recently the subject of visit made by Mr Litvinenko. Further traces of the substance also cropped up at a number of other locations including at least two Boeing 767 planes used by British Airways on their London to Moscow service and the British embassy in Moscow, whilst amongst the sites tested and given the all clear were the Ashdown Park Hotel near East Grinstead, and a section of Arsenal Football Club's brand new Emirates Stadium.

At the last count over 3,000 people had called NHS Direct, of whom 179 were being followed up for further investigation with a further 27 people referred to a specialist outpatient clinic for radiological exposure assessment, purely of course as a precautionary measure. All the medical staff and ambulance workers who came into contact with Litvinenko were asked to provided urine samples, tested and given the all clear.

The realisation that a number of sites in London had been contaminated by radioactive material led to the government convening an emergency meeting of its COBRA committee, which deals with such civil contingencies. (It last met during the summer as a result of the revelations regarding the alleged bomb plot to bring down a series of transatlantic aircraft.) On the 27th November the Home Secretary John Reid made an emergency statement in the House of Commons, where he announced that the Russian ambassador had been called to the Foreign Office at the end of last week to "convey to the Russian authorities our expectation that they should be ready to offer all necessary co-operation to the investigation". Reid also felt obliged to attend a meeting of the European Council on the 4th December to reassure his European counterparts that there was nothing really worth worrying about.

Strange Days and Weird Scenes

Some early media attention focussed on Mario Scaramella, Litvinenko's lunch partner of the 1st November. Described by the Mail on Sunday as "a self-professed expert in nuclear materials", he first came to prominence when he was appointed as a consultant to the Mitrokhin Commission, set up to investigate KGB activities in Italy. His claimed academic credentials appeared to be somewhat questionable, which given his supposed knowledge of the subject made him appear a somewhat dubious character, but suggestions that Scaramella might have been the poisoner soon appeared to be rather wide of the mark, when it was suggested on the 1st December that he too had ingested a potentially fatal dose of polonium 210.

Just how much polonium Scaramella had ingested was unclear. (His wife Marina was also said to have been "very slightly contaminated".) He was heard on Italian radio claiming that he had received five times the lethal dose of polonium, whilst the BBC reported a claim by one of Scaramella's friends, Paolo Guzzanti that doctors had told Scaramella that he was going to die. Sources at the University College Hospital however claimed that this was a misunderstanding and that Scaramella was expected to survive, and indeed having kept him under observation they released him from hospital on the 6th December. The Guardian was of the opinion that he had been "poisoned with relatively small amounts of the substance" and was therefore "not thought to be in immediate danger".

By this time the post mortem on Litvinenko had been completed and his body released for burial, and on the 7th December some fifty friends and family members attended Litvinenko's funeral at Highgate Cemetery where he was buried in a special airtight dark-stained Jacobean oak Garratt casket. The funeral was preceded by prayers at a London mosque, as it seems that Litvinenko had undergone a death-bed conversion to Islam just before he fell into unconsciousness on the 22nd November.

On the very same day the Russian Interfax news agency reported that Dmitry Kovtun, one of the Russians that Litvinenko met at the Pine Bar of the Millennium Hotel on the morning of the 1st November had now fallen ill and was in a coma. Kovtun was said to be suffering from a "serious form of radiation sickness" that was affecting his critical organs; according to Interfax "Kovtun's condition is critical", although according to a lawyer named Andrew Romashov who appeared to be representing Kovtun's intersts his "condition is satisfactory". Andrei Lugovoi who was Kovtun's partner at that fateful breakfast meeting on the 1st November, denied any involvement in the poisoning and was also said to be in hospital although according to Interfax his "condition is considerably better than that of Kovtun, but he also has symptoms of contamination".

It was also announced that the Russians were now conducting their own investigation into the murder of Litvinenko and the attempted murder of Kovtun. whilst back in the United Kingdom it was became known that all seven bar staff working at the Pine Bar of the Millennium Hotel on the 1st November had tested positive for low levels of polonium 210. Once again the Health Protection Agency insisted that there "no health risk in the short term", but admitted a concern that there might very well be a very small increased risk of cancer in the long term. It called on all members of the public who visited the Pine bar between the 31st October and the 2nd November to contact NHS Direct.

Who killed Litvinenko?

Alexander Litvinenko himself was clearly of the opinion that he had been poisoned by the Russian secret service on the orders of Vladimir Putin. This appears to be the view shared by his family and the small circle of Russian exiles of which Litvinenko was a member. His father Walter Litvinenko has referred to the Putin government as "a mortal danger to the world", and his friend Alexander Goldfarb has claimed that Litvinenko's murder had "all the hallmarks of a very powerful, sophisticated and thorough special operation". Litvinenko's widow Marina has also laid the blame at the Kremlin's door, although she told the Mail on Sunday that "Obviously it was not Putin himself, of course not." Such accusations were echoed in the British media; The Independent said that his poisoning bore "all the hallmarks of the Russian Security Services", whilst The Sunday Times even reported that Litvinenko had named the FSB agent he believed was responsible, being one Viktor Kirov.

Such accusations have been vehemently rejected by the Russian government as "sheer nonsense", whilst The Times quoted one presidential aide as saying that "the accusations against the Kremlin are so incredible, so silly, that the President cannot comment". Indeed the Russian government have been getting very upset at the continued speculation in the British media regarding their possible involvement, and suggested that it might harm diplomatic relations between the two countries.

Many have expressed doubts as to whether the Russian security services would call attention to themselves by carrying out such a high profile assassination. In any case it is many years since the Russians have taken the time and trouble to carry out an assassination abroad, at least on European soil. The last such occasion being in 1959 when Stepan Bandera was killed in West Germany by KGB hitman Bogdan Stashinsky with a jet of prussic acid fired from a custom made spray gun. And in this case it was only when Stashinsky defected to the West many years later and confessed all, that it became known that Bandera hadn't died from natural cases. Which might suggest that the Russians had access to far more sophisticated and less detectable methods of arranging an 'accident' than radioactive poison. In any case it has been argued that no one in what is loosely called the 'intelligence community' took Litvinenko all that seriously, or paid much attention to his allegations, and it was therefore doubted as to whether the current Russian administration had much of a reason to want Litvinenko dead.

One possible motive was provided by a Russian academic named Julia Svetlichnaja, who has claimed that Litvinenko and another former KGB agent named Yuri Shvets had compiled a dossier which contained "damaging revelations" regarding the relationship between the Kremlin and the Yukos oil company. Svetlichnaja was reported in The Observer as saying Litvinenko had told her that "he was going to blackmail or sell sensitive information about all kinds of powerful people, including oligarchs, corrupt officials and sources in the Kremlin". Shvets, another former KGB operative currently residing on the state of Virginia, has been interviewed by the FBI who are also said to be providing the British with the usual assistance.

In addition to mentioning the Russian government as a likely suspect there has been much speculation as to whether Litvinenko might have been killed by the Russian or Ukranian mafia, or various renegade groups of ex-KGB agents, or perhaps most bizarre of all The Observer has reported on the possibility that it might by suicide, based on the notion that Litvinenko deliberately chose to poison himself in order to embarrass President Putin.

The News of the World has claimed that it knows the killer's identity. Describing him as the "highly-trained veteran of Russia's deadly Spetsnaz special forces", for "legal reasons" they would only identify the individual by his middle name of Igor. The paper also claimed to have obtained a copy of the dossier that Scaramella handed to Litvinenko at the Itsu sushi bar on the 1st November, and which Litvinenko later handed over to Scotland Yard. According to the News of the World, 'Igor the Poisoner' was acting on behalf of a group of ex-KGB agents calling themselves 'Dignity And Honour' and led by Colonel Valentin Velichkowho, are waging their own war on dissidents in a supposed effort to embarrass President Vladimir Putin.

Some credence to this theory has been provided by another ex-patriate Russian named Evgueny Limarev who told the Daily Telegraph that he was responsible for providing Mario Scaramella with the 'hit list' which was handed to Litvinenko at the Itsu restaurant and named both men as possible targets by both the Russian secret services and the Dignity and Honour organisation which he clamied was responsible for the killing of Anna Politkovskaya.

Where are we now?

On the 7th December it was confirmed that the post mortem results showed that Litvinenko had died of acute radiation poisoning. Scotland Yard announced that it was "considered appropriate" to treat his death an "allegation of murder", although they felt it "important to stress that we have reached no conclusions as to the means employed, the motive or the identity of those who might be responsible for Mr Litvinenko's death," or as one 'security source' put it, "The evidence is not pointing anywhere."

There are nine Metropolitan police officers currently in Moscow conducting an investigation. Although the Russian authorities are co-operating they have indicated that they will not allow the extradition of any suspects to the United Kingdom to stand trial. (The Kremlin are upset that the British government have always turned down their extradition requests for Litvinenko and Berezovsky amongst others, all of whom have outstanding arrest warrants in Russia.) The Russian police are of course running their own investigation which may or may not reach the same conclusion as their British counterparts.

As things stand at the moment it seems probable that Litvinenko died from acute radiation poisoning as a result of ingesting a significant quantity of polonium 210 administered at the Pine Bar of the Millennium Hotel in central London on or before the 1st November 2006, and that the polonium 210 in question was likely brought into the country on a British Airways flight from Moscow. But as yet there appear to be no answers to the questions of who administered the poison and why, or indeed exactly how the polonium 210 was ingested by the unfortunate Alexander Litvinenko.

Alexander Litvinenko's final statement

I would like to thank many people. My doctors, nurses and hospital staff who are doing all they can for me, the British police who are pursuing my case with vigour and professionalism and are watching over me and my family. I would like to thank the British government for taking me under their care. I am honoured to be a British citizen. I would like to thank the British public for their messages of support and for the interest they have shown in my plight.
I thank my wife Marina, who has stood by me. My love for her and our son knows no bounds. But as I lie here I can distinctly hear the beating of wings of the angel of death. I may be able to give him the slip but I have to say my legs do not run as fast as I would like.
I think, therefore, that this may be the time to say one or two things to the person responsible for my present condition. You may succeed in silencing me but that silence comes at a price. You have shown yourself to be as barbaric and ruthless as your most hostile critics have claimed. You have shown yourself to have no respect for life, liberty or any civilised value. You have shown yourself to be unworthy of your office, to be unworthy of the trust of civilised men and women.


Sourced from various reports in the British media including The BBC, The Guardian, The Times, The Daily and Sunday Telegraph, The Daily Mail and Mail on Sunday, The Sunday Times, The Observer, The Independent and the Independent on Sunday and even the News of the World.

Log in or register to write something here or to contact authors.