From Russia with secrets
May 13, 2005 – There’s something very un-English about murderers who dispatch their victims too flamboyantly. Louis Untermeyer expressed British puzzlement when faced with showy foreign killers perfectly in the lines:
Although the Borgias
Were rather gorgeous
They liked the absurder
Kind of murder.
That’s why people in this country find stories about the KGB so extraordinary. The sheer swaggering theatricality of the kind of killings the Soviet secret police were said to favour beggars the average English person’s belief. Tell an Englishman that an assassin might choose to kill someone innocently waiting for a London bus by jabbing him with an umbrella tip containing a pellet of the rare and virtually untraceable poison ricin, and the Englishman’s first reaction will be to laugh in disbelief. Why bother with such elaborate cloak-and-dagger tactics? If you want to bump someone off, why not just push him under the bus?
Yet, however much it sticks in English gullets, that is exactly the way the KGB did behave. Ricin was used in the James Bond-style murder in London in 1978 of the Bulgarian dissident writer Georgi Markov. He was jabbed with a poisoned umbrella tip while waiting for a bus on London Bridge, and died four days later. The KGB was blamed.
Anyone who thinks the secret police learned to behave better after the Soviet Union disintegrated – and the Soviet KGB was reformed and renamed the Russian FSB – will definitely want to gasp and stretch their eyes at almost everything a more recent arrival in London has been saying since he got here.
Alexander Litvinenko came to the British capital five years ago. He’s a fair-haired man of about 40 with quiet ways and watchful eyes. He has a wife and a son coming up to his teens. They’ve all lived unobtrusively in a leafy bit of suburban London since leaving Moscow.
But I am not at liberty to reveal precisely which leafy bit of London Mr Litvinenko lives in. He believes that might endanger his life. His contact details change often; his mobile number went dead last summer after someone pushed a pram containing Molotov cocktails at his front door. Until recently, Mr Litvinenko was a lieutenant-colonel in the Russian secret police. He claims to know some of the darkest secrets of his country’s recent past, from the era when the FSB was run by one Vladimir Putin, who later become the Russian president. And the spy in hiding fears he will be silenced.
Mr Litvinenko first made headlines in Russia in 1998, when he blew the whistle on an order he says he received from his FSB superiors to assassinate the unpopular but powerful tycoon Boris Berezovsky. After a black comedy of institutional reaction – he was fired, arrested on unrelated charges of mistreating a detainee, acquitted, rearrested on similar charges, reacquitted, rearrested a third time, and only cleared his name in court thanks to a photographic memory which allowed him to prove exactly where he was at any given time – he was whisked off to Britain where he won political asylum.
While still at the FSB, Mr Litvinenko says his job was corruption-busting. But, he says, he kept finding it inside his own office – generals hand in glove with drug-runners; colonels running racketeers. All his investigations were fruitless because they ultimately led to federal ministries. His attempt to spill the beans to Putin himself – and get the boss to crack down on an organisation running riot – was not a success. He was fired within weeks.
Luckily for him, Mr Berezovsky quickly fell out with President Putin and also fled to London, where he too now has political asylum. Mr Berezovsky spends his time here denouncing the Russian president for bringing the histrionic methods of murder traditionally favoured by the KGB into the modern Kremlin. The billionaire finances a coterie of dissidents whose stories lend weight to his version of events, including Mr Litvinenko and the Chechen separatist Akhmed Zakayev.
So Alexander Litvinenko pops up at press conferences, or at parties for anti-Putin journalists, or, last week, at the Oxford Union with Mr Zakayev. He looks restrained, speaks quietly and wears neat tweed jackets. But his every revelation is designed to show that the FSB, Putin’s almer mater, is behind just as many cloak-and-dagger horrors as the KGB ever was.
His biggest revelation centred on the conspiracy theory that the FSB was involved in a string of bombing attacks that levelled apartment buildings across Russia in the autumn of 1999. The theory has it that these bombings, which Russian authorities blamed on Chechen separatists, were used to galvanise public support for the invasion of Chechnya and win Mr Putin the presidency.
President Putin has dismissed the allegation that the bombings were organised by the FSB, under his own command, as “delirious nonsense”. But the FSB was annoyed enough about Mr Litvinenko’s book, “The FSB Blows Up Russia,” to seize a shipment of 4,400 of them in Moscow at the end of 2003 in what it called an effort to protect state secrets.
It was hair-raising stuff, at least in principle. But in practice, outside the overheated rooms where the kind of people gather who have lived in Russia and come to take KGB horror stories seriously (including, I have to admit, me), it never really gained a foothold in the British popular imagination. It was just too exotic for anyone from the comparatively gentle streets of London. Perhaps partly because the FSB has omitted to take a poisoned umbrella to Mr Litvinenko, his revelations have turned out to be a bit of a damp squib.
I’m no longer in phone contact with Alexander Litvinenko. But his emails go on coming thick and fast – musings on the causes of the Chechen conflict or patriotism, snippets from Chechenpress, or bitter comparisons between Putin’s Russia and Nazis, all topped with quotes from Russian literature in neat italics.
Mr Litvinenko must be frustrated to discover that he’s brought his extraordinary revelations to a land where people can’t bring themselves to believe in the absurder kind of murder (except if it is committed between the covers of an Agatha Christie novel).
Like many immigrants, there’s clearly a part of him that can’t let go of his past at home, even a past and a home as horrifying as he says Russia is – if you’re in the FSB, at least, or come to its attention. But he’s an intelligent man. Give him another five years to assimilate, and who knows?
He may yet come to be pleased to have become part of a society that operates through an endless round of TV dinners, PTA meetings and uneventful outings to Tescos, and whose definition of freedom is the freedom to feel safe while snoozing through the news.