In 1998, Russian security officer Alexander Litvinenko (1962–2006) denounced his bosses in the Russian security service as corrupt and then sought asylum in Great Britain, where he became a vocal critic of Russian president Vladimir Putin. In 2006, he was assassinated in London with polonium-210, a rare, radioactive material. After a decade of investigation and international tension, a British judge heading a public inquiry into his death released his conclusion in 2016: that he was murdered by two Russians and that Putin likely ordered the killing.
Alexander Litvinenko was born in Voronezh, Russia, on August 30, 1962, when Russia was part of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (U.S.S.R.). After his parents, Walter and Svetlana Litvinenko, divorced, he was primarily raised by his grandparents in Nalchik, Russia. At age 17, Litvinenko joined the Soviet army and spent four years at a Russian military academy. While there, at age 20, he married his first wife, Natalia, with whom he had children Sonya and Alexander.
In 1988, Litvinenko was transferred to a job at the ministry of internal affairs in Moscow. Soon after, the KGB, the Soviet Union's spy agency since 1954, hired him and assigned him to military counterintelligence. In 1991, Litvinenko transferred to a KGB division that investigated organized crime, terrorism, and corruption. When the Soviet Union dissolved at the end of 1991, he remained with his investigative unit, which now fell under the control of the Russian Federal Security Service, or FSK, which was renamed the FSB in 1993. That same year, now estranged from Natalia, Litvinenko met Marina, the woman who would become his second wife. Marina soon gave birth to a son, Anatoly, and she and Litvinenko married late in 1994.
Meanwhile, the FSB had assigned Litvinenko to investigate an assassination attempt against wealthy businessman Boris Berezovsky, a confidant of Russian President Boris Yeltsin. During the investigation, Litvinenko gradually became friends with Berezovsky and their relationship caused him to reflect on his support for the Russian government. In 1995 he was assigned to Nalchik, his hometown. Russia was now fighting its first war against secessionist rebels in the nearby breakaway region of Chechnya and Litvinenko's job was to provide communications support for the Russian forces. Witnessing the fighting, he became even more disillusioned with Vladimir Putin's government.
In early 1996, Litvinenko took part in a siege of a small village, Pervomaiskoye, where Chechen guerrilla fighters had taken cover. Russian forces fired numerous missiles and tank munitions into the village over a period of nine days, leaving 29 civilians and 200 soldiers and guerrillas dead. Litvinenko returned to Moscow appalled at the Russian government's poor military leadership and its uncaring attitude toward civilian casualties during combat. Over time, he became sympathetic to the Chechen cause.
Although he rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel in the FSB, while working in Moscow, Litvinenko came to view his bosses as corrupt and their behavior criminal. He later maintained that his supervisors ordered him to kidnap a Chechen businessman and arrest and assault a former FSB agent who had become a whistleblower. He did not carry out either order.
According to statements Litvinenko later gave to British officials and journalists, in December of 1997 he received a third, fateful order: to kill Berezovsky. While Litvinenko cited as a reason for the assasination that Berezovsky had bribed Russian officials to enrich himself, Luke Harding, in his book A Very Expensive Poison, suggested another possible motive. In 1996, Yelstin had appointed Berezovsky to the post of deputy chief of Russia's security council intending to gain his help in negotiating an end to the Chechen war the following year. This move angered hardliners within the Russian government who had wanted to continue the fighting.
Weeks later, in January of 1999, Putin—now head of the FSB—fired Litvinenko and a series of criminal charges followed, confirming fears that he would be punished for challenging the government. In March, Litvinenko was arrested and charged with abusing his position and beating up a suspect. After he spent eight months in jail awaiting trial, a judge found him not guilty. Immediately after that verdict was read in the courtroom, masked agents immediately arrested Litvinenko a second time, this time charging him with stealing vegetables from a warehouse. He was released on bail a month later. In April of 2000, a prosecutor dropped that charge and then leveled a new one: that he had stolen explosives and ammunition, charges that carried a possible sentence of eight years in prison.
Realizing that he was being targeted, Litvinenko chose to flee Russia. In September of 2000, with Berezovsky's help, he made his way through the Russian Republic of Georgia and then through Turkey, arriving in Great Britain in November and applying for political asylum. He settled in a London suburb with wife Marina and son Anatoly. Berezovsky, who was also living in England by this time, quickly hired Litvinenko as part of his security detail.
Now living in the West, Litvinenko started on a career as an author and investigative journalist, his goal to expose corruption in the Russian government. In his 2001 book Blowing up Russia: Terror from Within, co-written with Yuri Felshtinsky and financed by Berezovsky, Litvinenko examined the September 1999 bombings of four apartment complexes in Russia, which left 300 people dead. The Russian government had declared that Chechen militants were responsible for the bombings, and in 2002 several militants were convicted of this crime in court. As Litvinenko argued during his trial, the bombings were actually the work of the FSB and Putin, who was prime minister of Russia at the time, and used the bombings to build support for escalating Russia's second war in Chechnya. Blowing up Russia was banned in Russia; FSB agents seized 5,000 copies of Litvinenko's exposé in 2003 on the grounds that it contained state secrets.
Meanwhile, in 2001, the British government granted Litvinenko permission to remain in Great Britain. A year later, a Russian court convicted him in absentia on charges of abuse of office. He faced three and a half years in jail if he returned home.
Living in England, Litvinenko became a part-time consultant for the British intelligence agency MI6. He also gave information to Spanish authorities as they investigated Russian organized crime figures in Spain. He often wrote for the Chechen press and became close friends with Chechen separatist leader Akhmed Zakayev, who lived near his new home in London.
Litvinenko's second book, published in 2004, was titled The Gang from the Lubyanka, a reference to the former Moscow headquarters of the KGB. Here he alleged that the Russian government, now led by Putin, was in league with organized crime. However, some of Litvinenko's claims here and other work struck some critics and even allies as unreliable and based on conspiracy theories. His endorsement of allegations that left-wing Italian politicians had worked with the KGB was also widely doubted, as was his belief that the FSB was behind a 2005 terrorist bombing in the London subway.
In July 2006, the Russian parliament, or Duma, passed a law that authorized the FSB to eliminate Russian extremists anywhere around the world. It also expanded the definition of “extremism” to include anyone who made slanderous comments about the Russian government. Litvinenko, who had received threats from former Russian colleagues, now appeared to be in greater danger.
Three years earlier, Litvinenko had befriended Anna Politkovskaya, an investigative journalist who exposed Russia's role in atrocities carried out against civilians in Chechnya. On October 7, 2006, Politkovskaya was shot to death in her Moscow apartment building. Twelve days later, on October 19, Litvinenko attended a journalists' forum in London addressing Politkovskaya's murder and publicly blamed the crime on Putin.
On October 16, 2006, Russians Andrei Lugovoi and Dmitry Kovtun flew from Russia to Great Britain carrying polonium-210, a rare and deadly radioactive substance. Lugovoi, a businessman and a former KGB agent, had known Litvinenko for a decade and worked with him for a year as a researcher and writer on some of Litvinenko's security investigations of Russians for Western companies. That day, they attended a business meeting with Litvinenko at the London offices of a private security company. Investigators later found very high levels of radioactivity at the office's conference table. They theorized that either Lugovoi or Kovtun had injected polonium into Litvinenko's beverage, which he did not drink.
Two weeks later, Litvinenko again met again with the two men, this time at the Pine Bar in London's Millennium Hotel. When Litvinenko arrived, Lugovoi offered him a cup of green tea, which he drank. That night, Litvinenko became violently ill. He checked into a hospital on November 3, complaining of severe vomiting and abdominal pain. Investigators later found extraordinary levels of radioactivity on the hotel bar's teapot and table, as well as on the sink of the hotel room where Kovtun had stayed.
Litvinenko died in London, England, on November 23, 2006, at age 44. That same day, Britain's Atomic Weapons Establishment returned results from the tests done on him earlier in the month. These results confirmed his assertion that he had been exposed to radioactive polonium.
Years of investigations into Litvinenko's death ensued. Lugovoi and Kovtun visited the British embassy in Moscow the day after the former Russian FSB agent died and signed declarations that they had not been involved in the murder. Afterward, scientists found traces of polonium in the room, with the highest readings on Kovtun's chair. Investigators in London also found traces of polonium at various locations Lugovoi and Kovtun had visited, including on the airplane that had transported them to London. An expert on nuclear weapons programs concluded that the polonium was manufactured at government nuclear facilities in Russia. In May of 2007, a British prosecutor charged Lugovoi with Litvinenko's murder, but Putin refused to extradite him to Britain on the grounds that Russia's constitution forbids extraditing Russian citizens.
After years of delays, in 2014 the British government authorized a public inquiry into Litvinenko's murder chaired by Sir Robert Owen, a British High Court judge. After studying public and classified information, Judge Owen released his report on the crime in January of 2016. “I am sure that Mr. Lugovoi and Mr. Kovtun placed the polonium-210 in the teapot of the Pine Bar,” Owen wrote, as quoted by Alan Cowell in the New York Times. “I am sure that Mr. Lugovoi and Mr. Kovtun were acting on behalf of others when they poisoned Mr. Litvinenko.” Judge Owen asserted that there was a strong probability that Lugovoi was acting under the direction of the Russian FSB and that the Russian government had “powerful motives” to commit the crime. He also expressed his belief that the operation to kill Litvinenko was “probably approved” by Putin. The Russian government dismissed Judge Owen's report, describing it as politicized.
Harding, Luke, A Very Expensive Poison: The Assassination of Alexander Litvinenko and Putin's War with the West, Vintage Books, 2016.
Independent (London, England), November 25, 2006, Anne Penketh, “Alexander Litvinenko: KGB Secret Agent Turned Political Dissident Who Lifted the Lid on the Russian Security Services.”
New York Times, December 3, 2006, Alan Cowell, “Russian Ex-Spy Lived in a World of Deceptions”; January 22, 2016, Alan Cowell, “Putin ‘Probably Approved’ Litvinenko Poisoning, British Inquiry Says.”
BBC News, http://news.bbc.co.uk/go/pr/fr/-/2/hi/uk_news/6163502.stm (November 24, 2006), “Obituary: Alexander Litvinenko”; http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-19647226 (January 21, 2016), “Alexander Litvinenko: Profile of Murdered Russian Spy.”□