In November 2006, former Russian secret service agent Alexander Litvinenko died in a London hospital after being exposed to the deadly radioactive polonium-210. Litvinenko’s death caused international controversy. On his deathbed, Litvinenko claimed Russian leader Vladimir Putin was responsible, targeting Litvinenko for unearthing corruption in the Russian secret services.
Alexander Litvinenko is predominantly remembered for his dramatic death and the intense, drawn-out international investigation that followed. He was also a father, husband, son and public campaigner for anti-corruption in his homeland.
So who was Alexander Litvinenko, and what events led to his poisoning in 2006?
A Russian spy?
Alexander Valterovich “Sasha” Litvinenko was born in the southwestern Russian city of Voronezh in 1962. He graduated school in 1980 to be immediately drafted into the Internal Troops of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, quickly moving to the Kirov Higher Command School. The same year, Litvinenko married his first wife Nataliya and together they had a son, Alexander, and daughter, Sonia.
In 1991, Litvinenko was promoted to lieutenant-colonel within the Federal Counterintelligence Service (FSB). This successor the former secret police service known as the KGB monitored counter-terrorist activity and infiltrated Russian organised crime. His career continued to soar. Litvinenko saw active military service and was awarded the title of ‘MUR veteran’ for his work in the Moscow criminal investigation unit. He was even responsible for planting agents in Chechnya during the First Chechen War, gaining a reputation in the western media as a ‘Russian spy’.
Gangs, corruption and the KGB
In 1994, Litvinenko’s life moved in several new directions. He separated from Nataliya and married ballroom dancer Marina. He was got involved in investigations into the attempted assassination on the Russian oligarch, Boris Berezovsky. Although he later became employed by Berezovsky – a conflict of interest – Litvinenko discovered connections between the leaders of the Russian law enforcement and the mafia, including the notorious Solntsevo gang.
Alarmed at his discovery, Litvinenko wrote a note for Boris Yeltsin and arranged for him to meet with FSB director Mikhail Barsukov. However, nothing happened. The realisation dawned on Litvinenko that the entire system had been corrupted. Litvinenko later explained that, “When force became a commodity, there was always demand for it… As the police and the FSB became more competitive, they squeezed the gangs out of the market. However, in many cases competition gave way to cooperation, and the services became gangsters themselves.”
Berezovsky then introduced him to Vladimir Putin, who became Russian Prime Minister in 1999 and had formerly worked for the KGB. Litvinenko reported the entrenched corruption to Putin, but during his investigations into the Uzbek drug barons who were receiving protection from the FSB, Putin tried to stall the investigations.
On 30 November 1998, Berezovsky accused four senior officers in the organised crime organisation of ordering his assassination. Just 4 days later, along with 3 colleagues, Litvinenko repeated Berezovsky’s allegation at a press conference. Litvinenko was immediately dismissed from the FSB and ordered not to leave Moscow.
Violating the order to stay put in Moscow, Litvinenko and his family fled Russia for Turkey in October 2000. His application for asylum in the United States was rejected, and desperate, Litvinenko asked for refuge at Heathrow Airport during a stopover on a Instanbul-London-Moscow flight. Political asylum was granted on 14 May 2001 on humanitarian grounds.
While living in London Litvinenko began reporting for Chechenpress and campaigning against Putin’s government. Meanwhile, he was convicted in absentia in Russia for corruption – the very charge he had laid against the security services that convicted him. Litvinenko was also involved in intelligence work, alerting the Spanish authorities to links between organised crime and the Russian government in Spain, and he was secretly recruited by MI6 to report on Russian organised crime.
Among some of his published allegations against Russia, Litvinenko claimed the KGB funded the world’s most notorious terrorists including Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda; that the Russian Armed Forces organised a 1999 presidential shooting in Armenia; the Russian apartment bombings of 1999 were staged by the secret services to bring Putin into power; that Putin was personally involved in protecting drug trafficking from Afghanistan; and that Russian secret service agents were involved in the Beslan school siege in order to justify tougher law enforcement.
All the while, Litvinenko continued to mingle with Russians and journalists in the UK despite warnings that a FSB unit had been assigned to assassinate him.
What happened to Alexander Litvinenko?
Suddenly on 1 November 2006, Litvinenko began violently vomiting. Unknown to him and his family, Litvinenko was suffering with the symptoms of acute radiation sickness. He was admitted to intensive care at University College Hospital where a rare and highly toxic element was found in his body: radionuclide polonium-210.
The day he began feeling unwell Litvinenko had met with two former agents, Dmitry Kovtun and Andrey Lugovoy, in the Millennium Hotel Pine Bar. He had also met with an Italian Mario Scaramella who claimed to have information about the assassination of journalist and FSB critic, Anna Politkovskaya. She has been killed in her Moscow apartment in October 2006, which Litvinenko believed to be the order of Putin.
A high polonium trace was found and despite denying involvement, leaked US diplomatic information revealed Kovtun had left more polodium in the house and car he was using. A posthumous statement the following day made Litvinenko’s claim that Putin was responsible for his poisoning. Putin denied involvement.
Litvinenko died on 23 November 2006. He was buried in Highgate Cemetery in a lead-lined coffin presided over by a priest, Imam and rabbi.
In January 2007 the British police announced they had identified the person they believed poisoned Litvinenko. They had discovered a teapot with sky-high polonium readings which was used to kill Litvinenko and concluded his death was the result of a state sponsored assassination, delivered through a cup of tea. An extradition order was made for Andrei Lugovoy who had met Litvinenko on 1 November. Russia refused the extradition order, making relations with the UK tense.
Meanwhile, Marina Litvinenko mercilessly campaigned for a public inquiry into her husband’s death, taking the matter to the High Court which rule in 2014 that a public inquiry should be launched. Only in an inquiry could secret material be considered – material suggesting involvement of the Russian state in Litvinenko’s murder.
In January 2016, a decade after the murder of Alexander Litvinenko, the Home Office published The Litvinenko Inquiry: Report. The report found that Litvinenko was killed by Russian agents Andrei Lugovoi and Dmitry Kovtun, and that there was a “strong probability” they were acting on behalf of the Russian FSB secret service.