The spy, the tycoon, and a trail of poison

Despite Putin's denials, Litvinenko's death points back to Russia

December 03, 2006|By New York Times News Service

LONDON --The tangled tale of Alexander V. Litvinenko, the maverick KGB agent turned dissident who died of radiation poisoning last month, has seized the headlines in recent days, but its roots can be traced to a summer's evening in Moscow in 1994.

On June 7, Boris A. Berezovsky, a powerful Russian oligarch, was leaving his car dealership in a chauffeured Mercedes. He and his bodyguard were sitting in the rear seat behind the driver. A remote-controlled bomb detonated, decapitating the driver but leaving Berezovsky unscathed.

As a high-ranking officer in the organized-crime unit of the FSB, the successor to the KGB, Litvinenko "was the investigating officer of the assassination attempt," said Alex Goldfarb, a Berezovsky associate and a spokesman for the Litvinenko family, in an interview. "They became friends."

That friendship would shape Litvinenko's career, which began in the roller-coaster politics and self-enrichment of post-Soviet Russia, spanned his desperate flight from Russia to Britain to seek asylum. It ended spectacularly and mysteriously, with the British police saying he was fatally poisoned after ingesting polonium 210, a radioactive isotope.

Litvinenko, assigned to investigate the assassination attempt on Berezovsky, ended up accusing the FSB of involvement in a later alleged conspiracy, a charge that severed his ties with the agency. Once in exile in London, his contacts with Berezovsky and a circle of other Russian emigres and former agents flourished, even as his criticisms of President Vladimir V. Putin grew more strident.

Shortly before his death, he had been looking into the killing in Moscow of the journalist Anna Politkovskaya, a critic of Putin and his policies in Chechnya.

After Litvinenko's death, a tantalizing tale of sketchy facts and abundant speculation unfolded like some lost chapter of the Cold War. But this saga played out in the glare of the news media.

Litvinenko began his lingering decline on Nov. 1, when he met an Italian academic, Mario Scaramella, in a sushi bar and linked up with security service colleagues in a five-star hotel. Then he fell ill, wasting away over 22 excruciating days from a muscular figure to a gaunt shadow. Investigators followed a radioactive trail around London and, through British Airways planes with traces of radiation, to Moscow. British Airways said 221 flights, carrying 33,000 people, might have been affected.

The episode left Britain's relations with Russia strained: No matter how much Putin denied it, British officials faced a barrage of newspaper speculation that a supposedly friendly power, or its disaffected agents, had reached onto the streets of London for nefarious purposes.

From his deathbed, Litvinenko accused Putin of responsibility for his plight, but that conclusion was far from certain.

Litvinenko's role in the investigation of the assassination attempt against Berezovsky, who fled into exile in London in 2000, is not widely chronicled, although it was alluded to in an Associated Press report in 1998, which said that the case was never solved.

Nonetheless, it appears to have provided the starting point for an association between Berezovsky, then one of Russia's richest men and most influential power brokers, and Litvinenko, who was rapidly acquiring a reputation at the Russian spy agency as a rebel and whistleblower.

In a book he published in 2004, Lubyanka Criminal Group, Litvinenko referred to a turning point in his life as an agent. In December 1997, he said, his superior in the FSB called him into his office with staggering orders: "You, Litvinenko, you know Berezovsky? You have to liquidate him."

That claim surfaced in the public eye in November 1998, after Berezovsky accused the FSB of plotting to assassinate him. Litvinenko and other disaffected agents called a news conference to confirm Berezovsky's allegations.

Putin, who led the agency at the time, threatened to dismiss Litvinenko and the other officers.

According to a transcript published by the Kremlin International News Broadcast, Litvinenko began with a forthright attack on corruption within the agency. He said some of its units "have been used by certain officials not for constitutional purposes of state and personal security but for their own private political and material purposes, to settle accounts with undesirable persons, to carry out private political and criminal orders for a fee and sometimes simply as an instrument to earn money."

The remarks led to Litvinenko's suspension from the FSB and a series of criminal court cases on five counts of abuse of power and other charges. In 1999, he spent eight months in pretrial detention in Lefortovo Prison in Moscow. Months went by with no indication that the investigations against him would be dropped.

Litvinenko fled Moscow in October 2000 and arrived in London that November. He surrendered to the British police and claimed asylum, according to accounts by Litvinenko and the British press.

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