Reviews: 'Death of a Dissident,' 'Litvinenko File'


Philadelphia Inquirer

August 12, 2007

DEATH OF A DISSIDENT: The Poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko and the Return of the KGB, by Alex Goldfarb and Marina Litvinenko. Free Press, 369 pp., $27.

THE LITVINENKO FILE: The Life and Death of a Russian Spy, by Martin Sixsmith. St. Martin's Press, 320 pp., $24.95.

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown recently made his first visit to see President Bush. Eavesdrop through your own surveillance program and you'll doubtless hear the name Alexander Litvinenko.

First, the facts about this spectacular case of pinpoint nuclear murder: Litvinenko, born in Russia in 1962, became an operative in 1986 for the KGB, continuing after it changed into the FSB in 1991. Until the mid-1990s, he remained a loyal employee. But he became disillusioned as he witnessed the official lies and murderous behavior of Russian forces in the nation's war against Chechnya.

Ordered by the FSB to kill the influential oligarch Boris Berezovsky in 1997, he instead warned Berezovsky, then held a televised 1998 Moscow news conference at which he and several disguised FSB mavericks made the charges public.

From then on, Litvinenko became an enemy of Russian intelligence and, many believe, of Russian President Vladimir Putin, himself a fiercely loyal veteran of the KGB and FSB.

The government fired Litvinenko, and arrested and tried him in 1999 on minor charges. But in 2000 he escaped from Russia with his wife, Marina, and son, Tolik, ultimately receiving asylum in Britain.

In the years between his arrival there and his death last year, Litvinenko evolved into a loyal aide to Berezovsky, also by then an exile in Britain and Putin's foremost enemy. Litvinenko published two books with sensational claims: "Blowing Up Russia" (2001) and "The Gang from Lubyanka" (2002).

Litvinenko asserted that the FSB had blown up Moscow apartment buildings in 1999, killing scores of people to justify a renewed war against Chechnya and to bolster support for the newly installed Putin.

He also charged that the infamous Moscow "theater siege" of 2002 was an FSB operation. Several Russian politicians and journalists who tried to investigate those allegations were later murdered, including Anna Politkovskaya, shot to death last year on Oct. 7 - Putin's birthday.

On May 22, following a Scotland Yard investigation, Britain charged that former KGB agent Andrei Lugovoi poisoned Litvinenko last Nov. 1 by placing polonium-210, an extraordinarily deadly substance, in his tea at London's Millennium Hotel. Litvinenko died 23 days later after excruciating pain.

On his deathbed, according to intimates - including Alex Goldfarb, co-author with Litvinenko's widow of one of two new books about the affair - he wrote a powerful statement accusing Putin of his murder: "May God forgive you for what you have done, not only to me, but to beloved Russia and its people."

British doctors made the astonishing discovery during his final days that the poison was indeed polonium-210, which is difficult to detect at first, but a godsend to detectives because it leaves an unmistakable radioactive trail. As a result, Scotland Yard pinned the crime on Lugovoi and demanded his extradition from Russia. Russia refused.

A few weeks ago, Britain ejected four Russian diplomats and clamped down on visas for Russian officials. Russia responded tit for tat.

That leaves British relations with Russia at their frostiest in decades. By contrast, President Bush recently hosted Putin at his family compound for the fraternity-brother diplomacy he favors. "The Litvinenko File" and "Death of a Dissident" offer compelling, though different, accounts of this intricate scenario.

Former Moscow BBC correspondent Martin Sixsmith brings a deductive Holmesian style and reportorial distance to the case. He synthesizes biographical and other information about the main players, concluding that an independent group of current or former FSB agents committed the murder, acting without direct orders from the Kremlin but knowing their work would be appreciated. He is often skeptical of claims by Berezovsky and Litvinenko.

Goldfarb and Marina Litvinenko, by contrast, couldn't be closer to the subject. Their book is by far the more exciting read, a riveting thriller full of eyewitness accounts.

Marina Litvinenko's sympathies require no explanation. Goldfarb is an ex-Russian scientist who emigrated to the United States, became chief steward of the philanthropist billionaire George Soros' projects in Russia, started working for Berezovsky in the mid-1990s, then flew to Turkey at Berezovsky's behest to help in the Litvinenko family's escape.

Goldfarb argues that only Putin could have authorized and orchestrated a polonium murder, given the immense difficulty involved in obtaining and using the rare substance, 97 percent of which is produced in Russia.

Both books provide rich "inside Russia" details to help readers make up our own minds. Perhaps the most important context both books deliver is that all the characters in this drama knew or know one another, in some cases very well. Berozovsky, once a close adviser to Boris Yeltsin, skied and dined with Putin and advocated on his behalf as Yeltsin's successor before they fell out. Lugovoi worked for Berezovsky as security head for ORT, his TV channel.

Litvinenko personally brought a dossier of criminal FSB activities to Putin in 1998 in the hope that the Putin, who was then running the FSB, would reform it. Litvinenko later concluded that Putin couldn't, because he had participated in criminal FSB activities himself.

Those connections cast doubt on the official Russian government position that Litvinenko was too insignificant a figure to bother the Kremlin. To absorb both of these books is to down your skulduggery straight, without any sweeteners. Whichever scenario you accept, one thing's for sure: The 1990s Western hope for a free, democratic Russia has gone up in smoke - or radiation.