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Don Murray

The sadistic poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko

Dec. 19, 2006

London is a metropolis of exiles and dissidents, many of them Russian, a city of spies and retribution, where accounts are settled often in the most unsettling manner.

Take, for example, polonium. As a weapon, it is novel, even eccentric. It's highly toxic, killing when its alpha radiation comes in contact with the body's cells. It's also rare and tricky to extract, and its main use has been as a trigger for nuclear bombs.

In the wake of the death of the former Russian secret policeman Alexander Litvinenko, poisoned by polonium, strange theories and strange people have popped up vying for space in the world press. Nick Priest is one of them.

He has a slightly odd name — he's a nuclear scientist not a man of the cloth — but otherwise it is just his line of work that was, until Litvinenko's death, obscure. His expertise is polonium.

"When I worked at the [British] National Radiological Protection Board I was putting polonium into rats, looking where it goes in the body, how long it stays in the body," Priest explains.

So, I suggested, he's the expert on how this could kill people.

"I guess I am," he said.

For a moment Priest seemed a little unsettled by the thought that his learned papers, based on his research on rats, had been read by someone with murder in mind. But only for a moment: He was having too good a time.

A world first

The international media in all its glory was beating a path to his door, asking whodunit and how. He proudly displayed his notebook with all his interview dates. ("The Greeks were the worst, they didn't understand a thing!")

What he offered to the assembled throngs was clarity and conviction about what he called the world's first alpha radiation murder.

The choice of polonium, he suggested, was a stroke of genius; the execution of the plot a bout of stupidity.

The choice of poison was genius in that polonium, carried in a vial in water, can be carried in a pocket through airport screening devices without setting off any alarms. Further genius: Once administered, the polonium creates symptoms that don't suggest poison for days, allowing time for the perpetrator to make a getaway.

The stupidity is linked to the ease with which British investigators were able to establish a 'polonium trail' leading from Moscow, with traces on airplanes, to hotels and cafés in London, which Litvinenko and two Russians he met frequented.

"Whoever did this was probably not an expert in radiation protection, so they probably didn't realize how much contamination you can get just by opening the top [of the vial] and closing it again. With the right equipment, you can detect just one count per second," he said.

Industrial grade assassination

Priest knows Russia. On the wall in his office are photographs of the army assault on the Russian parliament in 1993. He was there in Moscow; he took the photos himself.

He has worked at most of Russia's nuclear research facilities and knows many of its scientists. And he's convinced the polonium came from a Russian nuclear reactor. He dismisses reports that it might have been bought on the internet.

You can buy the stuff on the internet, he says, but the amounts are tiny. The polonium in Litvinenko was an industrial amount and main producer of industrial amounts of polonium is Russia.

So individuals or an organization with access to an industrial amount of polonium brought it to London to administer a spectacular assassination. Why?

The short answer looks to be that Litvinenko was a renegade, a lapsed believer in the secret creed of Russia's secret police. And he trumpeted his loss of faith in the most public and damning way possible.

Litvinenko wanted to serve, and did, first in the KGB and then its successor organization, the FSB.

He lost his faith when, in the mid 1990s, he found himself assigned to a top-secret FSB assassination squad. He looked around: His police chums were heavily into drug dealing and bribe-taking.

So he quit and denounced the rot publicly. He was then arrested and released some months later. That was a warning.

Sin and sadism

In 1999 two apartment buildings in Moscow were blown up and more than 200 people died. The government blamed Chechen extremists and prepared to launch a second war in a decade against Chechnya.

A week later another apartment building in nearby Ryazan was targeted but the explosives were found before they blew up. The building and its inhabitants were saved.

The twist was that the culprits were caught and they weren't Chechens but FSB agents. The official explanation was that this was a training exercise. Many refused to believe this and Litvinenko was in the front ranks of the doubters.

For him, as his friend Andrei Nekrasov put it, this was original sin — killing Russians to whip up fury against Chechens.

The man who presided over the FSB when Litvinenko was assigned to the assassination squad was Vladimir Putin. The man who was prime minister when the apartment buildings were blown up was Vladimir Putin.

When Putin was elected president in 2000, Litvinenko fled to London and became part of the large Russian exile community there.

Litvinenko saw it as his role in life to attack Putin and what he saw as the secret police culture that surrounded him. He wrote incendiary articles, several of which were published on a Chechen press website. He compared Putin to a serial killer, to a pedophile.

These attacks had become personal, aimed at a political leader with a very thin skin. It was asking for trouble from any number of sources and there were many examples of where that kind of trouble could lead.

Thirteen journalists have been murdered since Putin came to office. Two MPs have been assassinated. The deputy governor of the central bank was gunned down. All these people had raised questions about the government's conduct and none of their killers, not one, has been arrested.

In July 2006, the Russian parliament passed a law, introduced by Putin, to permit the assassination of "enemies of the Russian regime" abroad. For some, that could mean it was open season on dissidents like Litvinenko.

The use of polonium was both symptomatic and sadistic. An old KGB hand, the former general Oleg Kalugin — a man who actually helped plan the murder by poison of a Bulgarian dissident — says poison has been a Russian secret police signature since the 1950s.

As for the sadism, Nick Priest says polonium acts by attacking and destroying internal organs, including the intestines. The result is that over a period of days the victim dies in excruciating pain.

Opponents of the Putin regime in London understood the chilling message clearly: They should not think themselves safe in exile. They are targets and many are scared.


LETTERS:

It is amazing that even well known Don Murray writes such a naive and negative story regarding death of Mr.Litvinenko in London, and Russian Government envolment in the story.

The Cold war is over many years ago but it looks like some people, including media, are absessed with the enemy image of Russia. I am Russian, and I have lived in Canada for last 11 years, and I haven't seen any positive article about Russia in your newspapers or on TV. It is a shame. Russia is the biggest country in the world by land, and for sure they have some good things.

In Mr. Litvinenko case, I would say it is probably simple story. He was a poor immigrant, didn't have enough money to support his family in London. He didn't brought any capital to England from Russia. Officers of KGB have never made a lot.

By blaiming President Putin and modern Russia in everything he tried to make some money from famous looter of Russia Mr. Berezovsky. Litvinenko probably participated in illegal trade of radioactive metals without knowing wthat it is. Litvinenko and His business partners probably didn't understand the nature of this kind of metals because their education was completely in diffrent field, and as a result, all of them had got a good dose of radiation. Looks like the metal was in their pockets. It is not a spy romantic story.

I would recomend Don Murray to read a book of Paul Khlebnikov about Kremlin Mafia during the end of 90th. It is a very true history of Russian life then, including very good picture of Mr. Berezovsky.

There is strong opinion that Mr. Khlebnikov was killed by the order of Mr. Berezovsky for writing the book. Paul Khlebnikov was an american with Russian roots. He used western terminology and western approach to describe all events and economy of Russia in his book.

Hopefully, after the reading Mr. Murray and other media people will look more realistically at Mr. Berezovsky and Company, and much more positive at what Russian Government and Mr. Putin are doing now.

—Natasha K. | Vancouver

First of all I would like to say that it's good to see there are still a few journalists who can present a truthful aspect of the current state of affairs in the Soviet Union.

Most people who have lived in Eastern Europe and former (and present day) Soviet republics know without a shadow of a doubt what the Kremlin is capable of.

As for the so-called critics who put in question Don Murray's journalistic professionalism I have only 1 remark to make: since they obviously could not challenge the facts presented in the story, they chose the more subtle venue of "character assasination", a well known method which has been used extensively in Communist Party activities (even amongst communists themselves).

Unfortunately, the western democracies are too familiar with the "communist witchhunt" which occured here in the 50's to even begin to understand the horrors of the Gulag. And the fact that the people responsible for it are still in power and haven't changed a bit.

The fact that such a story can elicit such virulent attacks towards the character/professionalism of the journalist who wrote it shows without any doubt that it touched "an inconvenient truth".

—Dragos | Montreal

I would like to reply on the comment of John S. from Toronto.

I would agree that most people in Russia knew nothing about Mr Litvinenko, about his book “FSB is bombing Russia”. Nevertheless, the political obscurity in Russia is not the reason against killing of Kremlin opponents. You may know that in Russia there is no media coverage of dissidents and political opposition. Nobody had heard about life of Mr Yandarbiev before he was killed by FSB agents.

—Roman | Vladivostok, Russia

Maybe Litvineneko wasn't a saint and the Russian exile communtiy in London is murky. That doesn't answer the questions and concerns in Don Murray's article.

Thirteen journalists, two MP's and central bank deptuy governor all murdered. All critics of Putin. No arrests. It has every appearnace of a deliberate silencing of his critics.

And what is the FSB doing claiming agents caught planting explosives in an apartment building were on a training exercise? What intelligence agency trains it's agents to blow up apartment buildings?

Under Yeltsin gangsters became oligarchs but ubder Putin the gangsters have been given the keys to the Kremlin.

—Peter K | Edmonton

I was shocked by the report by Don Murray on the death of Victor Litvinenko. It was truly disappointing to see such a respected journalist present a story that was so one sided and lacking any sort of journalistic integrity that we have come to expect from the CBC.

I have spent a great deal of time in Russia and have many Russian friends and can assure you that the average Russian feels nothing but contempt for the rich oligarchs such as Mikhail Khodokovsky and Boris Berezovsky and fully support Putin’s effort to bring these criminals to justice.

They are baffled as to why western media continue to portray these corrupt individuals as innocent victims that are paying the price for daring to speak out against Putin and the Kremlin.

No one had heard of Victor Litvinenko before his death, yet now he is suddenly portrayed as a vocal Putin critic that the Kremlin had to silence. To give such credibility to all opinions expressed by Mr Litvinenko and his power hungry associates would be the same as believing Donald Rumsfeld’s opinions on Iraq’s alledged WMD.

It is interesting that Mr Murray failed to investigate the fact that Mr Berezovsky was busy paying thousands of dollars to one of Britain’s biggest public relations firms in an attempt to fully exploit the situation to his benefit while his employee lay dying in the hospital. He also failed to point out that British police have not yet ruled out the possibility that Mr. Litvinenko may have poisoned himself, as reported by the BBC.

Rather than presenting various theories behind the unfortunate death of Mr Litvinenko, Mr Murray chose to make concrete statements that led readers to belief that Putin and the Kremlin were indeed responsible for his death. To present such a conclusion only weeks after the event and while a police investigation is still ongoing, is completely irresponsible and contravenes the CBC’s journalistic guidelines.

The neo conservative hawks in Washington view Russia as the biggest threat to their geopolitical ambitions and have chosen to embark on a ‘soft war’ against them by demonizing everything Putin does.

Most of the American and British media have been more than happy to go along with his strategy. It is unfortunate to see Mr Murray jump on the same bandwagon as those that have brought death and destruction to the streets of Iraq.

—Jason Maxwell | Vancouver, B.C.

Why don't you just get Berezovsky to write this instead of paying a journalist. Has Murray done no research on Litvinenko. The prize dissident is also patronised by the exiled Russian oligarch Berezovsky who paid to publish his diatribes against Putin.

Other close associates are Chechen rebels (otherwise known as terrorists these days). Litvinenko was also keen to earn money through shady business deals in imitation of his patron Berzovsky. Among his efforts are smuggling including radioactive materials.

The articles of Justin Raimondo on Litvinenko will give you at least a sampling of the other side of the picture. It may be that Putin was involved but it seems astonishing that he would use radioactive materials or that he would even order the murder since it can only result in the sort of exagerrated anti-Putin tirades exemplified by the CBC National and your article.

That is what happens when you put billionaire gangsters in jail like Khordokovsky and send others into exile such as Berezovsky. How can you possibly doubt Putin when George Bush looked into his eyes and saw his soul was pure! —Ken Hanly | Oakburn, Man.

Kudos to Don Murray for his excellent work on "The sadistic poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko".

It was a real eye opener and grim reminder that the Soviet regime is alive and well.

—Elly Hallam | Gabriola, B.C.

I am very surprised that such a respectable journalist as Don Murray unprofessionally covered the Litvinenko's story. Anyone who did a little bit of research on the modern Russian history of the 90s knows that the so-to-speak staunch "Kremlin's critics" that reside in London these days are no more but crooks that stole national assets in the 90s through all the possible crooked schemes in Russia.

In order to avoid prosecution in Russia, which would be the case with any country in the word, they fled to London and became self proclaimed politicians and staunch "Kremlin critics". Now, in order to avoid prosecution, they spend all the money and time on media coverage trying to portray this murder as Kremlin's another attempt on "Kremlin's critics" freedom.

I lived and worked in Russia, in the UK and Europe, and believe me, no one heard of Litvinenko up until a few weeks ago when first British media blew up the story out of proportion. Litvinenko lived in London and hung out with another self proclaimed Kremlin's staunch critic Boris Berezovski, who was in the forefront of stealing national assets in the 90s in Russia.

The version of why Litvinenko's was killed presented in the article and the outlined story it is no more than a conspiracy theory on the brink of absurdity and total rubbish.

I am very disappointed that Mr. Murray decided to take that path. I relied on CBC's coverage before and now have serious doubts about other reports on the affairs when I have no knowledge.

—John S | Toronto

Don Murray's excellent investigative reporting on the poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko implicates Vladimir Putin and Russia's security services in committing a series of murderous and terrorist acts, both at home and abroad.

The circumstantial evidence and testimonies presented were compelling. The logical question which arises is: What are the world's democracies going to do about it?

—Bohdan Klid | Edmonton

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ABOUT THIS AUTHOR

Biography

Don Murray is one of the most prolific of the CBC's foreign correspondents, filing hundreds of reports - in French and English - from China, Europe, the Middle East and the Soviet Union. He is currently based in London. During his 30 years with CBC, Murray has covered a multitude of major stories, including the advent of perestroika and glasnost and the collapse of the Soviet Union. He wrote A Democracy of Despots, a book documenting that collapse and the rebirth of Russia. While in Berlin, he covered the peace agreement ending the war in Bosnia and, in London, covered the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, and the peace agreement in Northern Ireland. He authored Family Wars, a major feature article for the International Journal paralleling the troubles in Northern Ireland and the war in Bosnia. In recent years he has covered the wars in Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq.

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