Alexander Litvinenko: the poison of power

Zygmunt Dzieciolowski
20 November 2006

Their dream was a poison which would kill a man instantly but which could not be found in a corpse's blood during the post-mortem examination. For years, the secret poison laboratory of the Soviet-era biologist Grigory M Mairanovski, founded on the orders of Lavrenti Beria in 1938, researched deadly substances. The moment came when Mairanovski and his team felt that, by deceiving even experienced medical experts, they had achieved their dream.

It happened when German prisoners-of war who had been killed with Mairanovski's poison were immediately transferred to the Sklifasovskii emergency clinic in the heart of Moscow. The Sklifasovskii medics were unable to find the poison - and concluded that the German POWs had in fact died of natural causes.

The Mairanovski laboratory was closed in 1946 following the replacement of Lavrenti Beria by Vsevolod Merkulov as head of the NKVD. But poisons continued to be used intermittently throughout modern Soviet and post-Soviet history, indicating that the tradition of toxicological assassination was never completely abandoned.

The poisoned body politic

It was some times pursued via proxies. Georgi Markov, a Bulgarian writer and journalist with the BBC World Service, died in London in September 1978 after apparently being injected with poison from the tip of an umbrella.

Yuri Shchekochikhin, a Russian journalist (deputy editor-in-chief of Novaya Gazeta) and member of the Duma (parliament), died on the night of 2-3 June 2003 after returning from a business trip to the city of Ryazan where he had sought to investigate a furniture-store corruption scandal involving high-ranking intelligence officials.

His illness was first described by Moscow doctors as allergy but when he lost his hair, and the skin on his face changed its structure, it became obvious that his body was reacting to a strong, unidentifiable poison. Doctors were unable to save him; he died within a few days.

For a few years, Shchekochikhin's Novaya Gazeta colleagues tried to discover the real reasons for his death, and sent tissue-samples to London for further investigation. In the event it was not possible to identify the poison which killed Shchekochikhin, though his editor-in-chief Dmitri Muratov has no doubts that this was the cause of death.

Another poisoning attempt affected journalist Anna Politkovskaya (later shot dead by an unknown assassin on 7 October 2006). At the first news of the Beslan school siege in September 2004 she rushed to the airport to seek a seat on flight in the direction of the north Caucasus. In the end she got a ticket for a flight to Rostov-on-Don. Aware of all possible dangers she refused to eat and drink on board. Only at the end of the flight did she request a glass of water. She fainted after the plane landed, and for days doctors struggled to save her. She had been poisoned, perhaps by two secret-service agents who had followed her onto the plane.

Zygmunt Dzieciolowski is a Polish journalist and writer who has reported on Russia for leading German, Swiss and Polish newspapers since 1989. He is the author of Planet Russia, published in Poland in 2005.

Also by Zygmunt Dzieciolowski on openDemocracy:

"Mikhail Khodorkovsky's shadow"
(3 April 2006)

"Russia: racism on the rise"
(26 April 2006)

"Russia's corruption dance"
(15 June 2006)

"Kinoeye: Russia's reviving film industry"
(11 July 2006)

"Russia and the middle east: post-Soviet flux"
(14 August 2006)

"Roman Abramovich's Chukotka project"
(14 September 2006)

"In Russia, death solves all problems"
(3 November 2006)

The most famous poisoning case involved the Ukrainian opposition leader (now president) Viktor Yushchenko. A few months before the presidential election in 2004 he was hospitalised suffering stomach pains. Soon his face began to change, and a mask of lesions and blisters disfigured the Ukrainian politician's previously youthful looks. Numerous examinations held by laboratories in the Britain, Austria, the Netherlands and Germany confirmed that Yushchenko was poisoned purposely by a poisonous substance called dioxine.

In April 2002 the Russian secret services used a poison in order to liquidate one of the most dangerous Chechen warlords, Omar ibn-Khattab. He died within five minutes after opening a letter said to be written by his mother. It was delivered by a Chechen fighter recruited by the Russian secret services as their agent.

Events in Moscow's Dubrovka theatre in October 2002, when 900 spectators were taken hostage by Chechen fighters, further demonstrate how much the Russian secret services are fond of employing poison-gas substances. After getting inside the building, members of the special forces used an unidentified narcotic gas to subdue the terrorists. But it affected hostages too. 129 of them died, all but two from the adverse effects of the gas.

The toxic trail

The case of Alexander Litvinenko, the former secret service (FSB) agent now in a London hospital after being poisoned in a restaurant (with, it has been suggested - though is unconfirmed - a dose of the metal thallium) is no different. Before and after his flight to London, the colonel had made enemies in the Russian government and intelligence services.

At first he accused his bosses of organising an attempt to kill émigré businessman Boris Berezovsky, himself a strong critic of president Putin. Litvinenko's book on the mysterious explosions of apartment blocks in Moscow and other cities in September 1999 which killed more than 300 people angered his enemies even more. Litvinenko had no doubts that the explosions - which helped propel Russia into its second Chechen war, and were followed a year later by the election of Vladimir Putin to the presidency - were organised by the FSB to convince public opinion that war was essential to curb Chechen terrorism.

The Kremlin's allies in Moscow deny that the FSB could be involved in an attempt to poison Litvinenko. In their view the incident helps Boris Berezovsky, who will now use it in his propaganda campaign against the Kremlin. Gennadi Gudkov, a Duma member and retired KGB colonel, acidly praised Berezovsky's talent as a director of theatrical spectaculars.

But Kremlin critics such as Sergei Kovalev, or former Yukos executive and KGB general Alexei Kondaurov, do not exclude anothrer possibility: that former colleagues of Alexander Litvinenko had themselves had enough of his criticism and activities.

As with so many elements in the melancholy trail of Russian deaths in the last sixteen years, the truth will be hard to find. But the method, the symptoms, and the mysterious circumstances in which a poison was used in London all indicate that the tradition of Dr Mairanovski's laboratory has not been forgotten.

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