When Alexander Litvinenko was poisoned, we realised we were sitting on his last interview, having talked to him as research for an academic paper. But in telling the truth about the former Russian security agent we were drawn unwittingly into a new Cold War.
The Alexander Litvinenko who talked to us in April and May was not the martyr to the Kremlin that he has been painted as since his death. Instead he was a little unstable, even threatening to blackmail his one-time associates for money. One version of Litvinenko’s life is that his conscience made him turn whistle-blower on his FSB superiors; another is that he was a hired gun who transferred his loyalties from the state to the private sector. We did not want to spit on the man’s grave, but it did seem right to tell the truth about him when he was the subject of great public interest.
Unfortunately for us many Russians leapt upon our interview as evidence that Litvinenko’s deathbed accusation - that he had been killed on the orders of President Vladimir Putin - could be discounted. Our accounts of our interviews with Litvinenko were widely reproduced in patriotic Russian websites, newspapers and on television. Neither of us, though, would ever vote for, nor support Vladimir Putin, whose government is illiberal and autocratic.
Still, the Kremlin’s expatriate critics were enraged that their cause célèbre had been questioned. Exiled Chechen leader Akhmed Zakayev, who we interviewed with Litvinenko, was one of those we angered. Allegations that we were Kremlin agents were first floated in far-off Norway, in an article by Hilde Harbo in the daily Aftenposten (a paper whose claim to fame is that it published Knut Hamsun’s eulogy to Hitler on his death in 1945). Harbo cited a ‘British professor of Russian, who insisted on remaining nameless’ saying that he had information that Julia had been instructed by the Russian Security Services to go to London to spy on Zakayev - which is not true. Nor could it be; Julia came to London five years before Zakayev, in 1994. Zakayev even denies having ever met us in the Russian Newsweek, insisting the photographs of him and us together are ‘faked’.
Once legitimated by being published in Aftenposten, the allegation that we were Kremlin agents could be freely retailed in Britain and around the world. All we can say is that our account of what Litvinenko said was just how we found him, not based on any preconceptions, or ulterior motives.