Caught up in a new Cold War

When we interviewed Alexander Litvinenko, we had no idea we would end up being branded as Kremlin agents.

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.

Ramping up the Cold War hysteria in Britain is the public relations svengali Tim Bell. The magic he worked for Margaret Thatcher is now at the service of Boris Berezovsky, the expatriate Russian oligarch. It was Bell who circulated the photograph of Litvinenko on his deathbed. Berezovsky is one of many expatriate Russians who enriched themselves in the privatisation of Russia’s state-owned businesses. Today he presents himself as a political exile, seeking to overthrow Putin. Yet only six years ago Berezovsky helped finance Putin’s presidential campaign, as he did Boris Yeltsin’s before him.

When Litvinenko died, the British security services briefed journalists not to point the finger at Putin. Then foreign minister Peter Hain said that there were too many problems associated with the Kremlin to trust them. After that intelligence insider Dame Pauline Neville Jones said that the Kremlin were responsible, while home secretary John Reid insisted that relations with Russia were stable.

It is not hard to understand the ambivalence. British foreign policy towards Russia is one of qualified support. They have turned a blind eye to Putin’s war in Chechnya as an ally in the ‘war against terror’. But at the same time they hold their criticisms of Russia in reserve, to make sure that they have some ammunition to stop Putin getting above his station, especially while he controls so much oil and natural gas. And no doubt a New Cold War is a welcome diversion for Tony Blair’s government.

Of course Britain should grant asylum to political dissidents. But it would be naive to think that the authorities give Russia’s critics a home out of the goodness of their hearts. The expatriates can be called upon to undermine Russia’s international standing when needed. Until the Litvinenko killing the expatriates had less of a hearing over here, making them more desperate for attention. Now they have all the attention they need, but what does this do for Russian democracy?

Talking about the Litvinenko case on BBC1’s Question Time, author Martin Amis glumly intoned that we were seeing the ‘Asiatic side of Russia’. (Who is that more rude to - Asians who are made into a byword for cruelty, or Russians, who are racially stereotyped?) We do not know who killed Alexander Litvinenko. If we did we would tell the police. In some circles it seems that it does not much matter, as the weight of suspicion falls on all Russians.

James Heartfield is a writer based in London. Visit his website here. Julia Svetlichnaja is a researcher at the University of Westminster. Their interview with Litvinenko was published in the Daily Telegraph on 25 November 2006 – read it here.

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