Litvinenko: still blaming ‘backward Russia’

A Russian academic in London asks why British commentators are so keen to find Russia itself guilty of the dissident's murder.

Julia Svetlichnaja

Topics Books

Martin Sixsmith, The Litvinenko File: The True Story of a Death Foretold, Macmillan, 2007.

Once the BBC’s man in Moscow, Martin Sixsmith is the author of The Litvinenko File, the first book on the poisoning of ex-Federal Security Bureau (FSB, the successor to the KGB) officer Alexander Litvinenko in London last year. It gives a detailed account of key witnesses in London, who knew Litvinenko well, and Sixsmith’s own conclusions based on his trip to Moscow to investigate the murder.

The Litvinenko case is now back in the headlines; former KGB officer Andrei Lugovoi, a key suspect, has claimed that the British Secret Service was implicated in the poisoning and tried to recruit him to spy on President Putin.

Despite the claims of Litvinenko’s former acquaintances that their ‘friend’ is a martyr to Putin’s regime, Sixsmith refuses to believe that Litvinenko really was a noble dissident struggling for democratic Russia. Instead, he gives an objective account of Litvinenko’s activities in London – from his involvement with British companies looking for dirt on Russian businessmen to his relationships with former oligarchs such as Boris Berezovsky and Leonid Nevzlin (who fled Russia on fraud and murder allegations). Contrary to advertising and public relations executive Lord Tim Bell’s Berezovsky-funded campaign to portray Litvinenko as a dedicated fighter against criminal Russia, Sixsmith effectively shows Litvinenko remained a mere opportunist, distracted and distressed by his own position as Berezovsky’s ‘dog’. Sixsmith writes: ‘It is clear he [Litvinenko] was a desperate man and was being driven towards increasingly desperate acts’. (1)

Sixsmith shares assassinated Forbes’ editor Paul Klebnikov’s judgement on Berezovsky: ‘Berezovsky is not satisfied with stealing – he wants everybody to see him stealing, and stealing with impunity.’ (2) Sixsmith reminds us that it was Berezovsky’s name that appeared most often in the Russian press in connection with the murder of Klebnikov. Before he was killed, Klebnikov wrote in his book Godfather of the Kremlin: Boris Berezovsky and the Looting of Russia that the oligarch had a dark history ‘replete with bankrupt companies and violent deaths’ (3).

As sharp as his assessment of Litvinenko is, Sixsmith’s own investigation proves rather disappointing and stacked with the clichés that Russia is a dark place where ‘the repressive mentality of the cold war’ prevails. Sixsmith repeats old and lazy stereotypes in order to justify his own conclusions that it must be the ‘long arm of Moscow’ that got Litvinenko in the end. He dismisses Russian president Putin as a ‘man who came from nowhere, a nonentity that made him so attractive to Berezovsky’ (4).

However one judges Putin’s regime, the truth is that he was well and widely known since the 1990s when he was effectively running St Petersburg, while the city’s flamboyant mayor Anatoly Sobchak preferred to spend his time entertaining foreign guests and travelling abroad. It was Putin who implemented the so-called ‘collective enterprises’, which allowed foreign credits, opened the first foreign banks in Russia, started selling land to businesses and privatising housing. Sixsmith’s assertion that Putin ‘silently rose to power’ is simply misleading. Prior to Putin’s appointment as prime minister in August 1999, he was leading the management department of Yeltsin’s administration in 1997 and served as Security Council secretary in 1999. Sixsmith states that ‘it was Berezovsky who persuaded Boris Yeltsin to appoint Vladimir Putin prime minister’ (5). However, it is a well-known fact that Yeltsin’s decision was not popular among his advisers and family.

Sixsmith describes Berezovsky’s circle in London as ‘exiles’; however, former oligarchs such as Berezovsky and Nevzlin (co-owner of former oil giant Yukos) were never exiled from Russia. They simply fled following allegations of fraud, tax evasions and even murder. ‘Fugitives’ would be a more accurate description.

‘Was Putin’s Russia now escaping from the old Soviet stereotypes and the repressive mentality of the cold war? Was it really emerging into the sunny uplands of democracy, tolerance and a law-governed state?’ (6) These are the questions Sixsmith defines as ‘crucial’ in his ‘quest to uncover why Alexander Litvinenko had met his cruel death’. Well, the questions determine the answers. As Sixsmith had already made his mind up, his quest was rather short-lived. The main witness in Litvinenko’s case, ex-KGB and Berezovsky’s business partner, Lugovoi, refuses to talk to Sixsmith. So do Litvinenko’s former colleagues from the FSB. Only Dmitry Peskov, the head of Kremlin information, whose job it is to talk to everyone, tells Sixsmith that ‘the president is very upset by these allegations’ (7).

The true revelation comes from the unlicensed Moscow cab driver who opens his heart to Sixsmith revealing that it was ‘special forces’ who killed Litvinenko because he was a traitor. This was confirmed by some youth playing on Moscow’s Pushkin Square. Thus, with the help of the taxi driver, Sixsmith deduces: ‘My investigation led me to the conclusion that the most likely suspects are to be found within the Russian security services, the FSB, GRU military intelligence, and the foreign intelligence agency, the SVR.’ (8) However, they did it on the ‘initiative from below’. Hence, Putin could be implicated but only as responsible for the atmosphere and conditions in which the killing of the traitor could take place. That is the wisdom of the cabbie: we cannot pin the blame on Putin directly, but still, you just cannot trust those politicians.

Litvinenko, however, cannot be so easily described as a traitor. He himself was so enmeshed in the underground world of the Russian mafia, in shady deals and off-the-records arrangements, that he could have been the victim of any criminal gangs in Russia or abroad. He was the one who hoped to profit from his inside knowledge of the Moscow underworld, only, perhaps, for this world to catch up with him in the end.

Yet again, the involvement of the FSB, Russia’s intelligence service, is taken for granted here. The only disagreement seems to be over whether it was Putin himself or ‘rogue’ elements who poisoned Litvinenko. Sixsmith and other conspiracy theorists, however, have a big problem: all the known suspects, including ‘rogue’ elements, far from being potential FSB agents, are known for their anti-Putin views. Ex-FSB Lugovoi, for example, having spent a year in a Russian prison for assisting the escape of Berezovsky’s ex-partner in the airline company Aeroflot Glushkov, is unlikely to sympathise with Putin’s over-punishing regime.

In short, the thrust of Sixsmith’s overall argument seems to be that while rogue elements remain in barbaric Russia, Putin’s political opponents such as Berezovsky or Litvinenko (whom Sixsmith, despite never even having met him, in a fatherly way calls ‘Sasha’ – a diminutive form of Alexander – throughout the book) struggle for democracy abroad. Thus, Litvinenko’s murder is yet another action in what Sixsmith calls ‘a war between the Kremlin and its political opponents’. Sixsmith is correct in identifying the current climate of mysterious murders in Russia as a ‘war’. This war, however, is not between the Kremlin and its political adversaries. In my view, this war is between criminals and the state, which pursues those who have committed crimes against it.

Putin emerged from the drunken corruption of Yeltsin’s last years, at the birth of the millennium, trying to reassert the rule of law in Russia. Putin’s regime is seen as a harsh and often unjust one. He angered global investors by rescinding privatisations and vigorously pursuing tax. Putin’s clash with Khordokovsky of Yukos, the holder of Russia’s privatised oil reserves, cost the latter $27 billion and nine years in a Siberian labour camp. But Putin still struggles against less overt forces. Repression is normal, but still there is no rule of law – Forbes editor Paul Klebnikov was shot dead in Moscow in July 2004. Andrey Kozlov, the protégé of Vladimir Putin and deputy chairman of Russia’s Central Bank, was shot dead in September 2006 while pursuing money-laundering bankers, and journalist Anna Politkovsksya was shot in her Moscow hallway a few weeks later. What dominates Russia’s domestic politics and colours its foreign relations is the struggle for power between the forces of crime and often clumsily wielded law. And some elements of these forces of crime or ‘rogue elements’ are operating from abroad where they not only fight the regime but often each other.

The main problem with Sixsmith’s book seems to be his drive to undermine Russia as a dark place, where the ‘repressive mentality of the cold war’ would always win, where the past will always dominate the present. It is peculiar that Sixsmith quotes and agrees with my description of Litvinenko’s persona, but then undermines my view that it was not Russia that killed Litvinenko on the basis that my father was a regional communist party leader in the 1980s. Similarly, Sixsmith seems to agree that Litvinenko was not a dissident, but still blames Russia on the basis of its difficult past. The truth is that Russia is a place like any other. If only the KGB or the Communist Party were the root of all evil. The KGB-FSB, like the rest of the country, went through massive changes during the last decade and it is simply invalid to explain Litvinenko’s death through the prism of a lazy stereotype of Russia as ‘an empire of evil’.

Julia Svetlichnaja is a researcher at the University of Westminster.

Martin Sixsmith’s The Litvinenko File: The True Story of a Death Foretold is published by Macmillan (buy this book from Amazon(UK))

Previously on spiked

Julia Svetlichnaja and James Heartfield got caught up in a new Cold War. James Heartfield also argued that the reaction to Litvinenko’s death was riddled with conspiracy theories and that Yeltsin has become the West’s hero-turned-scapegoat. Brendan O’Neill pointed out that some in the West used the death of Litvinenko to re-draw the East-West divide. Or read more at spiked issue Russia.

(1) The Litvinenko File, Martin Sixsmith, Macmillan (2007): 261

(2) Ibid: 189

(3) Ibid: 233

(4) Ibid: 176

(5) Ibid: 179

(6) Ibid: 269

(7) Ibid: 276

(8) Ibid: 311-12

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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