Tougher to Call Than in the Old Days
Published: December 8, 2006 (Issue # 1228)
Following the death of Alexander Litvinenko from poisoning by polonium-210, the Russian media have published numerous possible versions of events: He was killed by self-exiled oligarch Boris Berezovsky; he committed suicide; he didn’t die at all; he was poisoned with tobacco smoke; or he was killed by Chechens. Since the 19th century it has been customary for blood enemies in the Caucasus to poison each other with polonium-210.
In the meantime, Scotland Yard trundled along the polonium-210 trail, trying to ascertain where Litvinenko first came into contact with the substance, how it got to London in the first place and where it originally came from. In the process they found a hotel room where some had been spilled.
The investigation is clearly nearing its end.
Now begins the most interesting part because, despite the fact that Scotland Yard probably knows the culprit’s name, we’re not likely to ever learn who poisoned Litvinenko or why.
Let me explain.
Enemies of the state have been liquidated more than once in Russian history: The Tsarevich Alexei was tortured to death, the Decembrists were hanged and Trotsky was killed with an ice pick. There aren’t divergent interpretations of those murders around today. No historian argues that Trotsky was killed to make Stalin look bad.
But the state apparatus is now so inscrutable that Litvinenko’s murder could fit a number of worldviews.
Did President Vladimir Putin order that Litvinenko be killed? If so, that’s pretty serious. If, instead, he only provided the motivation for the poisoning with a comment like, “Enough of Litvinenko,” this is different, and the main player is not the president but a group demonstrating its power to the president and the world.
And if he was murdered, were the killers certain the polonium-210 connection would be discovered? If so, then this constitutes a conscious challenge and a complete break with the West, suggesting the rogue groups theory. If not, then whoever did it was enough of an ignoramus to believe that the atomic-age novelty of the murder weapon would go undetected.
So, what is the actual state of affairs in modern Russia? Two factions of highly placed Russian secret service agents divide up the customs business and then go after each other with riot police; regular government housecleaning occurs, including decrees coming down from on high firing senior deputies to the foreign minister and in the Federal Security Service, but these same officials continue to work, inconspicuously, in the same offices.
Police show up at the offices of a Far East shipping company and seize various documents. They then proceed to the company’s warehouse, where they seize cases of caviar, claiming they lack the proper documentation. Different security agents rush in to protect the company. The police stage a retreat, but later call the other agency and threaten the agents with violence.
So, if someone in power killed Litvinenko, then the same state with security structures divvying up caviar and customs goes after its enemies with polonium-210 as a way to increase its power.
If, however, enemies of those in power killed Litvinenko, then to what are they opposed?
Are they opposed to a country where the crooks divvy up the red caviar and gorge themselves on the black? Enemies of a country where the security forces catch the police and police catch the security forces, while both team up against investigations by the prosecutor, who is in turn too busy running a protection racket?
Here is the difference between Litvinenko’s poisoning and Trotsky’s murder. With Trotsky, no one would doubt that Stalin gave the order. In today’s Russia, where every little section of the state power structure struggles with all the other parts, everything is possible.
Yulia Latynina hosts a political talk show on Ekho Moskvy radio.