New TV series Litvinenko
Litvinenko's true sordid plots aren’t dramatized in the eponymous series, neither are his attempts with his Italian friend to plant incriminating evidence on a suspected nuclear-component smuggler, for which the Italian was jailed.
At the end of June, British television channel ITV broadcast a four-part drama on the death of Alexander Litvinenko. Starring Dr. Who veteran David Tennant as the former Soviet and Russian intelligence officer turned MI6 consultant, it tells the story of a long-running British police investigation into his untimely demise in November 2006, through contamination with the highly radioactive Polonium-210.
The probe concluded that Dmitry Kovtun and Andrey Lugovoy, two of Litvinenko’s former KGB associates whom he considered friends and business partners, deliberately poisoned him with the substance. Authorities in London resultantly sought to have the pair extradited from Russia, but as the country’s constitution prohibits the extradition of its citizens under any circumstances, they remain at liberty today. Nonetheless, they - and by extension the Kremlin - have been comprehensively convicted of the crime in the court of Western public opinion since.
Central to this consensus are the findings of a 2016 public inquiry into the poisoning. Led by Judge Robert Owen, it concluded Litvinenko was murdered by Kovtun and Lugovoy, “probably” with the express approval of Russian President Vladimir Putin, and then-FSB director Nikolai Patrushev.
In promoting the series - simply called Litvinenko - its scriptwriter asserted boldly that the show’s protagonist was “a living witness to his own murder,” who’d “spent his dying days entrusting the Metropolitan Police with the details of what happened to him.” The Guardian’s Luke Harding goes even further, describing Litvinenko as “the man who solved his own murder.”
The Owen Inquiry relied heavily on Litvinenko’s deathbed discussions with police officers in a London hospital to reach its verdicts. Yet in reality, at no point did Litvinenko accuse Kovtun or Lugovoy of responsibility for his death during these conversations. He instead blamed Mario Scaramella, a crooked security consultant with whom he’d dined at a restaurant prior to meeting them, in the Pine Bar of London’s Millennium Hotel.
As the inquiry’s report notes, while in hospital, Litvinenko told “a number of his friends and associates” that Scaramella had poisoned him, and “either delayed in telling them, or did not tell them at all, about his meeting with Lugovoy and Kovtun on the same day.” The two Russians were similarly unmentioned in a BBC Russian Service interview Litvinenko conducted a week after his admission to hospital.
The Plot Thickens
What’s more, there’s nothing in Litvinenko’s description to police of that meeting that even vaguely suggests an assassination scenario. He recalled how he sat briefly with Lugovoy, who asked him if he wanted anything from the bar. Being teetotal, he declined the offer, so his accused killer said “there is still some tea left here, if you want to you can have some”:
“I poured some tea out of the teapot, although there was only [a] little left on the bottom, and it made just half a cup…I swallowed several times, but it was green tea with no sugar and it was already cold,” Litvinenko recalled. “I didn’t like it for some reason…Maybe in total I swallowed three or four times. I haven’t even finished that cup.”
The manner in which the inquiry report mutated this banal interaction into evidence of a targeted assassination is nothing short of extraordinary. Acknowledging Lugovoy being “extremely indifferent” as to whether Litvinenko drank the supposedly lethal concoction was an “oddity”, it cites Metropolitan Police QC Richard Horwell, who argued “any display by either Lugovoy or Kovtun of eagerness or urgency or desperation would have appeared suspicious and counterproductive”:
“Anything other than diffidence would have appeared very suspicious to Litvinenko and may well have brought an end to the plot to kill him…Any encouragement or enthusiasm…that Litvinenko should drink it would have been out of place and could’ve betrayed his murderous intent.”
Owen declared this feeble reasoning to be “enough to dispose of this point.” His report engages in even more egregious logical fallacy to explain why Litvinenko consistently attributed his poisoning to Scaramella, “even to his friends”:
“Litvinenko’s accounts of his meetings with Lugovoy and Kovtun…must be approached with some caution. [They may] contain some infelicities, added by Litvinenko in an attempt to salve his wounded pride…It seems to me to be at least possible Litvinenko carried this feeling…into his interviews with the police, and in the course of those interviews he exaggerated Lugovoy’s diffidence about the tea in order to mitigate what he would have seen as his own professional error in drinking it.”
In other words, we are to believe Litvinenko was quite so embarrassed he’d been stung by his pals, he deliberately downplayed their actions, and his own credulity, in order to save face with his associates and authorities, even while he lay dying, with literally nothing left to lose, and every interest in naming names and leveling charges.
As journalist Edward Jay Epstein has documented, the narrative of Litvinenko’s poisoning as revenge-murder resulted from a well-funded propaganda blitz by exiled Russian oligarch Boris Berezovsky, with whom the former KGB officer had a longstanding personal and professional relationship. The oligarch employed the services of infamous PR consultant Tim Bell, who extensively briefed journalists, arranged on and off-record interviews, and ensured now-famous deathbed photos of an emaciated, hairless Litvinenko circulated the world over.
It’s plausible this campaign produced a sensational July 2007 Daily Telegraph article, featuring shocking eyewitness testimony from Pine Bar waiter Norberto Andrade, who’d served Litvinenko, Kovtun and Lugovoy on the apparently fateful day. He was quoted as saying that he’d been deliberately obstructed when approaching the trio’s table, “to create a distraction” and allow Polonium 210 to be sprayed into the teapot.
"When I poured the remains of the teapot into the sink, the tea looked more yellow than usual and was thicker – it looked gooey,” Andrade was quoted as saying. “I scooped it out of the sink and threw it into the bin. I was so lucky I didn’t put my fingers into my mouth or scratch my eye as I could have got the poison inside me."
These incendiary comments were recycled widely, and amplified by news outlets the world over. Their visceral, graphic detail went an enormous way to publicly cementing the murder-by-tea narrative. For example, a contemporary CBS report was categorically headlined, Waiter: I Saw Poisoning Of Russian Spy.
Yet, when the Telegraph exposé was read out to Andrade during his testimony to the inquiry, he said it was “absolutely terrible” these words had been attributed to him, as “that's not what I told them.” When quizzed on the contents of the teapot being a “funny colour”, he responded, “no way, no way.”
Western spies create nuke black market
The report’s resolution of another glaring incongruity likewise beggars belief. After drinking the cold, supposedly nuclear-laced tea, Litvinenko was introduced to Lugovoy’s eight-year-old son Igor, who specifically instructed him to shake the hand of “uncle Sasha.”
Owen considers this a “striking feature” of the Pine Bar meeting. It is of course completely inconceivable a killer would instruct his own child to touch a man he knew to be pulsing with deadly radiation. Police examination of the jacket Litvinenko was wearing that night detected massive, hazardous contamination on its sleeve alone. Owen adds:
“The point goes further. Lugovoy’s wife and son slept in a contaminated bedroom at the Millennium Hotel, and sat in contaminated seats on the aircraft…Similarly, [his wife’s] flat in Hamburg was contaminated, leading her to say, ‘I really can’t imagine [Kovtun] would put my children in danger.’”
While Owen was “prepared to assume that neither Lugovoy nor Kovtun would have wished to harm their loved ones,” he didn’t consider this assumption “inconsistent” with the conclusion that the pair purposefully poisoned Litvinenko with Polonium 210. He argued they “did not know what they were handling.”
It seems Litvinenko’s alleged killers were indeed unaware. They apparently carried the extremely hazardous substance in a broken, leaking container and eventually disposed of it in a sink. Along the way, they mopped up radioactive spillages with household towels. The obvious question of whether they even knew it was at all deadly in the first place was not explored by the inquiry, and has never been considered by the mainstream media.
A similarly flagrant, wholly unexamined issue was and remains why a nuclear substance would be chosen as a murder weapon. Knives, guns, or conventional poisons would’ve killed Litvinenko infinitely more quickly, efficiently, safely, and cheaply. On the latter point, British police calculated the quantity of Polonium 210 he ingested cost $10 million.
This staggering sum led anonymous security officials to speculate the Polonium 210 in question was sourced from “very well-connected black market smugglers.” Which starkly highlights what Edward Epstein dubbed “the elephant-in-the-room that haunts the case” of Litvinenko’s death:
“A crucial component for building an early-stage nuke was smuggled into London in 2006. Was it brought in merely as a murder weapon or as part of a transaction on the international arms market?”
Following the Soviet Union’s collapse, Western governments angsted over the fallen country’s vast nuclear arsenal, and the risk of associated weapons and material ending up in the hands of hostile state and non-state actors, via black market sale. Their intelligence agencies duly set up dedicated operations to investigate and scupper the feared phenomenon.
Such suspicions would appear to be borne out by multiple dramatic busts of black market nuclear deals over the next decade. However, in every instance, these resulted from spook sting operations. For example, in August 1994, German police swooped on a commercial Lufthansa plane at Munich airport, retrieving 408 grams of plutonium from its hold. Local officials bombastically hailed “a successful strike against the international nuclear mafia.”
However, the historic accomplishment quickly became a source of acute embarrassment, after it emerged Berlin’s foreign spying agency encouraged and initiated the deal using undercover agents. German opposition parties and media accused the government of effectively creating and sustaining the very black market it claimed to be fighting.
This is highly relevant to consider given Litvinenko himself reportedly smuggled radioactive material to Zürich in 2000. At the time of his death, he was struggling financially, primarily kept afloat by a monthly stipend from MI6. The terms of that arrangement have never been clarified publicly, although post-defection he was provided with a British passport under the alias “Edwin Redwald Carter”, and regularly traveled to the former Soviet Union. Did MI6 task him with “investigating” the nuclear black market?
Western journalists have keenly constructed the myth of Litvinenko as a crusading anti-corruption campaigner, cold-bloodedly slain for his anti-Putin activism. In the process, it has been necessary to suppress the fact a key initial line of inquiry for British police was whether he’d been killed for attempting to blackmail oligarchs, government officials and public figures across Europe using FSB documents.
Naturally, these sordid plots aren’t dramatized in ITV’s Litvinenko series. Neither are his attempts with Scaramella to plant incriminating evidence on a suspected nuclear-component smuggler, for which the Italian was jailed. It is uncertain why, almost 20 years after the fact, it was decided to dramatize the British police probe - although one might reasonably conclude ensuring the Western public are as far removed from the truth as possible was an end in itself.