The Man Who Solved His Own Murder
In 2006, two of history's most incompetent assassins tracked their target through the streets of London leaving a trail of deadly polonium in their wake. Listen as journalist Luke Harding follows after them in this talk for 5x15, hosted in the Television Centre East Tower last month.
Luke Harding's book on the murder of Alexander Litvinenko, A Very Expensive Poison, is a real-life spy thriller whose absurd twists and turns are stranger than fiction. We invite you to follow him through Mayfair boardrooms and the seedier clubs in Soho on the trail of two of history's most incompetent killers. An edited transcript of his talk appears below.
I first intersected with the story of Alexander Litvinenko and his murder when I ended up flying on one of the British Airways planes used by the killers to transport polonium from Moscow to London. I had been sent to Moscow by The Guardian and I was preparing to move out there with my family. I got an email two weeks after the murder from British Airways saying, "Dear Mr Harding, we regret to inform you that you’ve been on the polonium plane. If you are experiencing any concern, please call NHS Direct." So I rang NHS Direct, and of course it was dial one for chest pain, dial two for breathlessness, dial three for stomach ache. And I thought, "Fuck it, there’s not going to be a dial 127 if you’ve been on a radioactive plane with a lethal nuclear bomb destined for London." So, that option never materialised, but clearly this case was on my mind as I arrived in Moscow at a time of deep Anglo-Russian chill, the winter of 2006.
What I had thought was a semi-democracy, somewhat naïvely, turned out to be a darkening authoritarian state run by Vladimir Putin. He was a former head of the FSB, which was Alexander Litvinenko’s own service. Litvineko had been an FSB officer before decamping – running away, basically – to London in 2000 with his wife Marina and their small son. So I asked impertinent questions about this case. I asked too many impertinent questions, because within four months I found myself in a badly-written spy drama of my own.
The FSB had marked me down as a MI6 operative working for The Guardian under deep cover. It was funny, it was unpleasant, it was absurd. I had guys in black leather jackets following me around the streets of Moscow and sitting next to me in cafes and dumping – this was pre-iPhone era – bags with listening devices next to me. It was more Inspector Clouseau than KGB, to be honest. I had nasty break-ins in the apartment where I lived with my wife and two small kids. We found out from the British Embassy that there was video and audio in all of our rooms, that we had been bugged, including in the bedroom. And I had the kind of electronic surveillance which is typical to Western, particularly British, correspondents in Moscow, so whenever I was ringing The Guardian from Russia and I made a joke about Putin, the line would be cut and I would just get a static sound. What do you do? You make another joke about Putin. It was clear that the state didn’t like me, and that the state was extremely unhappy about journalists investigating this crime.
I also met and interviewed the two killers: Andrei Lugovoi, who by this point had become an MP in the Russian parliament, and his sidekick, Dmitry Kovtun, the more gormless of the two assassins. Although we never got a definitive account of what had happened, the British government were convinced that the use of polonium meant that this was a Kremlin plot. But it was only after I had got kicked out of Russia in February 2011 that we finally started getting more jigsaw pieces, and I met and befriended Marina Litvinenko, Litvinenko’s widow, who is a fantastically courageous, moral woman and indefatigable in trying to get the truth of the case.
She had huge opposition from the Kremlin, but also from London as well, from the coalition government and from Theresa May, who essentially obstructed her attempts to get a public enquiry. May said that there couldn’t be a public enquiry, Marina Litvinenko appealed, won on appeal and then we had a series of extraordinary hearings in the high courts last year.
It was like watching a film in black and white, then suddenly we got this extraordinary technicolour because we had all of the details that Scotland Yard had collected eight years previously and which had become secret, and they were astonishing. We found out what happened with the assassins, that they had tried to kill Litvinenko, this dissident émigré critic of Putin, not once but three times. We discovered that a very alert constable called Spencer Scott had stopped them as they flew in on the 16th of October 2006 at Gatwick Airport and had kind of clicked them, interrogated them, gotten nowhere.
And then we found the polonium trail around London. The whole story is dark, it’s macabre, it’s terrible and it’s also really quite funny in an awful kind of a way. Because the first time they met Litvinenko in a Mayfair boardroom, they put the polonium in a cup in front of him and waited, and of course he didn’t drink. He didn’t drink it, so it didn’t work. So what did they do? Well, they tipped the polonium down the U-bend of their hotel bathroom in Soho and then they decided to go and have fun times. They hired one of those naff rickshaws to peddle them around theatreland. They went to the Trocadero Centre and smoked shisha pipes, then they went to an erotic nightclub called HeyJo in Jermyn Street. Some of you may know it.
The forensic team later on established precisely where they had been because polonium is a marker. They found the banquette where they had been, they found that the guys in the KGB didn’t dance, they tested everything. In the public enquiry, we got a 328-page radiation schedule. This gruesome drama continued. They moved hotels. I tracked down someone who bumped into them in the hotel lift of the second hotel, who said, as the lift was ascending, by way of ice-breaker, "Are you guys from the KGB?" They were assuming this was some highly-trained MI6 operative... and it was just an Australian tourist.
Lugovoi came back 10 days later, having failed initially. He met Litvinenko in a hotel off Piccadilly for reasons we don’t know, aborted the operation, but had the same problem of what to do with the murder weapon. This time, instead of pouring it down the U-bend, he mopped it up with two towels. Scotland Yard found the towels weeks later, and the small hand towel was the most radioactive thing ever found in Britain. It had a reading of 17 million becquerels per square centimetre. It would wipe out most of London if we all ingested it. They had a third attempt, which of course as we know did succeed, on the first of November 2006.
Kovtun had grown up with Lugovoi. They were from KGB military families, had deserted from the Russian army in East Germany and spent 12 years in Hamburg. Kovtun wanted to be a porn star, but he failed at that. (This is all in evidence, I’m not making this up.) He didn’t succeed as a porn star, instead he became a waiter in an Italian restaurant overlooking the Elbe. He flew in on the eve of the assassination with the polonium, but with no plan, and called up a friend of his from the restaurant and said, "I’ve got a very expensive poison," – hence the name my book – "I’ve got to put in the food or drink of a traitor. Do you know anybody?"
This is the Millennium Hotel (above), the CCTV we got from the public enquiry. It’s 3:30 pm, there’s Andrei Lugovoi in the mustard top and the leather jacket, going into the gents toilets of the Millennium Hotel. There, in the second cubicle, he hatched the polonium. Kovtun goes in 5 minutes later. There were massive radiation readings there. Half an hour later they meet Litvinenko, who they have invited to a kind of business meeting. There’s a teapot on the table, the polonium’s already in the teapot and Litvinenko takes three or four sips, the tiniest amount, and at that point he’s a dead man walking. He’s violently ill, he’s sick that night, he’s eventually admitted to hospital and then to University College Hospital where he’s in the intensive care ward. And then the second part of this compelling public enquiry evidence that came out is what Litvinenko said on his deathbed. He was the man who solved his own murder.
In Russia, he had been a detective like the good cop in Gorky Park, if anyone has read that. Going after bad guys and discovering that the bad guys were actually paying off the guys at the top of the FSB, the generals, the colonels and so on. He gave pocket book descriptions of the two killers, he told Scotland Yard where they could find SIM cards and photographs. And then he gave this absolutely prophetic statement to the police who were investigating his case two days before he went into a coma, four days before he died, saying, "I know that everyone will think that my case is political, that I am a political victim. Actually, I am not a political victim. This is a criminal act and Vladimir Putin is a criminal sitting at the top of the Russian federation, meeting with the British prime minister." He said that you have to deal with Russia, but you cannot compromise with Russia, because if you trade with Russia then you trade with the sovereignty of your country and the future of your children.
This was astonishing from a dying man. Not only did he solve his case, he also anticipated the political problems. And finally we’ve got a reckoning from the judge, Sir Robert Owen. He was a non-Chilcot, in that he was super speedy. Instead of taking seven years, he managed to write his report in four months and we all trooped in to Gray's Inn Road for a lock-in in January this year when it was published. He came to a sensational conclusion, which was essentially that Kovtun and Lugovoi probably the worst assassins in history. We also had a sensational finding against Vladimir Putin, largely we think on the basis of secret evidence presented to the enquiry in May of last year in an unknown government building where all the intercept material, where Marina, where the spooks, spilled what they knew. I haven’t seen that material. I have an appeal at the end of my book: if anyone knows anyone at MI6 who can get me that stuff I would really appreciate it in a brown envelope at some point.
We’re thinking about Britain’s cultural and political identity at this time. Well, I can tell you what the KGB think about Britain, because we know. If you think about the two most sensational murder cases involving émigrés in London, one of them was Georgi Markov back in 1978, who was a Bulgarian dissident. He was murdered with poisoned-tipped umbrella, which fired ricin into his leg. Prepared in the KGB poisons factory, the same place that mixed the polonium for Litvinenko.
Then this next one was Litvinenko with a cup of tea of polonium. It’s almost as if the KGB is saying, "What are the emblems of Britishness? The umbrella, the cup of tea. We shall weaponise them to defeat the enemy and destroy our foes in this hostile kingdom." So, that’s how the KGB conceptualises Britain, as a place of tea. Their error was to assume that there was no due process, that the institutions in Britain don’t work as they do in Russia. Litvinenko’s thesis is that Russia had metastasised into basically a Mafia state where the government, where organised crime, where the security services had fused.
Putin believes that everyone has a price, that everyone can be negotiated, that everyone can be bought, whether it’s the World Cup, whether it’s Fifa, whether it’s Sepp Blatter, whether it’s Gerhard Schröder, whether it’s Silvio Berlusconi. That everyone can be bought, and that any lie can be told if it’s repeated enough, whether it’s in Syria or Ukraine and so on. I would just make a calm plea in our troubled times for the empirical method and for truth-telling, for telling stories as I’ve tried to do in my book in a compelling way by being evidential and in the end, pointing out who’s guilty.
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