The Ballroom Dancer and the KGB

Article excerpt

Byline: Peter Pomerantsev

In 2006, a Russian exile and former spy was poisoned to death in London. His dogged widow blames Vladimir Putin--and is suing for justice.

"My husband was murdered. I think the order came from Putin. And I want justice," says Marina Litvinenko. It's the last day before Christmas and outside the tapas bar we are sitting in, shoppers are hurrying through the London rain, laden with last-minute presents. In the year 2000, Marina and her husband, Alexander, a former KGB officer, sought political asylum in London, where he publicly went against his boss, Vladimir Putin, and accused the Russian FSB (the successor to the KGB) of blowing up apartment blocks and blaming it on Chechen terrorists, and controlling protection rackets and international drug rings.

"We thought we would be safe in Britain," says his widow.

On the evening of Nov. 1, 2006, Alexander came home and started vomiting, over and over. Marina scrubbed and washed up after him in the bathroom: "I was on my knees for three days, scrubbing. I just couldn't understand what was going on, he had never been sick before." Could Alexander have been poisoned?

"When the doctors came we tried to explain we were political dissidents, that this could be a hit.They looked at us like we were crazy."

As Alexander's hair began to fall out when Marina stroked it, as he became unable to open his mouth to talk, as he became yellow and shriveled, it became clear that he had been poisoned. But by what?

"They tested for everything. Every time they thought they had found the source--and an antidote. My heart would rise. But it would turn out to be the wrong diagnosis."

After three weeks, exasperated toxicology experts checked for polonium-210. The test was positive. Only tiny amounts of polonium-210 are produced each year, mainly by state-controlled nuclear reactors, 97 percent in Russia. It had almost been the perfect hit: Alexander should have died within three days, an unexplained death.

Fading fast, Alexander wrote an open letter to Putin, accusing his old boss of his murder. Marina was horrified: "I still hoped he would make it. How can you write a death letter when you might still live?"

The next day Alexander was dead. Scotland Yard easily followed the polonium trail: it had been slipped into a cup of tea Alexander had drunk during a meeting with another former KGB agent, Andrey Lugovoy, in the Millennium Hotel, Mayfair. Traces of polonium were found on Lugovoy's flight between Moscow and London. Lugovoy was now back in Russia: when Britain tried to extradite him, the Russians refused. Instead he was made into a member of Parliament--with immunity from prosecution. The case, and the evidence, was put on ice.

"For six years I wasn't ready to step forward. But if I don't act now this case will disappear and Putin will get away with it," says Marina.

She has initiated a public inquest, and plans to take the Kremlin to the European courts.

"I want all the evidence to be made public. I want the people who masterminded the murder. I don't think Putin is sleeping easily." Marina smiles. She has clear, cornflower-blue eyes, and for all the talk of mafia and murder, seems to shine with cheer and poise.

"You have to accept the life you're given," she tells me. "We tend to overblow our problems. Some things you can't change --like the rain outside."

"How do you keep yourself so positive?"

"Dancing," she says. "I'm a professional ballroom dancer. It gives you an inner freedom."

Marina Litvinenko is the most unlikely person to have ended up taking on Vladimir Putin. Until the age of 30 she knew of the KGB only from swashbuckling Soviet films about noble spies, had never heard of dissidents. Growing up in the late Soviet Union, Marina inhabited the other Russia, not the Russia of Kremlin intrigue and gulags and torture but the private country most Russians do their best to dwell in. …