A Very Expensive Poison by Luke Harding

By Luke Harding

1 November 2006. Alexander Litvinenko is overtly poisoned in important London. Twenty days later he dies, killed from the interior. The poison? Polonium; an extraordinary, deadly and hugely radioactive substance. His crime? He had made a few robust enemies in Russia.

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A Very Expensive Poison

1 November 2006. Alexander Litvinenko is openly poisoned in critical London. Twenty days later he dies, killed from the interior. The poison? Polonium; an extraordinary, deadly and hugely radioactive substance. His crime? He had made a few strong enemies in Russia.

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Litvinenko was meant to be on holiday but he worked on the case flat-out. This was characteristic: once gripped by an assignment Litvinenko would often not sleep for three days. After rows with Natalia he moved out and lodged with his mother. That autumn he and Marina began living together. In summer 1994 they had a son, Anatoly; they married a few months later. It would be a happy partnership. Three months later, in December 1994, Boris Yeltsin launched an attack on the rebel republic of Chechnya, in what was to become the First Chechen War.

The sanatoria have beguiling names – Rainbow, Golden Sheaf, Zhemchuzhina (Pearl) – but are typically squat, communist-era rectangles. In the afternoons guests plough up and down azure pools; by evening prostitutes sit in the lobby. This traveller had no time to linger. After arriving in Sochi he was on the move again. A steamer shuttled between the ports of the Black Sea, once part of a single empire, and now divided between Ukraine, Russia and Georgia. The boat was heading to the Georgian town of Batumi.

He became disillusioned with the Soviet Union and, in particular, the KGB. By the 1980s, the KGB had virtually no sources in the west, he thought; instead, its operatives churned out a series of meaningless reports for incompetent and risk-averse bureaucrat-generals back at the ‘centre’ in Moscow. Shvets quit the KGB in 1990 and sought political asylum in the US. From there he published a lively espionage memoir, Washington Station: My Life as a KGB Spy In America, which described his successful recruitment of an unnamed American agent, codenamed ‘Socrates’.

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