There are critical differences between the killings of Litvinenko and Politkovskayaby Thomas de Waal / January 14, 2007 / Leave a comment
Like many others who knew her, I was devastated by the murder of Anna Politkovskaya, Russia’s bravest human rights journalist. Now my dismay is compounded by the way her death has been subsumed in the disturbing but much murkier story of the death of Alexander Litvinenko. They are two very different stories—even if they suggest similar truths about today’s Russia.
The boyish features of Litvinenko were a fixture in London meetings and events about Russia over the last few years. He was undoubtedly a brave man, but I tended to avoid him because he was the protégé of a man who for me embodied the worst of Russia in the 1990s: the exiled businessman-turned-politician Boris Berezovsky.
Litvinenko’s allegations fed Berezovsky’s political vendetta against Vladimir Putin. Many of them seemed rehashed or politically skewed. Like others, Litvinenko suggested that the FSB, domestic successor to the KGB, might have been involved in the mysterious bombings of apartment blocks in Moscow in 1999, which killed some 200 people. If true, this was a terrifying prospect—but Litvinenko’s version ignored the role of his own patron. In 1999, Berezovsky was one of three or four people in charge of what the Kremlin called “Operation Successor,” the desperate search for an heir to Boris Yeltsin. Putin, then a relatively obscure official nominated to that role, was a political nobody compared to Berezovsky. It was the tough response to the Moscow bombings that helped propel him to the presidency. If there was indeed official collusion in the 1999 Moscow bombings, Berezovsky would most likely have known about it.
Berezovsky was one of the new Russian billionaires, who grabbed the assets of the old Soviet economy at bargain prices, fought brutal turf wars and dodged assassination attempts. In exile he remained a man with no obvious principles but, as the Americans say, “a big Rolodex,” using a bewildering network of people that included liberal parliamentarian Sergei Yushenkov, centrist Kremlin bureaucrat Ivan Rybkin, pro-western Chechen nationalist Akhmed Zakayev and Chechen Islamic ideologue Movladi Udugov—as well as ex-KGB agent Litvinenko. All bases were covered.
In London, it was hard not to be invited to Berezovsky’s projects and events. Some of them—such as a Chechen film festival—were genuinely worthwhile. Anna also took part. But I felt rather bemused when, after a single interview, I received a Christmas card from the ex-oligarch.
The horrible death of Litvinenko happened within the context…