Vladimir Shlapentokh (Michigan State University):
Litvinenko’s murder as a strong signal to Russians and foreigners
Russian Minister of Defense Sergei Ivanov described Alexander Litvinenko, who died from a lethal dose of polonium-210 in London in November 2006, as /quantite negligeable/ (“one who means nothing to us”). Ivanov stated that Litvinenko was unworthy of special attention from the Kremlin and all the more a covert operation to kill him. The idea of Litvinenko’s “nothingness” was adopted by other Moscow officials such as Victor Stepashin, the former head of the FSB who is now the chairman of the Accounting Office of the State Duma.
President Putin repeated this strange alibi during his press conference in Moscow on February 1, 2007. He took great pains to suggest that Litvinenko was a minor figure. Putin resorted to the same line of reasoning to explain the case of Anna Politkovskaya, the victim of another big political murder in Moscow only a few months before Litvinenko’s poisoning. The Russian president said that the Kremlin would have to be out of its mind to organize the killing of an insignificant journalist that would only damage its image. Meanwhile, at the February 1 press conference, Putin also deemed it necessary to utter a few positive words about the journalist.
Even if Litvinenko was a minor figure in the grand scheme of Russian politics, the impact of his murder on public opinion was quite significant. The question of who sponsored and carried out this murder was widely discussed in Russia and international media between November and December 2006. The story lost some of its momentum by January 2007, but remained visible. Much of the foreign media pointed to the Russian authorities as the prime suspects, even before Scotland Yard made its official conclusions. The main figures of interest in the British investigation were two former agents of the FSB named Andrei Lugovoi and Dmitry Kovtun and a “mystery figure” introduced to Litvinenko as Viacheslav Sokolenko who traveled on the same flight as Kovtun from Hamburg to London on November 1, 2006. All three men had met with the victim before he was poisoned. Lugovoi and Kovtun immediately returned to Moscow where they were taken under the protection of the Russian authorities who impeded the British investigators’ interrogations. Vladislav reportedly vanished from London after the Litvinenko poisoning.
One of the most glaring facts in the case was that polonium-210 (the first radioactive material to be used in a murder), which can only be produced in a major state laboratory, was brought to England through Germany from Moscow.
Russian media, with few exceptions, were united in support of the Kremlin’s denial of any involvement in the case. A leading political scientist Dmitry Furman suggested in his article “The Mystery of immunity” that the truth about Litvinenko’s murder will never be known, because an authoritarian regime never permits a serious investigation of political murders. Furman cited the murders of two opponents of Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev. In both cases, the formal investigations ended with preposterous conclusions that exonerated the leader.
Moscow had been uncooperative with foreign judiciaries in far less sensitive cases in the past, such as the one involving the former Kremlin Manager and State Secretary of the United State of Russia and Belorussia Pavel Borodin in 2001 and the former Minister of Nuclear Energy Alexei Adamov in 2005. Both dignitaries were accused of corruption by judicial bodies in the United States and Switzerland. Without the collaboration of Moscow, however, the prosecutors could not meet the rigorous demands of the Western courts. Both men returned to Moscow and Borodin continued his work as state secretary. To suppose that the Kremlin would help anybody find the truth in this lugubrious case is as naïve as to have expected, retrospectively, that Stalin would have permitted his Prosecutor General Andrei Vyshinsky to help the Mexican police in its investigation (by the way, a successful one) into the murder of Leon Trotsky in August 1940. Indeed, in order to muddle the investigation as much as possible, the Office of the Prosecutor General initiated a criminal case in which Kovtun was treated not as the perpetrator of the crime, but as one of its victims, along with Litvinenko.
The British newspaper /Independence// /cited police officers who said that, despite the detectives making what one insider described as “good progress,” there was little chance of a prosecution. “The odds of getting someone to face trial at the Old Bailey are somewhere between slim and none,” said a senior police source. Russian commentators, experts and politicians who defended the Kremlin advanced several different theories, some less absurd than others.
Their major argument was that the Kremlin did not have any motive for killing Litvinenko, because the murder would only damage its reputation. Maxim Sokolov, a well-known columnist from the pro-Putin /Izvestia,/ formulated this line of defense: “To say that the polonium-210 found in London has a FSB origin is to say that Putin wishes to proclaim to the world, ‘I am Saddam Hussein, or even worse.’ To insist on such an origin of the polonium is equivalent to declaring that ‘V.V. Putin has gone mad.'” Then, not without sarcasm, the journalist added, “Of course, anything can happen, but to suppose the madness of the ruler of a great country one needs proof.” The same argument was developed by the liberal journalist Leonid Radzikhovsky and politicians such as Egor Gaidar.
Any action in everyday life or in high politics can be prompted or hindered by various motives, which sometimes conflict. For Stalin, who always tried to reduce the risk of resistance to his personal power to zero, the importance of eliminating any chance of betrayal in the Red Army on the eve of the war outweighed the serious toll his efforts took on the armed forces. The mass persecution of Soviet Jews, including the murder of prominent writers in 1948-1953, definitely damaged the international reputation of the Soviet Union (Stalin was quite sensitive to it), but the importance of fomenting Russian nationalism and anti-Semitism was even greater in his mind.
The motives that prompted the people in Moscow to order Litvinenko’s murder may have varied as well. Let us hope that future historians will shed light on this issue. Today, however, without waiting for the historians to do their job, it is clear that the reaction to Litvinenko’s murder, a major world event, serves as an excellent measure of the authoritarian character of Putin’s regime, as well as an important signal to the world and in the first place to Putin’s political opposition.
Today, few people in Russia can publicly express their trust in Scotland Yard and share the view of most Western experts that the Kremlin was behind the murder. Among this small cohort of daredevils are Russian journalists Yulia Latynina, Evgenia Albats, Pavel Felgenhauer and political scientist Dmitry Furman.
Several journalists and analysts who were once known for their uncompromising critiques of the Kremlin remained cautious in their analysis of the Litvinenko case. Political scientists such as Evgenii Kisilev, Lilia Shevtsova and Dmitry Oreshkin only hinted that the FSB was responsible for the murder without mentioning the Kremlin or even supposing that the special service had worked on its own.
In fact, only two major media outlets in Russia–the newspaper /Novaya Gazeta /and the radio program /Ekho Moskvy,/ along with a few internet blogs with very small audiences–discussed Litivinenko’s case in late 2006 and early 2007. Besides a few independent thinkers, some journalists who are normally quite active in the nation’s political debates kept silent or proclaimed their “neutrality.” These journalists included Yulia Kalinina and Alexander Minkin who simply ignored the subject in their articles for/ Moskovskii Komsomolets./
Only a few oppositional politicians such as State Duma Deputy Vladimir Ryzhkov and the former KGB General Alexei Kandaurov dared to name the Kremlin’s special service as the organizers of the murder. Andrei Illarionov, who became a sharp critic of the regime after his resignation as Putin’s economic adviser, was close to this small group of politicians, even if he only expressed his amazement that the Moscow authorities had not investigated the origin of the polonium in London. If the substance could not be traced to Russia, all accusations lodged against the Kremlin would become irrelevant.
In contrast to these brave politicians, Grigorii Yavlinsky, the leader of the opposition party “Yabloko,” Mikhail Kasianov and Irina Khakamada, the leaders of “Democratic Russia,” and Boris Nemtsov, a leader of the party “Right Forces,” were quite reserved in their comments on the murder and mostly avoided the subject. These politicians justified their refusal to join the harsh critics of the regime by suggesting that it was important to wait for the results of the official investigation, confessing at the same time, as Nemtsov did, that the chance of the Kremlin recognizing its involvement in the incident was close to zero.
Whatever the differences may be between those who suspect the Kremlin’s involvement in the murder, this group is tiny in comparison to those who protect the Kremlin.
Trying to demonstrate a sort of objectivity in their attempts to exonerate the official authorities from direct responsibility, some analysts identified veterans of the KGB as the possible culprits whose motive was to execute the traitor. The advocates of this version, which is innocuous toward the Kremlin, did not attempt to explain how the veterans were able to accomplish such a complex operation (particularly securing and transferring the polonium to England) or why the FSB and other law enforcement agencies have not begun to investigate the KGB renegades.
Close to the veteran version, a no less exotic theory is known as “the third-term party,” which also exculpates the Russian authorities. This theory suggests that evil forces inside or outside the Kremlin, fearing Putin’s departure in 2008, wanted to soil his reputation, making him “non-travelable to the West” and thereby forcing him to continue running the country. Similar to “the third-term party” theory, another proposition ascribes the murder to a secret “third force”–someone opposed to the official power and the legal opposition to it. The motive of this third force, according to a leading politician Anatolii Chubais, is to bring an “anti-constitutional change in Russian power.” This vague “third force” is thought to be behind the last two political murders in Russia and even the unsuccessful poisoning of Chubais’ famous liberal friend Egor Gaidar. Of course, this version is also quite palatable to the Kremlin. Even Igor Shuvalov, an adviser to Putin, talked in January 2007 in Berlin about “the strong groups that are united in order to carry out a permanent offensive against the president’s policy.” It is, however, amusing that Shuvalov, who was in charge of shaping the Kremlin’s response to the murder, considered it reasonable to suggest, during the press conference on February 1, that a “conspiracy explanation” should be dismissed.
After these theories, the explanations of Litvinenko’s murder only become more absurd. Official Russian newspapers, for instance, published one article after another about the events in London, trying to convince readers that the exiled oligarch Boris Berezovsky was the most likely suspect. Egor Gaidar was one of the first politicians who supported the so-called “oligarchic version.” Later, the Prosecutor General’s Office joined this perspective, declaring that another exiled oligarch, Leonid Nevzlin, a friend of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, was implicated in the murder. In the opinion of Evgenii Albats, the Kremlin’s decision to connect the Litvinenko case with Yukos was a new step toward restoring the show trials of the 1930s. In any case, during the press conference on February 1, 2007, in answering a question by an American journalist about the possible suspects, Putin suggested that it was a group of “runaway oligarchs hiding in Western Europe or in the Middle East, who are major enemies of the Russian Federation.”
The oligarchic version was only one of many crazy ideas floating around the official media. The pro-governmental newspaper /Izvestia/ suggested that Litvinenko and his associates were carrying contraband nuclear materials at Berezovsky’s bidding and during a delivery Litvinenko accidentally received a lethal dose of radiation. In a panic, he ran to Berezovsky, who suggested that Litvinenko ingest some of the polonium-210 so that his death, already a certainty, could be pinned on the Kremlin. In this version, the source of the polonium-210 was Leonid Nevzlin, a former major shareholder of Yukos who is currently hiding in Israel from the Russian prosecutor general.
Another version of the story suggested that Litvinenko had been working alone as an international smuggler of polonium. In his attempts to sell the substance in London, he left traces of it everywhere and accidentally poisoned himself. Yet another version supposed that Litvinenko was involved in the development of a “dirty bomb” with international terrorists to be detonated in England. Moscow also advanced the theory that Litvinenko had intentionally committed suicide.
The supervisors of this propagandistic campaign tried to enroll (and not without success) several scholars, including Evgenii Velikhov, a known physicist and public figure who challenged elementary knowledge when he claimed that the amount of polonium-210 used to poison Litvinenko “can be found in any hospital in Vienna.”
Returning to the old Russian tradition of ascribing all the country’s problems to foreigners, one of the most popular theories in Russian media blames the West for the murder. Gone are the times when Russian media were relatively free and could mock the absurd theories advanced by officials trying to avoid taking responsibility for various failures and using the West as a scapegoat. In 2001, the submarine /Kursk//,/ with its team of 118 sailors, sunk because of a torpedo explosion inside its hull. The cause of the tragedy was evident to everybody almost immediately, but the Chief Navy Commander Admiral Vladimir Kuroedov tried to persuade the world that the submarine had been destroyed by the American navy, a theory that was not openly rebuffed by the Kremlin. The Russian admiral and his subordinates who obediently repeated this absurdity became a laughing stock on Russian television.
But now, five years later, Russian media are back to the Soviet times, pointing to the West as a major culprit of all unpleasant events. Only twenty years ago, in 1983, the downing of a Korean Boeing 747 by a Soviet fighter jet was treated as a provocation by the White House. Journalists were not permitted in their articles, which denounced Reagan, to mention that the airliner KAL007 had been shot down by a Soviet plane. The media offered no clue as to what really happened to the Boeing and its passengers. A famous Russian movie /The envy of gods,/ directed by the well-known Vladimir Menshov in 2000, reproduced the atmosphere in the days of Andropov’s Moscow when the world was flabbergasted by the murder of the 269 people on board the airliner. The movie showed how the authorities were merciless toward anyone who did not trust their version of the story. Even the boldest intellectuals of the time were afraid to talk about their real thoughts on the subject. By the end of 2006, the climate in Moscow after Litvinenko’s murder resembled what we saw in this movie.
Most Russian media insisted that the West arranged the provocation to discredit their country and its leader. A Russian journalist developed this view as follows: “The West’s motives are clear enough. Russia, having risen from its knees, is conquering a new place in the sun for itself at the international level–not only declaring its stand, but actually starting to resist the West in many areas. The West doesn’t like this kind of Russia.” The author also suggested that the Western media wrongly suspected the Kremlin. His diagnosis was seconded by the journalist Sergei Karaganov, a leading international expert who described the case as a frenzy created in the spirit of the cold war, as well as by Viachislav Nikonov, a former liberal turned Kremlin propagandist who explained the Western “hysteria” as generated by “Russia-phobia”–a negative attitude toward the country that can be traced back centuries.
Mikhail Leontiev, a notorious Kremlin mouthpiece (he received a special medal from the president) said that “the Litvinenko case was invented in the West.” Gleb Pavlovskii, another unofficial Kremlin mouthpiece, pointing to the West, suggested that Litvinenko’s murder was only one step in a major conspiracy against Russia. This diagnosis was repeated by Valerii Fedorov in the pro-Kremlin newspaper /Vedomosti./
The variety of theories that implicated the West in Litvinenko’s death was striking. Among them was the idea that Litvinenko was poisoned in a secret British laboratory, which produced polonium for criminal purposes, or that the CIA worked with the Chechens to poison Litvinenko in order to damage the image of Russia.
Litvinenko’s murder was a clear signal to Russian journalists, analysts, politicians and even scholars in the natural sciences to enhance their conformism to the Kremlin and accept its actions and statements. Speaking on radio /Ekho Moskvy/ in January 2007, Leonid Radizkhovky bluntly said that even if he clearly knew that the FSB was involved in the Litvinenko case, he would never say so, because of his fear of being killed.
To a lesser degree, the murder was also a signal to ordinary Russians, though much of the public was indifferent toward political life. According to a poll conducted by the Levada Zentr, the Russians ranked this event in 23^rd place among the major domestic and international events of 2006 (the Winter Games in Turin placed third).
However, the majority of the Russians who paid attention to the event, answering the question, “who is responsible for the murder?,” were inclined to accept the propagandistic versions of the event. Among those who responded to the question (60 percent), 25 percent ascribed the murder to Berezovsky, 33 percent to “Litvinenko’s business partners” and 12 percent to “Western special services.” In other words, up to two thirds of the Russians accepted the versions offered by the authorities; 16 percent took a seemingly critical position toward the Kremlin and ascribed the murder to the Russian special service. The rest of the respondents shared the view that Litvinenko’s death was the result of suicide or accidental intoxication.
The Litvinenko case sent a special signal to Russians living abroad and to those who plan on fleeing Russia for the West. Since the time of Prince Andrei Kurbsky (Ivan the Terrible’s aide who fled to Lithuania in 1564 to avoid death), the West has been a refuge for Russian dissidents. When Stalin started having defectors killed in the 1930s, he destroyed their dream of safety beyond the Soviet gates. Among his victims was Leon Trotsky, killed in August 1940. His murder sent an important message to Stalin’s enemies abroad. The murder of Trotsky is now being discussed in Moscow in connection with the Litvinenko case, even if the two personalities are indeed incomparable (a low-level KGB agent with a dark biography and a revolutionary giant with a great mind).
After Stalin’s death, many dissidents felt more secure in London, Paris and New York. With Litvinenko’s poisoning, however, the Russian opposition inside and outside the country returned to the mentality of the 1930s: the people from Lubianka (the old name of the KGB building in Moscow) could find them anywhere. In 2006, Putin adopted a law that legalized the murder of his enemies, declaring them terrorists. As Litvinenko’s wife told the /New York Times,/ her husband became pale when he learned about the new law that legalized strikes beyond Russia’s borders against those the Kremlin deemed extremists or terrorists. In any case, the garrulous Berezovsky, who never missed a chance to broadside Putin’s regime in the past, was extremely restrained in his accusations against Putin.
Foreigners dealing with Russia also received an important signal from the Litvinenko murder. For the first time in history, radioactive material was brought from a foreign country and used as a murder weapon. The case of the Sakhalin-II project was discussed by Russian and foreign journalists as an example of Western investors capitulating not only under the pressure of economic blackmail (among other things, giant fines had been levied for ecological violations), but also under the impact of Litvinenko’s murder. Indeed, three major international companies (Royal Dutch Shell, Mitsubishi and Mitsui) sold 50 percent plus one share of Sakhalin-II to Putin’s /Gasprom/ for what some analysts called a discounted price of $7.45 billion. A /New York Times/ journalist working in Moscow commented on the remarkably pleasant behavior of the top managers who yielded to Putin’s pressure: “The international response to the killings of two prominent Kremlin critics–Mr. Litvinenko in exile in London and Ms. Politkovskaya here in Moscow–also underscores the new reality. Inside the Kremlin last week, the executives heaped praise on the man whose government had effectively forced them to cede control of the world’s largest combined oil and natural gas project.” Yulia Latynina supported this view, attributing the quick capitulation of Shell in its negotiations with /Gasprom/ (a company regarded in Russia as an object of Putin’s personal material interests) to the killing of Litvinenko. The conflict with Belorussia over the price of oil and gas in January 2007 again revealed the arrogance of the Kremlin. Without any warning, the Kremlin cut the supply of oil to Belorussia and the rest of Europe for a few days. German Chancellor Angela Merkel could not restrain herself when she condemned Moscow’s decision to turn off the tap as “unacceptable.”
Litvinenko’s murder was a rather rude signal to all of the Kremlin’s opponents, reminding one of the famous Latin proverb “Dictum sapienti sat est” (“even a subtle signal is enough for the wise woman/man”). The power of Russian oil and gas resources has inspired a high level of confidence in the Kremlin. Putin’s assertiveness in some ways exceeds Stalin’s, because the Western economy and standard of living did not depend on the Soviet Union.
Putin can be certain that the Litvinenko case will have no effect on the Russian public’s attitude toward his regime. The Russians are currently enjoying a real increase in their standard of living and a greater level of political stability in society. As a gift to all Russians (both government and private workers), the authorities gave them a nearly two-week-long holiday to celebrate Christmas and the New Year, an unprecedented event in the world. What is more, reconstruction in downtown Moscow and several regional centers is booming. One third of the public, according to a survey by the Fund of Public Opinion in December 2006, reported that their material life had improved in the last year. Most people are simply unconcerned about the political killings and the general decline of democratic institutions in Russia.
While Western politicians have taken the Litvinenko case seriously, it is unlikely that they will reformulate their policy toward Moscow. It remains unclear as to how far officials in Britain and Germany will go in their investigations. We cannot exclude the possibility that the West will allow the Kremlin to push the case into oblivion, a strategy used by the Putin Administration in all other political murders inside Russia. Will the Europeans have the courage to show Moscow the limits of its activities in Europe? Or will the governments of Europe and the Untied States, keeping in mind their demand for oil and the need for cooperation on the issues of international terrorism and Iran, see the risk of a confrontation with Russia as too high?
We may suppose that Western dignitaries will continue to smile at Putin during their meetings with him and his entourage. However, this forgiveness in the West will not extend to international public opinion, which even today remembers the downing of the Korean airliner in 1983 and even Trotsky’s murder. As foreign correspondents from /Novaya Gazeta/ suggested, Litvinenko’s murder and the violent deaths of several other prominent politicians and journalists in Russia in the last years have made the Europeans and Americans very suspicious about the current regime in Moscow. Indeed, there is no doubt that in the last two years, and particularly in recent months, the image of Russia in the world has deteriorated–a fact recognized by both the Kremlin itself and its opponents inside Russia. On the eve of the New Year, Vitalii Tretiakov, a great admirer of the current regime and the editor of the pro-Putin newspaper /Moskovskii Novosti, /wrote that “the Western media, which holds a pathological hatred of Putin, has used all possible invectives against the president in the last weeks.” Nikolai Swanidze, also a Putin loyalist, discussed the attitudes of the Western public to Russia in a January 2007 article. He wrote that “nobody loves us and the only thing that the West wants is to keep its distance from Russia, as people do when they meet a drunkard on the street.” Even Putin’s aide Sergei Yastrezhembskii recognized at his press conference in Moscow in late January 2007 that Russia’s image abroad is negative. However, officials in Russia have attributed the Kremlin’s image problems to the malicious Western propaganda. Even the Russian ambassador in England Yurii Fedotov described, during his interview with the BBC on February 1, 2007, the British media’s interest in the Litvinenko case as “a slandering campaign against Russia” financed by “certain people.”
While the majority of Russians share the official view on the cause of the country’s declining image, there is a group of ordinary Russians who, despite the formidable pressure in their environment, are able to keep their eyes open. During debates on the Litvinenko case on the radio program /Ekho Moskvy/ in December 2006, the audience was asked about who is responsible for Russia’s bad image abroad–Western propaganda or Russia itself. Eighty percent of the audience (the most educated people in the country) chose the second option. These Russians, with their mistrust of the government and high regard for Scotland Yard, wait with strong interest for the results of the British investigation, knowing well that the Kremlin will never recognize the findings if they even indirectly blame the Russian authorities for Litvinenko’s murder. There are also authors who far from belonging to this camp of active liberals. They suggest that the Kremlin should not underestimate the very dire consequences of the case, because, as stated by the known political scientist Mark Urnov in the beginning of February, Scotland Yard publicly declared Lugovoi as the main culprit. People from the radical nationalist newspaper /Zavtra/ were prompted by two seemingly opposite passions: a hatred of both the West and Putin. The newspaper predicted, in an article titled “The Kremlin: polonization-210,” published in December 2006, that the hysteria against Russia launched by the United States could make Putin an outcast “with the fate of Pinochet always before his eyes.”
However, it is very likely that Moscow will disregard international public opinion (Putin’s last press conference is good evidence of this), continue its antidemocratic policy inside the country and show its arrogance abroad from time to time. Such was the signal sent by Litvinenko’s murder, whatever the killer’s initial intentions may have been.
Acknowledgment: The author wishes to thank Joshua Woods for his editorial contribution to this article.
Johnsson’s Russia List 5.2.2007