Christian Caryl

A Tale of Two Poisonings

One was a former spy, the other a liberal activist. Both ended up in the sights of Vladimir Putin's Kremlin.

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In the course of one day last spring, Russian political activist Vladimir Kara-Murza went from being a healthy 33-year-old to a man on the verge of death. Around noon on May 26, 2015, he was attending a business lunch with a colleague. Just a few hours later he had slipped into a coma, his major organs rapidly failing. The doctors in the Moscow hospital to which he had been rushed barely managed to keep him alive. But even after he returned to consciousness a week later, they still weren’t able to come up with a convincing explanation of what had happened.

Kara-Murza, who has now largely recovered from his mysterious illness, is convinced that he was poisoned. And he has good reason for thinking so. It’s happened before.

Today, a retired British judge, Sir Robert Owen, released the result of an 18-month official inquiry into the strange and horrible November 2006 death of Russian defector Alexander Litvinenko. (The photo above shows Litvinenko’s widow Marina at a press conference in London earlier today.) As Owen’s 328-page report explains in meticulous detail, Litvinenko was killed by a dose of a highly toxic radioactive isotope known as polonium 210. The report concludes, as has long been suspected, that Litvinenko ingested the polonium from a tainted pot of tea during a meeting in a London hotel with two visitors who were claiming to offer him confidential information from Moscow.

The two men, Andrei Lugovoi and Dmitry Kovtun, left the United Kingdom shortly thereafter; they deny having anything to do with the killing, even though investigators exhaustively documented a radioactive trail that paralleled the men’s movements through the British capital. Litvinenko fell gravely ill within hours of the meeting, and finally died a little over three weeks later.

Owen is making headlines with his conclusion that Russian President Vladimir Putin was “probably” behind Litvinenko’s assassination. But those who have been following the case closely over the years are unlikely to be shocked by this revelation.

First, there’s the means. The very nature of the toxin itself points to state involvement. Polonium 210 is extremely hard to get, especially in the amount that was used to kill Litvinenko; you need a nuclear reactor to make it, and almost all of the tiny quantity produced in recent years has come from Russia. (A gram of the stuff goes for about $2 million.) Once ingested, it’s extremely hard to detect; the British managed to track it down only once they realized the highly unusual nature of the attack. As Owen notes, it would make little sense for ordinary criminals to use the stuff as a weapon, since it is prohibitively expensive, tricky to handle, and obtainable only with the permission of a government.

Second, there’s the motive. Like Putin, Litvinenko was an alumnus of the Federal Security Service (FSB), the post-Soviet successor to the old KGB. After leaving Russia in 2000, Litvinenko became one of the president’s most zealous critics, writing two books that purported to expose Putin’s ties to organized crime and his alleged involvement in the 1999 apartment bombings in several Russian cities. Litvinenko also shared information with the British secret services as well as with Spanish prosecutors who were investigating the Russian mafia — actions that publicly earned him the title of “traitor” in prominent Moscow quarters.

An aide to Boris Berezovsky, the billionaire exile and Putin critic who supported Litvinenko for a several years, told Owen’s inquiry that, in July 2010, his boss had received a black T-shirt from one of the alleged killers with a radioactive symbol emblazoned on it, a reference to polonium, and the words “Nuclear Death Is Knocking Your Door” [sic]. Last March, Lugovoi, one of the alleged assassins (and probable FSB agent), received a medal from Putin’s own hand for “services to the fatherland” — ostensibly a reference to Lugovoi’s patriotic political activities in the past few years.

Putin presented the award just a few weeks after the Feb. 27 murder of Boris Nemtsov, an erstwhile high-ranking official who by the time of his death had become the opposition’s most prominent leader. Nemtsov was gunned down just a few hundred yards from the gates of the Kremlin, a spot subject to the most intensive surveillance in Russia. (Several Chechen men have since been accused of carrying out the murder, though there’s good reason to doubt — as is so often the case in Russia — that they’re actually the ones responsible.)

Which brings us back to Kara-Murza. He and Nemtsov were close friends. They shared an obsession with defending democratic values and the rule of law during a period when the Kremlin has been trashing both. They were co-founders of the Russian Freedom Party, one of the few small pro-democracy parties still struggling for existence. (Kara-Murza also works as a political organizer for Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the former oligarch and Putin critic who was released in 2013 after spending 10 years in a Siberian prison.) After Nemtsov’s murder, Kara-Murza wrote an eloquent commentary linking the killing with the “environment of hatred, violence and intimidation of those who oppose Vladimir Putin’s repressive policies and corruption, and his war on Ukraine.”

Three months later after Nemtsov’s death, Kara-Murza found himself in the hospital. In contrast to the Litvinenko case, he can’t recall a specific incident where he might have been poisoned; his Russian doctors (whom he praises effusively) never managed to come up with a diagnosis that made sense of his mysterious affliction. A subsequent toxicology report from a French laboratory concluded, however, that Kara-Murza’s tissues contained unusually high concentrations of certain heavy metals — a likely indication that some sort of toxin was involved. Kara-Murza can see no other reasonable scenario for his close brush with death. “I have absolutely no doubt that it was poisoning,” he told me recently. “It was deliberate poisoning with intent to kill.”

Once he felt well enough to travel, Kara-Murza left Moscow for his second home in the United States, where his wife and children currently live. It would probably be easy enough for him to stay there. Yet when I spoke to him earlier this week, he was back in Moscow, where he is demanding an official investigation into his case.

I expressed surprise at his willingness to return; surely, I suggested, he would just be making himself a target once again. “It’s very simple,” he told me. “This is my country. I completely disagree with the path the current regime is taking in my country.” There was nothing illegal or wrong about his efforts to make Russia a more democratic place, he told me. “If we all run away or hide, then our country has no prospects.”

I’m amazed by his courage. And I’m astonished by the many Western politicians — most recently Donald Trump — who continue to praise Putin as a “strong leader” even as the mafia methods of his government become ever more pronounced. Perhaps it’s worth noting that the most prominent victims among his critics — like the crusading journalist Anna Politkovskaya — weren’t seeking to expose secrets of Russia’s national security interests. They were, instead, revealing endemic corruption and criminality at the highest levels of government, demanding the most basic forms of democratic accountability from their own leaders. That doesn’t sound like treason to me — more like patriotism.

Do we really want to be siding with their killers?

 Twitter: @ccaryl