Dispatch December 2006

My Lunch With Litvinenko

In 2002, Atlantic contributing editor Paul Starobin sat down with Alexander Litvinenko for an interview over lunch. They talked about Litvinenko's defection, his relationship with notorious Russian billionaire Boris Berezovsky, and his suspicions about Putin and the FSB. Following Litvinenko's recent poisoning, Starobin dug out his notes.

There has even been speculation—to which I give little credence—that Berezovsky himself contracted for Litvinenko’s murder as a tactic to blacken Putin’s reputation. Still, my gut tells me that the Berezovsky-Litvinenko relationship is a key element in whatever is the story behind the crime. Perhaps the assassins, in taking out Litvinenko, were aiming a blow at the magnate, who has successfully protected himself with a phalanx of bodyguards while living in London.

My notes contain detail after detail—too convoluted to recount in full—of the association between the oligarch and the FSB officer, starting in 1994, when Litvinenko was tasked to investigate an assassination attempt in Moscow against Berezovsky. They gradually developed a bond of trust (or mutual interest), with Berezovsky offering to help Litvinenko with any money problems. (“Are we together, Sasha?” Berezovsky supposedly asked.) A turning point came in 1997 when, in Litvinenko’s telling, his masters ordered him to kill Berezovsky, whom they despised as a rich rogue businessman and “a Jew.” Litvinenko refused—and he became himself a target of hatred and suspicion within the agency.

Litvinenko acknowledged to me that Berezovsky had helped to arrange his escape from Russia and in London was paying for his bills, including apartment rent. He also acknowledged that he had on first meeting regarded Berezovsky as a criminal type, like Russia’s other business titans of the post-Soviet era. And yet, over lunch he talked about Berezovsky—whose manipulative charm I have personally experienced, on several occasions—with words approaching reverence. “He opened my eyes on almost every question,” Litvinenko told me. “I share his views, his opinions. Russia needs to be a free country. There is no freedom in Russia right now.”

He spoke with Berezovsky, he added, just about every day, often in person. We both miss Russia a lot, he explained, and “dream of what it will be like to go back. England is a very good country, but Russia is our Motherland. I love the forest [of Russia], I love going skiing.”

As for his former masters in the FSB, he said, “They’re afraid of me…It’s an officer’s mentality. If an officer cannot control a person, he is afraid of that person.”

We didn’t spend much time on the most sensational accusation leveled by Berezovsky and Litvinenko—that the FSB, with Putin’s likely knowledge, arranged a series of apartment bombings in Russia in 1999 and then used the bombings, widely blamed on Chechen terrorists, as a pretext for the re-invasion of Chechnya. These were not new charges—Putin’s assorted political opponents had been stoking them for several years.

I had a difficult time discerning what might be fact and what might be fiction in Litvinenko’s spiel, and I ended up not using any of the material from the interview in the piece I subsequently wrote on Berezovsky. It seemed to me that Litvinenko had flipped—from being a hired agent for the state to being a hired agent against the state. Or an agent against a regime he genuinely hated. The main thing, anyway, was that he was still an agent, and for any agent, the spread of disinformation—which in its most artful form is always a concoction of truth and falsity—was a staple task. I wasn’t the only one who had doubts. “I don’t know if I believe Sasha personally,” a Berezovsky assistant confided to me back then. “He is a man of a system.”

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Paul Starobin is a contributing editor of The Atlantic. From 1999 to 2003, he was the Moscow bureau chief for BusinessWeek.

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