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.

The man I met on a street in London’s Mayfair district back in the summer of 2002 looked younger than his thirty-nine years. He was wearing sunglasses and a casual open-necked shirt, and a gold cross dangled from a chain draped around his neck. His blond hair, closely cropped in the photographs I had seen of him, spilled untidily over his collar. Alexander Litvinenko, in short, did not fit the picture I had in mind of a former lieutenant-colonel in the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB), the successor agency to the KGB.

From the archives:

"The Accidental Autocrat" (March 2005)
Vladimir Putin is not a democrat. Nor is he a czar like Alexander III, a paranoid like Stalin, or a religious nationalist like Dostoyevsky. But he is a little of all these. By Paul Starobin

"Inside the Department of Dirty Tricks" (August 1979)
Thomas Powers describes dirty tricks once used by the CIA—including attempts to kill Castro with exploding seashells and poisoned cigars.

Litvinenko, as is now known by all the world’s followers of this James Bond-like tale, died recently in London from poisoning by polonium 210, a radioactive isotope. The poison invaded his gastrointestinal tract and spread through his body, causing severe pain and the loss of his hair. Scotland Yard has declared his death a murder. But ordered by...? And what was the motive? On his deathbed, Litvinenko dictated a statement baldly accusing Russian President (and former KGB colonel) Vladimir V. Putin of the deed. But his words to Putin—“you have shown yourself to be as barbaric and ruthless as your most hostile critics have claimed”—sounded less like a measured criminal indictment than a scripted political tract.

I had at best a hazy recollection of my one and only encounter with Litvinenko. But I tend to be a saver, and in a cardboard box jammed into a closet at home I found a prize: Ten pages of hand-scrawled notes of our interview. As I read over them, I came across this line: “England is a very safe country. But these people we’re talking about”—he meant his ex-colleagues in the security services—“are capable of anything.”

Our meeting was incidental to my main purpose in London—to interview Boris Berezovsky, a notorious Russian billionaire oligarch who had fled to the U.K. after a bitter falling out with Putin, whom he had helped install in the Kremlin. At the time, I was the Moscow bureau chief for Business Week. Berezovsky’s people had promised me a good story on how their man was setting up an opposition campaign against Putin, and they encouraged me first to talk to Litvinenko—or “Sasha,” as they all called him—as part of the tale.

I knew little about Litvinenko except that he had defected from the FSB and was now, like the oligarch, making monstrous accusations against Putin and the Russian security services. I was sufficiently intrigued to agree to lunch, and we walked from our rendezvous spot in Mayfair—just outside of Berezovsky’s offices on Down Street—to a  restaurant, Digress, off of Regent Street. Litvinenko, barely eating, talked on and on; I had trouble keeping up with him. By the time I called a halt to the interview, I felt saturated with “facts” that I could barely digest—and he looked revved for action. Clearly this was a man on a mission.

I have now read through the interview notes a number of times. What comes across, as much as anything, is Litvinenko’s dependency, in almost every way, on Berezovsky. That is of itself interesting, since Scotland Yard is undoubtedly probing the tie between Litvinenko and the oligarch. Traces of polonium 210 were reportedly found at Berezovsky’s offices in a sweep conducted after Litvinenko’s death. And Litvinenko apparently visited Berezovsky within hours of a lunch, on Nov. 1, at which the former secret-service man supposedly ingested the poison.

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.”