"My husband killed himself? No, he did not!"

Martina Litvinenko and Tessa

Marina Litvinenko, widow of the former FSB officer Alexander who was poisoned in 2006, talks to profil about the inquiry into his death and who she thinks is responsible for it.

Marina Litvinenko walks covertly into Brasserie Balthazar in Covent Garden, a grey kashmir hat as camouflage. The slim 52 year old woman slips behind a stone table in a quiet corner of the back room, adjusts her hair and the Norwegian cardigan, and says with relief: „Good, nobody recognized me.“

The media frenzy around the widow of Alexander Litvinenko reached new heights last week. Dozens of photographers waited infront of the Royal Court House to capture her and her 21-year old son, Anatoly, as they walked into Court Room 73. Eight years after the former KGB officer’s death, a public inquiry on the circumstances of his murder opened on January 27th. Although discreet, his widow has a strident side to her personality. She is satisfied that after all the years of fighting, practically alone, for justice for her husband, the government has finally approved the inquiry.

The public death of Alexander Litvinenko war not only a personal tragedy for his family. It shocked the British public deeply: the former Russian security service officer wasted away infront of everyone’s eyes, dying after three painful weeks in his hospital bed in London on November 23, 2006.

A police investigation in the months after Litvinenko’s poisoning established that he had ingested the radioactive isotope Polonium-210. His murderers were, according to this investigation, Dmitri Kovtun and Andrej Lugovoi. They could not be put on trial because they had returned to Russia, which refused to extradite them. Kovtun disappeared from the public eye, while Lugovoi entered the Russian Duma as member of parliament. The British government had to choose between bilateral business and political contacts with Russia and justice for a dead former KGB agent.
It chose the former.

All this changed after the Malaysian plane carrying 298 mostly Dutch passengers was shot down over Eastern Ukraine on July 17th. Russian-backed rebels were accused of being behind it. Five days later, British home secretary Theresa May announced the decision to hold a public inquiry into the death of Alexander Litvinenko.

Murder suspect Andrej Lugovoi already announced in Moscow that he thought the whole inquiry was „nonsense“. But within Court Room 73 there was a distinctive feeling from the first day on who was to blame for the „mini nuclear attack on the streets of London“, as counsel to the inquiry Robin Tam called the murder. And it is not only the two hired killers who are sitting on the bench of the accused.

In 1998 Litvinenko publicly claimed that the FSB, the replacement organization for the KGB, was a corrupt and criminal organization. He claimed he was asked by his superiors to kill the then influential Russian oligarch Boris Berezovsky. Instead of investigating the claim, Litvinenko was arrested. He fled the country with his family two years later. „Can it be“, said Robin Tam, „that this press conference lead to Litvinienko’s posining eight years later?“ Lawyer Ben Emmerson, who represents Marina Litvinenko, answered this rethorical question at the end of the first day at court: „The trail of Polonium-210 traces leads directly to the door of Vladimir Putin’s office.“

Profil: Good morning, would you like some coffee?

Litvinenko: Thank you, I prefer tea. A lot was said yesterday in the inquiry about the pot of tea, in which Lugovoi had put the poison to kill Sasha (Nickname for Alexander Litvinenko, nota bene). The pot looked very similar to the tea pots here at Balthazar. Fortunately I am not so emotional anymore. You need to take life how it is. I cannot continue saying: „Oh, I cannot drink green tea ever again in my life.“ It will be estabished, how my husband was poisoned. Every little detail. Lugovoi will no longer be able to say that it was not like this.

Profil: There are still Holocaust deniers although it has been proven that Auschwitz had gas chambers.
Litvinenko: That is true. But still, it will be more difficult to maintain lies in the face of scientific evidence. Logovoi claimed that my husband took his own life? No, he did not.
Profil: Your lawyer said: „The Trail of Polonium leads to Vladimir Putin“. How do you intend to prove this?

Litvinenko: We will show what Putin is: a simple criminal. When he became president in 2000 everyone was surprised. How did this little man, a small KGB officer who served in a low position in East Germany, suddenly become leader of this big country? But then the West treated him with respect. They treated him like a politican. Western leaders have a responsibility for what happens today. Putin was never a credible politician. First, he went from criminal to president. And now it has finally become clear to the whole world: Putin is going back from president to criminal.

Profil: You are hard on the Western leaders. Putin was elected in free elections, how could they not have worked with him?

Litvinenko: There were enough clues for years: The arrest and imprisionment of Michail Khodorkovsky. The closing down of democratic institutions. Time magazine made him person of the year. Putin looked like the strongest man in the world. The oil and gas wealth kept him going and the West from shunning him earlier. But how should the young generation of Russians see what a man he was, when he was still accepted among the other world leaders? These young people have not known any other leader, he is there for 15 years and their brains have been attacked by 15 years of television propaganda. They have become so aggressivly anti Western, it is terrible. Yesterday an MP in the Duma said: „We should call the „unification“ of Germany what it really was: the annexation of East Germany.“

Profil: When you started going out with your husband, did you know that he was a spy?

Livtinenko: Sasha was not a spy. He worked in the security service to investigate criminal cases. Of course I knew who he was, this was the reason we met in the first place. He helped friends of mine who were in trouble. In 1993 it was a difficult time for all of us to learn about the good and bad sides of capitalism. My friend had a business and did not receive payment. He asked the authoritites for help and Sasha looked at the case, he was then working for the FSK. He got him justice. He spoke openly about it.

Profil: He was also sent on a special assignment to the Caucasus. Were you not worried then that he worked in the shady world of secret services?

Litvinenko: I did not know all the details of what he was doing, but I knew, in general, what his job was. I knew it was not a 9 to 5 job. But what I saw was that Sasha was a really good person. He spoke about his job, it was not sinister. When he heard about the plot to kill Berezovsky in 1998 he first tried to alert people in the FSB internally and then, when he understood they would not do anything, he went public. The result is known to us all.

Profil: After you fled from Moscow to London in 2006, Berezovsky, also exiled by then, helped your family financially. Last year Berezovsky was found dead in the house of his ex wife outside of London. Do you believe he killed himself?
Litvinenko: Berezovsky was certainly not an easy person, but he helped me a lot. First, when we arrived in London. Later, after Sasha died, Berezovsky paid school tuition for Anatoly. He was a mysterious man and his death is mysterious, too. I spoke to him on the phone before he died and he did not seem to me like someone on the brink of suicide. The British verdict left it open. We cannot be sure.

Profil: How did Anatoly deal with the inquiry?
Litvinenko: The first days were a strong experience. He was very nervous. He was so pale, when I saw him sitting in the court room, I started worrying. He was shaking when we came out and all the photographers surrounded us. I really appreciate the job of the media. But Anatoly and I do not enjoy this attention, I am certainly not a media star. For me what counts is that this is a chance to get justice for Sasha. And for Anatoly this is equally important. He is very smart, he has a sharp analytical brain. Later he could become one of the important Russian politics experts in Britain.

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© 2018 Tessa Szyszkowitz