Da The Observer del 26/11/2006

Voices from the grave tell a tale of freedom betrayed

Two of Putin's fiercest critics were murdered recently. And we must take seriously the allegations made by the latest victim

di Henry Porter

Alexander Litvinenko died horribly but with as much dignity as could any man being destroyed from the inside by radiation. The first thing to be said is that we should not let the manner of this death obscure the reasons for it, because that would be to hand victory to Litvinenko's murderers and to relegate his stand, so rare and requiring such an extraordinary degree of courage, to a mere detail in the backstory.

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It would also be to succumb to the dubious thrill that surrounds such cloak-and-dagger assassinations. 'From Russia With Lunch', as the Sun and (astonishingly) Channel 4 News put it, confuses the world of James Bond and the murder of a British citizen, carried out by a foreign power, or its proxy, on British sovereign territory. Such headlines diminish the meaning of this death and of the victim's sacrifice.
Actually, there is a connection, which the Sun has so far failed to make for us. Casino Royale, which opened in Moscow last week, features an assassin operating on foreign soil with impunity and deniability, yet also with the undoubted backing of his government at home. The British do this in the movies; the Russians appear to be doing it for real. If they are, it constitutes state-sponsored terrorism because a man walking around London in a glimmering trail of radioactivity represents a considerable threat to others. This is quite apart from the revolting, calculated cruelty of his murder.

Litvinenko courted death and knew that living in Britain would not protect him. There have been too many downed helicopters and unsolved murders across Europe for that. He must have known that more than 20 journalists have lost their lives in the former Soviet Union since Putin came to power. But, not content with having accused the KGB's successor, the Federal Security Service (FSB), of planning to murder exiled financier Boris Berezovsky, and being tried on corruption charges as a result, he stuck his head out by accusing the FSB of masterminding explosions in 1999 which killed some 230 people and allowed Putin to go to war in Chechnya.

He was tried and convicted in his absence for abuse of office, a purely Soviet catch-all charge; his family was hounded by the FSB and he was told that his life was in danger. But still he continued to make allegations, most recently at the Frontline Club in Paddington, London, where he condemned Putin for the murder of journalist Anna Politkovskaya. He stood in the club's upstairs room making his points without emotion, waiting patiently for his translator to finish.

Because he may, in part, have died for these words, it is worth repeating them. 'Anna Politkovskaya came to me and she asked me about the FSB. After her book - Putin's Russia - was published, she received a number of threats, directly from the Kremlin. She asked me, "Can they kill me?" And I said quite frankly, "Yes, they can" and suggested she leave the country, at least for the moment. Putin passed the threat through one of her friends. She was told the threat was directly from Putin ... I'm totally confident that there is only one person in Russia who could kill Anna Politkovskaya with her standing, with her fame. That is Putin.'

You can take that for what is - an allegation. There is no proof that Putin ordered her death and his protestation that she was more trouble to his government dead than alive seems persuasive. The same now applies to the Litvinenko murder. Yet such bluff is not beyond the former deputy head of the KGB's station in Angelika Strasse, Dresden. Lies come almost unconsciously to a spy and the President's doubt about the authenticity of Litvinenko's last testament last Friday did seem oddly defensive.

A few months before Politkovskaya's death, I received an autographed copy of Putin's Russia out of the blue. The striking thing about her journalism and, indeed, Litvinenko's speech at the Frontline Club is their quiet urgency on the matter of Russia's descent. She is also unashamed to respond as a woman. 'I am not a political analyst,' she says in the introduction. 'I am just one human being among many, a face in the crowd in Moscow, Chechnya and St Petersburg and elsewhere. These are my emotional reactions, jotted down in the margins of life as it is lived in Russia today ... I live in the present, noting down what I see.'

Her journalism is from the top drawer. She has an eye for the human detail that brings remote tragedy alive. Here, she writes about a woman fighting for justice in the Russian courts: 'Nina Levurda, retired after 25 years as a schoolteacher, is a heavy, slow-moving woman, old and tired and with a string of ailments ... she is a mother without a son: even worse, without the truth about her son.' As you read the account of this woman traipsing around the courts, then waiting for three days to see her son's senior officer without food, water or sleep, you begin to get some sense of the grim, masculine heartlessness that has been consolidated in Vladimir Putin's Russia.

Litvinenko and Politkovskaya were friends for about three years. They set out from very different points in Russian society and came together in London, he having renounced the gangsterism that had been part of his career in the KGB and FSB, she having acquired a position of commanding moral authority during the brief period that the Russian media were free. It is a meeting that's characteristic of modern London which has now become one of the world's truly international cities, a stage on which play scores of emigre communities, often locked in struggles that are totally obscure to their hosts.

Russian oligarchs, both those in and out of favour with Putin, rub shoulders with spies, Chechen freedom fighters, campaigners, gold diggers and journalists who are all working some angle or other in this prosperous and politically temperate zone. Into this mix slide the former Thatcher adviser Lord Bell, who helps Boris Berezovksy with press relations and the former Blair adviser Tim Allan, whose firm Ketchum is trying to persuade us all that Valdimir Putin's human-rights record is not at all bad. It is just one story in the great churn of this open city and it is far more complete, dramatic and nuanced than anything you can find in a modern novel set in London.

The simple reason why Berezovsky, Politkovskaya, Litvinenko and his chum, Chechen separatist leader Akhmed Zakayev, all felt able to visit, live or do business here because it is a free society. That may prove to be one of the drawbacks when it comes to tracking down Litvinenko's murderers. Besides, they have almost certainly disappeared. We cannot say now whether Putin ordered it or if it sprang from the Chechen war or if a shadowy group of former Russian spies got hold of the polonium 210 and fed it to their one-time colleague or if one of Litvinenko's associates decided to sacrifice him in order to damage Putin: my guess is that we never will.

But let's not forget the obvious. Politkovskaya and Litvinenko had both received unambiguous threats which they believed came from the Kremlin. Litvinenko knew how the FSB rubbed out opponents - after all, he himself had balked at killing people - and he had advised his friend to take these threats seriously. Both are now dead. The harm inflicted on Putin's reputation and Mr Allan's attempt to rehabilitate him does not necessarily remove Putin or his thugs from suspicion.

And let's not forget that two important critics of Putin's regime have been silenced in a little less than seven weeks. Unhappy coincidence? I think not. Read Anna Politkovskaya's book and you will agree

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