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'Russia Is Not the Same as Putin': Marina Litvinenko, Widow of Murdered Ex-KGB Agent, Speaks to VICE News

Alexander Litvinenko died a painful death nine years ago after being poisoned with radioactive polonium in London. A public inquiry is now underway and VICE News talked to the former KGB agent's widow.

by Sally Hayden
Mar 16 2015, 3:15pm

Photo by Matt Dunham/AP

When Marina Litvinenko described to a London courtroom in early February how her husband Alexander died a prolonged and painful death from polonium poisoning, she remained calm, faltering only in her quest for English vocabulary, with her hands crossed on the desk in front of her.

Over five hours of testimony on the third day of the inquiry into Alexander's killing, and two the next, Marina chronicled her husband's growing disillusionment with Russia and the way its security apparatus functioned. She recounted their first encounter on her birthday in 1993 when — her divorced and him in a strained marriage — they were introduced through friends he was aiding with a security issue. Alexander, she reminisced, was "a very untypical officer of the security services: very young, good-looking and very easy to talk to."

She spoke of their evolution into a "couple," their wedding in October 1994, and the birth of their son Anatoly the previous June. Her narration — pierced by questions from Robin Tam, the inquiry's legal counsel — continued to follow the relationship towards her husband's whistleblowing and resultant persecution in Russia, their escape to Britain in 2000, the family's UK citizenship ceremony in October 2006. Then came the day — less than two months later — that Alexander was buried in a lead-lined coffin — his radioactive body so toxic that a wooden container wouldn't suffice.

Related: Putin accused of ordering former Russian secret agent to be poisoned in London. Read more here.

A month and a half after Marina gave evidence to the inquiry she met VICE News at a coffee shop in South Kensington. She wore all black and moved with the physical poise that befits a former professional dancer.

Marina had come in a car straight from the inquiry at the Royal Courts of Justice. Her transport requirements are more relaxed now than at the opening of the proceedings, when she was given a police escort to protect her from a persistent mob of photographers. 

She told VICE News that the investigation is going well and that each day brings "something special." Marina continued: "Every day there is some special evidence, special statements that make me feel more satisfied. I'm very glad to say that after this I can say I don't think [this happened], I know it happened."

She also praised the quality of the evidence, particularly the forensic evidence. "It's unbelievable how high profile these people are, how professional they are," she said, "and I'm really, really proud of what they did."

The inquiry is expected to last 10 weeks in total, wrapping up at the end of March. Evidence so far has included detailed contamination reports, the testimony of police detectives, witness statements, and interviews with people including family friend Alex Goldfarb and polygraph specialist Bruce Burgess.

Evidence introduced in court included an analysis of the levels of polonium found in the Pine Bar in London's Millennium Hotel, where Alexander Litvinenko is believed to have been poisoned. Photo via Metropolitan Police.

As we sat drinking herbal tea — in heated glasses, poured from a teapot — Marina told VICE News that it was very important to her that this inquiry was carried out on British soil and through British law. "I'm a very young British as we say," she noted, adding that she thinks "this public inquiry is a great example of how everything's supposed to be."

"It's very, very special for me to show this to people, how it's important to be in a place for democracy and have the right for justice, for everything."

Marina also mentioned the accusations from within Russia that the inquiry is "politically motivated" and said she feels the professionalism of the inquiry disproves that. She added, however, that the case became political because of facts surrounding it: "Because there was polonium used and because Russian people were linked, when a material was linked to the Russian state of course it became political, not [politically] motivated but [definitely] political involvement."

"I'd be absolutely happy if the Russian side would provide the same level of authorities and the same level of scientists. It would mean there would be balance to discuss. But this is not balance," she said.

* * *

Authorities believe that Alexander died as a result of ingesting polonium-210 that had been added to the green tea he drank at the bar of the Millennium Hotel in London's Grosvenor Square. Dmitry Kovtun and Andrei Lugovoi are accused of poisoning him, visiting Russians who allegedly left a long-lasting "Hansel and Gretel" trail of radioactive polonium all over the city — in hotel rooms, bathrooms, and even on the airplane they traveled on.

After Russia refused to extradite the two men to the UK, Lugovoi gained immunity by becoming a representative in the Duma for the Liberal Democratic Party. He was nominated for the position by Sergei Abeltsev, a politician who stated the day after Alexander's death that he was a "traitor" who received "deserved punishment."

Several days before VICE News met Marina, Lugovoi was awarded the Russian state's "medal of honor." Marina's lawyer, Ben Emmerson, called this a "provocation." Marina agreed with him. "It is unbelievable," she said, laughing incredulously. "I would say it's just so nasty and so arrogant."

"We received all this evidence. And now even more," she continued. "He's not only a member of parliament, he's got an award for doing business for the fatherland."

Lugovoi has been asked to testify to the Litvinenko Inquiry via video connection, but those requests have gone unanswered.

"Lugovoi is not a credible witness at all," Marina claimed, and pointed out how British police had testified that the recording of Lugovoi's statement, taken weeks after Alexander's death, had not been provided by the Russian police, who said it no longer existed due to a "malfunction."

* * *

Part of Marina's testimony involved details of a 1998 meeting between Vladimir Putin and her husband — who was at this time working for a secret section of the Federal Security Service (FSB), the post-Soviet Union incarnation of the KGB. Putin had just been named as the FSB's director.

According to Marina, during the meeting, Alexander — who she calls Sasha — told Putin of his concern about the links between senior FSB officials and organized crime. Afterwards, Alexander told her that he felt the discussion had not been productive and that he doubted it would result in any action.

"He didn't believe Putin, as a director of FSB, could make any change from his position," Marina said, adding that this was because her husband had no belief in Putin's professional skills. "[Putin] had never been on the ground," she said. "For Sasha it was not like a person who really understood the job like what Sasha did, fight against organized crime."

Marina added that Alexander believed there was a chance Putin already had some crime connections following his position as deputy mayor of St. Petersburg, a city once dubbed the "criminal capital of Russia."

Related: 'It is a government crime': The coffins of Russia's ghost soldiers In Ukraine are coming home. Read more here.

In November 1998, Alexander, Russian oligarch Boris Berezovsky, and several other men participated in a press conference where they laid out what they knew about the influence of organized crime in Russia. Though some of the "whistleblowers" that participated in the event wore sunglasses or ski masks, Alexander left his face exposed while he spoke.

Following this, a four-hour long video statement recorded by Alexander and several associates was played on state TV.

Alexander apparently became a state target after he went public. He was arrested twice, first on charges of acting violently toward a person he was investigating — a jury found him not guilty — and later for stealing vegetables from a warehouse, though it was later proven that he was somewhere else when the theft allegedly occurred.

These charges were dropped, but Russian authorities launched third investigation into Alexander. Marina noted that his passport was confiscated, meaning he could no longer leave Russia. She also said they believed their landline phone was being monitored.

In October 2000, Marina traveled to Spain after her husband encouraged her to take their son on "holiday." She said Alexander gave her a choice after she departed: To join him in seeking asylum somewhere, or to return to Russia and await the outcome of his latest trial. Alexander told her he would not be able to protect her if she returned and that he believed he might die in prison.

"It means I have to decide whether I want to save our family," she told the inquiry. The Litvinenkos reunited in Turkey — Marina and her son traveled there on Berezovsky's private jet. Berezovsky was later found hung at his UK home in March 2013.

Meanwhile, Alexander snuck out Russia via Georgia on false documents. From Ankara, they sought asylum in the US, but were refused. Concerned about their security, the family flew to London's Heathrow Airport, where they approached a policeman in the transit area. "I am a KGB officer and I'm asking for political asylum," her husband told the police officer, according to Marina.

Marina told VICE News that she has never regretted leaving Russia because it kept her family together. "It was a very sudden decision," she said. "I knew Sasha was not safe but even then after Sasha had served his sentence in prison, I believed something would change and they would let him alone and we would have our safe and normal life in Russia. But Sasha knew that would never ever happen. And when he made his decision to leave Russia of course I came with him."

Leaning forward when asked about the perception of her husband as a "whistleblower," Marina said intently that Alexander should be put in a different category to someone like Edward Snowden, because Alexander only became a "defector" when his life was put in danger. 

Once in the UK, Alexander became a consultant on organized crime for both the British and Spanish secret services. 

Tam spoke about "Sasha's political campaigning" after he arrived in the UK, which included Alexander writing articles for a website called Chechen Press. One of these articles, Tam noted, was titled The Kremlin Pedophile, in which he accused Putin of being a pedophile after the president publicly kissed the stomach of a small boy. Alexander said that evidence for his allegations might be found in the "blank spots in Putin's biography."

Marina confirmed this article had been published in 2006, months before Litvinenko's death. "It would be fair to say," Tam said, "that if you were going to try to make friends with Putin this was not the way to do it."

* * *

Marina's ageing parents are still in Moscow, and she would like to visit them. "I want our son to see it too," she said. "He left when he was six years old." Increasingly, though, she is worried about their safety. "Before people would say it might be not dangerous to you because you are a high-profile person, but look what happened to [Boris] Nemtsov. And I don't say I would be the equivalent, but nobody cares what kind of person you are if somebody decides to harm you."

Nemtsov was gunned down in central Moscow on February 27. Marina said that the reaction to his death had convinced her that the Russian state may have played a role. "Because it's done in front of Kremlin. It's so arrogant."

However, she acknowledged that even if the state wasn't involved, the assassination had been enabled by the political situation and the "atmosphere" in the country. When Nemtsov died, she said, "He was like the face of the opposition. He was probably the only person who could unite other people in the resistance." Marina said she is certain that there was "organized crime" involved in his murder.

* * *

Marina told VICE News that she had been convinced they were safe after the family's citizenship ceremony on October 13, 2006, in London's Haringey Town Hall. "And for Sasha it was the most important aspect of safety," she said. "He believed nobody would try to do anything against a British citizen." A friend of Alexander's — investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya — had not had the same protection, and her murder in Moscow the week before overshadowed their "sad celebration," Marina said.

On the evening of November 1, her husband became sick, something that was "very unusual," according to Marina. After three days, she said, he was admitted to hospital. "And in hospital they didn't realize from the very beginning that [there was] something very, very dangerous. And only very slowly when he started to show all the signs of radioactive poisoning they realized something was wrong. But only after 23 days when Sasha was ill and only the last two days it was found that it was radioactivity." She concluded: "Sasha was poisoned by polonium."

Related: Plot thickens as suspect who said he killed Boris Nemtsov retracts confession. Read more here.

After at last finding a fleeting sense of stability, Marina was in a state of denial about the cause of her husband's sickness. "It's difficult to accept it," she said. "You are in a safe place, you are in a safe country, even if you are targeted, but who might do this to you."

Alexander thought he knew the answer to who had ordered his assassination. He gave interviews from his deathbed and released a statement, later read by a friend on the steps of University College hospital after he had died. The text provided a clear accusation: "You may succeed in silencing one man but the howl of protest from around the world will reverberate, Mr. Putin, in your ears for the rest of your life."

* * *

"Russia is not the same as Putin," Marina emphasized. But she said there is a false belief in the country now that "Russia without Putin would not exist."

"Putin was created by the media in 2000," she said. "Who was Mr. Putin then? Nobody knew this."

She said she felt that, following the fall of the Soviet Union, the country had not had enough time to get accustomed to freedom before becoming "disappointed of all this wild capitalism." "Some started to say it's better to have someone strong," she said. "And Putin became like a really strong person for this country."

In Marina's opinion, the current leadership are not "professionals." "These people have been educated in a different level, it was all former KGB, all security people," she said. "And when they have a negotiation it's not a normal negotiation, it's like a recruiting. They do not try to find your better side, they try to find where you're weak."

She also professed the view that the "balance has changed" around Putin, and the amount of security forces around the president is steadily increasing. 

"Sometimes he looks even insane for me it looks like, because he doesn't really understand what he does," she said. "For me it means he does everything to make Russia worse."

When asked whether she was referring to hubris syndrome, Marina told VICE News: "Of course it's obvious after 15 years you've just lost your reality. It's difficult to be normal after 15 years in power."

Marina seemed convinced that tangible change for the country is possible, and when this happens, she said, her husband's murderers will be forced to face trial. "I think everything will change in Russia if they change a way to rule Russia," she said, but seemed to find it hard to conceptualize that leadership. "It might be a government, and it's also very important, people must be professional. What happened to Russia now, they have no professional people around. They are loyal to Putin, but they're not professional. When it becomes real professional people in government Russia will change."

While she admitted there had been recent protests, Marina was somewhat dismissive towards them. "They're not massive. It's some people, but again it's just kind of elite. It's never going to be massive protests."

However, she added: "When it will change people will accept it. I do remember in 1991 some people came [out in the streets], but some people were just sitting at home and just didn't pay any attention. There's a change and they accept it. It will be exactly the same."

"People don't want revolution anymore. And [the state] tries to scare people. 'Do you want to see what happened in Ukraine?' 'Would you like to see this one?' And of course people don't like to go on the street to protest. They try to accept it, be quiet, open your fridge, 'there's nothing, ok.' It's just for everybody there's a war now in Russia between TV — what is propaganda — and what is in the fridge. And when the fridge will win, something will change in Russia."

Accentuating her point, she added: "Russia has never changed from the bottom. Russia every time has changed from the top historically."

* * *

Marina likes London. When she first came to the UK she took regular English lessons and her command of the language is impressive. She has led dancing classes in the city, and told VICE News that she is a "people person" with "a lot of nice people" around her. A friend arrives while we talk — interrupting the conversation to hug her. Her son Anatoly, now in his 20s, is enjoying university. His course is politics and east European studies, and he "speaks very good Russian."

She added that while she's happy at the moment, she has no idea how she'll feel in a year, after the inquiry is completed and the attention has died down. "I'm just very glad, very proud of what has happened. I'm glad when people are able to read this transcript, when people can come to the courtroom. Everybody has just said: 'Wow, unbelievable.'"

"I believe some day I will receive some — not real justice — but some kind of justice."

Follow Sally Hayden on Twitter: @sallyhayd