Southwold Ways With Words Literature Festival - Review of Luke Harding: ‘The Inside Story of Alexander Litvinenko’

PUBLISHED: 11:39 14 November 2016

Ways With Words Southwold Literature Festival

Ways With Words Southwold Literature Festival


Alexander Litvinenko, a former officer of the Russian FSB secret service, was poisoned ten years ago in London, dying on 23 November 2006. On the day Litvinenko fell ill, he had met with two former KGB agents Dmitry Kovtun and Andrei Lugovoy in the Pine Room of the Millennium Hotel.

He later died after consuming two or three sips of green tea, containing the radioactive element polonium. Guardian journalist, author and foreign correspondent Luke Harding’s new book ‘A Very Expensive Poison’ not only explores the circumstances of that crime but also those involved in it.

The book records the sometimes botched attempts by Russia’s secret agents to eliminate Litvinenko, saying that they only achieved it on the third attempt. The advantage of Harding’s book is that it is the first one to have been written since the 10,000-page Inquiry Report of Sir Robert Owen earlier this year. Harding’s insight to the story is further enhanced by his knowledge of Moscow, as a foreign correspondent and his working relationship with Litvinenko’s wife Marina.

It is a remarkable and alarming story of FSB agents, M16 informers and corruption. Initially the inquiry was in doubt because of ‘cost and international relations’ but in 2014, the then Home Secretary Theresa May finally authorised the inquiry.

In his talk, Harding makes it clear that Litvinenko was not an isolated assassination as twenty-three journalists and others have also been murdered and so far investigations have failed to secure justice for them.

Harding’s book is enhanced by his understanding of Russian politics and culture as well as his personal knowledge of some of the key players in the story.

He describes Litvinenko as ‘principled and high-minded’ and although the warning signs were there, he said that Litvinenko believed his British citizenship would protect him.

Of Putin’s Russia, he said that the attitude is ‘not that Russia is great, but that everywhere else is bad’. Asked about Donald Trump’s relationship with Putin, he said that it appears that Putin has some power over Trump, whether it is financial investments in New York property or something else, it is unlikely to just be their common macho, alpha male personality.

Despite the horrific background to the story, Harding makes the point that there are two Russia’s and the other one comprises of ‘fantastic people, music and culture’.

A previous book ’The Snowden Files’ is now a film directed by Oliver Stone, and the Litvinenko story is also due to be televised by More 4. Marina Litvinenko, who he is meeting again next week, once said ‘You can silence one person, but you cannot silence the world’.

Luke Harding’s book not only tells the extraordinary story of Litvinenko’s murder, but also makes important observations on Russia’s current relationship with the West.

Chris Ure.

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