Alexander Litvinenko in his hospital bed; photo courtesy of The Guardian
(Toledo, OH) The death of Alexander Litvinenko, an ex-KGB operative, was a particularly gruesome crime. Known to his friends as Sasha, he died in London on Thursday night after a three-week illness attributed to poisoning. His hair fell out almost immediately, his internal organs failed, and his body slowly fell into systemic collapse.
Doctors found deadly levels of polonium-210, a radioactive substance, in his body. Traces of polonium were found in locations he had visited shortly before falling ill, and urine samples taken from Litvinenko also showed the poison.
Given the fact that Litvinenko was an ardent critic of Russian president Vladimir Putin, the temptation among many pundits is to assume the worst - that Putin, in classic gangster fashion, simply ordered a hit on one of his enemies. Given the fact that vocal critics of Putin tend to become the victims of unusual acts of violence (consider the 2006 murder of journalist Anna Politkovskaya and the 2004 dioxin poisoning of Ukranian president Viktor Yushchenko), such a scenario is certainly within the realm of possibilities.
While I am in full agreement with the idea that Russia is devolving into a gangsterocracy, I am not convinced Vladimir Putin ordered the hit on Litvinenko. It is equally plausible that elements within the FSB (the successor security body to the KGB) initiated the murder on their own.
It is also possible that rival political factions might have murdered Litvinenko in an effort to embarass Putin, whose term expires in 2008. Russian media sources are floating the specious idea that organized crime elements contracted the murder in an effort to discredit the FSB and, by default, the nation of Russia. Pravda suggests notorious Russian businessman Boris Berezovsky as a prime suspect, and also points the accusatory finger at Chechen exile Akhmed Zakayev
But whatever the real truth - which the world may never know - what is certain is that politics in Russia is a deadly business, and whoever poisoned Alexander Litvinenko with polonium-210 wanted to send that message in a very visible, gruesome manner.