Radioactive tea, bungling assassins and polonium: the true story of Litvinenko

With his sallow, yellowing skin, sunken eyes and gaunt, thinning face, it was clear Alexander Litvinenko was dying. 

While Alexander – Sasha to his friends – was visibly deteriorating, the 44-year-old refused to be deterred.

Enduring abject agony, the inside of his throat being suffocated with blisters, Sasha’s voice was little more than a hoarse whisper when he asked his visiting friend, Andrei Nekrasov, to take a photo of him, weak and limp in his hospital bed.

‘I want the world to see what Putin has done to me,’ he said.

It was a picture that made front pages across the world when it was released in 2006, showing Sasha, despite his frail state, gazing defiantly at the camera. The Kremlin may have struck him on British soil, but the Russian dissident wasn’t going down quietly. In his dying hours, he was determined in his mission to expose Putin and his government as ‘a mafia state’.

The story of Sasha’s poisoning and death at the hands of Russian assassins, and his wife Marina’s fight for justice, is being revisited in ITVX’s Litvinenko, starring David Tennant as the late intelligence agent.

But the real-life events behind this murder are somehow more astonishing than any drama would lead us to believe.

The roots of this extraordinary tale were planted eight years before the murder occurred. In 1998, having worked as an officer for the Russian Federal Security Bureau (the FSB, an offshoot to the KGB), Sasha made the hugely brave decision to speak publicly about corruption in the service, laying the blame with the FSB’s director, Vladimir Putin.

‘He basically discovered that the rampant corruption in Russia went all the way to the top of the state, and that his bosses were involved,’ Luke Harding, author of A Very Expensive Poison, which documents the Litvinenko affair, explains to ‘Sasha was one of the first whistle-blowers of the federation in a post-Soviet era.

‘It was the criticism of Putin personally that sealed his fate and lead to the extraordinary events in London in 2006.’

Sasha knew it was no longer safe for him to stay in Russia, and thankfully, his role in the FSB had introduced him to powerful allies. He sought the help of Boris Berezovsky, an academic turned oil baron whom he’d worked closely with after Boris was targeted in an assassination attempt.

With his wife Marina and son Anatoly having already fled Russia to nearby Georgia, Boris made arrangements for Sasha to travel safely to meet them, before paying the whole family to relocate to Muswell Hill in London. Knowing he also had a target on his head as a vocal critic of Putin, Boris himself later fled for the UK.

England’s capital was seen as a safe haven for many Russians, with a sizable community moving to the city. For Sasha, London was a place where he could speak openly and critically about Russia and Putin, who in 2000, had been elected President of the Russian Federation. Receiving a small allowance from Boris, he worked tirelessly to source intelligence that could prove damaging to Putin. Boris was vital for the dissident, with his wide network allowing Sasha to create useful contacts; one of which being Andrey Lugovoy, another former FSB agent who became Sasha’s business partner – and eventual assassin. 

It was a crisp October morning in 2006 when Lugovoy flew in from Russia to London Gatwick. For a man who had been assigned to murder his business associate, Lugovoy seemingly did not believe in subterfuge – donning a shiny suit with bright, bold checks and thick gold chains as he made his way into London.

Inside the top pocket of his vibrant outfit was a small vial of clear liquid, which could have easily been dismissed as aftershave. However, it contained polonium 210, one of the deadliest substances on Earth.

Russia wanted to send a message to people they considered traitors

‘The Russians wanted to make Sasha’s murder splashy and sensational,’ Luke explains. ‘The Kremlin wanted to show other dissidents that not only the Russian state was unforgiving, but they can strike at any time and in the most painful way possible. Shooting someone dead doesn’t result in much suffering. A lethal radioactive isotope which destroys you from the inside… that ensures you’re going to suffer.

‘Using this poison was a throwback to classic KGB thinking. They wanted to send a message to those they considered traitors.’

But while the Russians were implementing Cold War tactics, they weren’t applying the same levels of skill. It’s thought the somewhat bumbling Lugovoy had no idea just how fatal the polonium could be. The substance is considered 250 billion times more deadly than cyanide. One wrong slip could have resulted in Lugovoy’s death as well as the deaths of everyone around him.

If Lugovoy was aware of the danger, it makes his subsequent actions even more farcical. Roping in his accomplice, Dmitry Kovtun (a former waiter with ambitions of becoming a porn star), the pair decided to try a spot of jacket shopping before meeting Sasha in Mayfair to discuss business opportunities with a security company.

Lugovoy’s plan was to slip the polonium in Sasha’s drink when he wasn’t looking, and so when he and Kovtun arrived in Mayfair, they were unusually vocal about wanting refreshments. When Sasha went to the loo and the man from the security company left the room, Lugovoy poured some of the polonium into Sasha’s cup, with some of the liquid splashing and seeping into the wooden table. However, upon Sasha’s return, he did not touch his tea, leaving the two assassins on edge.

A second opportunity arose shortly after the meeting, when the three men headed to a nearby Itsu for sushi. When Sasha did not leave his food unattended, Lugovoy knew he had missed his chance.

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Heading back to the Best Western Hotel that he was staying in, Lugovoy poured the rest of the polonium down the sink, before heading for a night out in Central London with Kovtun. However, Lugovoy failed to realise just by handling the poison that he was now highly radioactive, leaving a breadcrumb trail of radiation around Soho. After enjoying a rickshaw ride, they received a tip from their driver that Heyjo’s nightclub in Mayfair was popular with Russians looking to party in the capital. Owned by the flamboyant David West, Heyjo’s was infamous for its ‘erotic’ décor including penis taps, mouth-shaped urinals and giant phallic centrepiece. While Logovoy and Kovtun had gone with the high hopes of meeting women, their efforts were unsuccessful – when Scotland Yard traced radiation around London a few weeks later, the trail showed the pair merely sat in a booth in a corner on their own.

A second attempt to poison Sasha with polonium, a few days later on 25 October, also went awry. Having better disguised the substance in a pen this time, Lugovoy failed to deploy the poison, and again was forced to pour it down a sink. He quickly mopped up the spillages with a hand towel, which, when discovered, was dubbed ‘the most radioactive towel in history.’

It was their third attempt – on November 1 – where Lugovoy and Kovtun proved successful. Again, despite being armed with one of the world’s deadliest substances, the hapless assassins saw the trip as a bit of a jolly. Lugovoy even brought his wife and young children along with him, the family enjoying an open-top bus tour of the city before he left them to meet Sasha at the Millennium Hotel’s Pine Bar.

Ordering their target a pot of tea before they arrived, the pair poured in the polonium, while ordering themselves cocktails. They then watched with bated breath as Sasha drank his beverage. He had consumed more than 100 times the amount of polonium necessary to kill someone. From that moment on, Sasha was a dead man walking.

But the trip to London wasn’t over for Lugovoy. After poisoning his business partner, he then went to watch the football, watching Arsenal draw against CSKA Moscow in a nil-nil match, before getting a British Airways flight back to Russia.

Within days, Sasha’s health steeply declined, seeing him continuously and excessively vomit as the polonium started to break down his internal organs. Upon his initial admission to Barnet Hospital, he gave the alias Edwin Carter, before revealing his true identity and his belief he had been poisoned. Doctors alerted Scotland Yard and the Counter Terrorism Command about the seriousness of Sasha’s claims.

Detective Inspector Brent Hyatt was sent to take a statement. Although his lungs were burning, his chest heavy and it was a struggle to remain conscious, Sasha spoke to Hyatt for four hours – his calm, methodical FSB training on display as he recalled the people he met, the places he went and the steps he took in the run-up to his hospitalisation. Sasha was the Metropolitan Police’s star witness – to his own murder.

Meanwhile, there were desperate attempts to discover what Sasha had been poisoned with. Dr Andres Virchis, who initially treated him at Barnet Hospital, was astounded at how similar his patient’s vitals looked to someone who had leukemia. Meanwhile, Sasha’s hair loss made some specialists believe he had maybe been exposed to alkylating agents commonly used in chemotherapy. But nothing was showing up in numerous tests – leaving Scotland Yard worried.

It was on 23 November, the day Sasha died, that the cause of his poisoning was uncovered. With polonium 210 being so rare and unusual, scientists had initially dismissed test results indicating the presence of the substance as an error. However, replicating their tests showed it was no mistake – and that London had been a target of a nuclear attack.

It left Peter Clarke, the head of the Counter Terrorism Command, in an unimaginably difficult situation. With London still reeling from the 7/7 bombings that occurred the year before, he and his team were forced to act quickly to ascertain the danger to the nine million people living in the city.

‘There was a dawning realisation of the sheer mad international scale of this case,’ Luke explains. ‘It was unlike any other case they’d ever dealt with. There were two assassins, sent by a hostile state, to go and rub someone out, with a substance so rare they couldn’t identify it.’

But it was Sasha’s exceptional four hour interview, in which he provided pocketbook descriptions of what happened, which allowed the Met Police to act with the speed they needed to ensure the capital’s safety.

‘It’s the best documented international murder in history,’ Luke says. ‘Litvinenko’s case is unique because we had a situation where the murder victim was able to give evidence of his own murder. The police were able to reconstruct this gruesome attack in technicolour.’

The police followed the breadcrumb trail across London and found hugely worrying levels of radiation in public areas visited by thousands on a day-to-day basis. Even Sasha’s wife Marina, who had spent a lot of time by his bedside, was radioactive. Her husband’s body was also a hazard – he had to be buried in a lead-lined coffin as a safety precaution.

 ‘The fact that no one else was killed was sheer dumb luck,’ Luke says. ‘It says something of the monstrous nature of the Russian state that they decided to take this risk.’

While the police had enough evidence to charge Lugovoy and Kovtun, Russia refused to co-operate with the investigations. They declined to extradite Lugovoy, and were unhelpful to the point of obstruction when Met Police officers were sent to Moscow to question their suspects.

It was particularly embarrassing for Tony Blair, who had previously put energy into strengthening Britain’s relationship with Russia. After his election in 2000, Putin had shown an interest in wanting to cooperate with the West – in embarrassing footage still available on YouTube, he is seen singing to Hollywood stars at a charity fundraising gala. However, the Litvinenko Affair scuppered any quaint notions that Putin was looking to play fair.

How the Litvinenko affair links to the Russian-Ukraine war

Luke Harding, who previously lived in Moscow and has extensively covered Russia and Ukraine relations for over 15 years, argues the Kremlin’s actions throughout the Litvinenko affair was indicative of their behaviour in their invasion of Ukraine.

‘I’ve always known what this regime is capable of,’ he explains, covering the war extensively in his new book, Invasion. ‘In Autumn last year, when Putin started mobilising troops, many people thought it was a bluff – but I knew it was going to lead to a full-blown invasion.

‘I’ve pretty solidly been in Ukraine for the last year. I’ve written a first draft of history of this war in Invasion, but it’s informed by my understanding of Putin and the way people around him think. For a long time, they see believe they’re at war with the West. They see the war in Ukraine as a property war against the West. Litvinenko was part of that war. There’s a continuity between what happened in 2006 and what’s happening in 2022.’

Luke adds: ‘Putin’s regime is pretty solid, despite ongoing rumours of ill-health. We just have to believe Putin isn’t going anywhere. Russia is not a nation we can co-operate with – it just needs to be contained.’

Despite the brazen nature of the attack, Russia’s immense strength meant Britain’s reaction to Sasha’s murder was laughably weak.

‘We expelled a few diplomats, and that was it,’ Luke explains. ‘Whenever Putin does something terrible, and receives little response, he doubles down. We saw this after Litvinenko with the 2018 Salisbury poisonings. We saw this after the invasion of Georgia in 2008 with the annexation of Crimea. We’re seeing this with the war on Ukraine.

‘Putin absolutely despises the West. His attitude towards the rest of the world is “f*** you.”’

While subsequent governments were reluctant to hold a public inquiry into Sasha’s death, Marina campaigned tirelessly to get her husband justice. After a long battle with the government, three High Court judges overruled home secretary Theresa May’s refusal in 2014 and ordered a public inquiry into the murder.

The result of the inquiry, released in 2016, was damning. Sir Robert Owen ruled that Lugovoy and Kovtun deliberately poisoned Sasha, and that the operation had been ordered by the FSB and likely approved by Putin himself.

For Marina and her family, the findings were a crumb of comfort after the horrendous events of 2006. Lugovoy, now a politician, is immune from extradition. Kovtun died of Covid-19 last year.

For Luke, the Litvinenko affair highlighted Britain’s uncomfortable proximity to Russian power, something that continued long after Sasha’s assassination: the 2012 Olympics saw then Prime Minister David Cameron cosy up to Putin as they watched the judo together.

‘The UK’s mistake is being too reliant on Russian money,’ he says. ‘There was the grim calculation that Russian money is good for the economy. Lots of oligarchs were able to just buy British visas. With that kind of money, they could have the red carpet rolled out for them.’

It was the Russian invasion of Ukraine earlier this year that served as a turning point in many nation’s relations with Putin. Heavier sanctions have been placed on Russia as a result, with billions of pounds of aid from across the world poured into Ukraine.

‘Events have shown recently that this is a state you just can’t do business with,’ Luke says, plainly. ‘It’s a crazy regime that’s bent on international mayhem.

‘We have to commend the bravery of Russians like Sasha and Marina who have risked everything by going against the regime and tell the truth to power.’

Even in his dying moments, Sasha refused to be cowed by the bullies that forced him to his grave.

In a statement released after his death, he spoke directly to Putin.

‘You have shown yourself to be unworthy of your office, to be unworthy of the trust of civilized men and women,’ he said.

‘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.’

Litvinenko will be available to view on ITVX from 15th December.

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