Former Russian Security Service Officer Dies from Radiation Poisoning Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Alexander Litvinenko was an officer in the Russian federal security service, once assigned to protect billionaire Boris Berezovsky, who later fell out with the Russian government. After Litvinenko accused the Russian government of scheming to kill Berezovsky, he fled to England. There, he developed a strange illness, later found to be radiation poisoning, and died. Many believe Litvinenko was killed by the Russian government, possibly on orders from President Vladimir Putin.

Summary of Event

Alexander Litvinenko’s death is largely the story of three men—Litvinenko, Boris Berezovsky, and Vladimir Putin—and the turbulence of political change in postcommunist Russia. The fall of communism created a Wild West type of environment in Russia, which was ready made for profiteers and unscrupulous businessmen willing to exploit the country’s political disorganization and breakdown in law and order for their personal gain. Business disagreements were sometimes resolved by competitors being gunned down. One of the country’s major tourist cities, St. Petersburg, became its crime capital as well. [kw]Radiation Poisoning, Former Russian Security Service Officer Dies from (Nov. 23, 2006) [kw]Poisoning, Former Russian Security Service Officer Dies from Radiation (Nov. 23, 2006) Litvinenko, Alexander Berezovsky, Boris Putin, Vladimir Lugovoi, Andrei Litvinenko, Alexander Berezovsky, Boris Putin, Vladimir Lugovoi, Andrei [g]Europe;Nov. 23, 2006: Former Russian Security Service Officer Dies from Radiation Poisoning[03730] [g]England;Nov. 23, 2006: Former Russian Security Service Officer Dies from Radiation Poisoning[03730] [g]Russia;Nov. 23, 2006: Former Russian Security Service Officer Dies from Radiation Poisoning[03730] [c]Murder and suicide;Nov. 23, 2006: Former Russian Security Service Officer Dies from Radiation Poisoning[03730] [c]Politics;Nov. 23, 2006: Former Russian Security Service Officer Dies from Radiation Poisoning[03730] [c]Corruption;Nov. 23, 2006: Former Russian Security Service Officer Dies from Radiation Poisoning[03730] [c]International relations;Nov. 23, 2006: Former Russian Security Service Officer Dies from Radiation Poisoning[03730] [c]Government;Nov. 23, 2006: Former Russian Security Service Officer Dies from Radiation Poisoning[03730] [c]Medicine and health care;Nov. 23, 2006: Former Russian Security Service Officer Dies from Radiation Poisoning[03730]

Regional governors created their own private fiefdoms across the great Eurasian expanse of Russia, and the country’s privatization process allowed politically well-connected, and lucky, private entrepreneurs such as Berezovsky (who survived at least two assassination attempts during the mid-1990’s) to gain control of the country’s major industries and amass personal fortunes through pyramid Pyramid schemes schemes, money Money laundering laundering, smuggling, and other illicit activities.

Once in office in 1999, Vladimir Putin focused his presidency on regaining control of Russia’s political process. He pushed through laws that made regional governors appointees of the center and extended government control over its key, privatized industries. The latter efforts led him to target, among others, Berezovsky, who by the time of Putin’s presidency had become a billionaire with holdings in Russia’s oil industry and substantial investments in Russia’s media, its automobile sector, and Aeroflot, the country’s airline. One technique that Putin regularly employed to regain control over such sectors was the use of legal proceedings against his targets, and so it was for Berezovsky. Indicted for fraud in Russia, Berezovsky fled to Great Britain and then sought asylum in 2001.

Meanwhile, Litvinenko also became embroiled in a conflict with Russian authorities—in his case, with the Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation (FSB), in which he had been an officer for many years but whose return to the brutal practices of the Soviet Union he publicly attacked in 1998 at a Moscow press conference. In particular, he accused the FSB of conducting assassinations and other illegal acts to maintain its position in the leadership of a post-Soviet Russia, which was then theoretically democratizing under the presidency of Boris Yeltsin. Subsequently imprisoned twice for his comments, Litvinenko fled to Britain in 2000, where he merged into a large colony of Russian expatriates (duly infiltrated by undercover Russian security agents) and where he was granted political asylum in 2001. (He later acquired British citizenship.)

Upon Berezovsky’s arrival in London, Litvinenko and Berezovsky resumed a friendship that had begun in 1998, when Litvinenko reputedly refused an order to assassinate Berezovsky while serving as his bodyguard. Rejoined in London, they inaugurated an escalating series of charges against the Putin regime that gained increasing credibility in Western circles. Putin’s critics in the Russian media were not just harassed but also began to die either accidently or in more violent ways, usually without anyone being charged with their murder. Against this backdrop, Litvinenko’s 2006 death in London under mysterious circumstances, and by a highly exotic form of poisoning, immediately acquired both a sinister and scandalous aura.

The facts relating to the poisoning itself remained somewhat disputed despite the intensity of investigative efforts. There is, for example, still a small debate over whether Litvinenko had been poisoned prior to November 1, or only once, on the day he fell ill. It is certain that he was poisoned on the first of November and almost certainly while having a drink at the Millennium Hotel in central London with two former associates in the Soviet KGB KGB, Andrei Lugovoi and Kovtun, Dimitri Dimitri Kovtun. An inspection of the hotel’s kitchen area found a highly radioactive tea cup with traces of polonium-210, radioactive material that laboratory findings later confirmed as the poison that killed Litvinenko. After seeing Lugovoi and Kovtun, Litvinenko journeyed to a restaurant for a scheduled meeting with an Italian security specialist (Mario Scaramella), who had offered to provide him with information on the death of a Russian investigative journalist (Anna Politkovskaya) suspected of being poisoned by Russian agents in 2004 and then assassinated in October, 2006.

Subsequent rumors indicated that Litvinenko was poisoned yet again in the hospital where he was taken for treatment. His recovery there was followed by a subsequent sharp decline in his condition; he then died on November 23. Medical evidence has thoroughly discredited that theory, however, with Litvinenko’s initial recovery now being credited to his generally good health and his subsequent relapse seen as a normal consequence of the nature of the radioactive poison he had consumed. Significantly, before he died, Litvinenko recovered enough to make a deathbed statement in which he blamed Putin and Russian security forces operating under Putin’s command for his murder. Seven months later, in June of 2007, Berezovsky was alerted by British intelligence that he, too, was being targeted for murder. He fled England in fear for his life.


The British media—and not just the London tabloids—were closely reporting on the scandalous story of Litvinenko’s poisoning and eventual death and on the clues that seemed to point to Moscow for having a part in his demise. When media accusations continued as the story unfolded, Britain’s diplomatic relations with Russia began to suffer. Moscow retaliated for the unwanted media attention, first by disrupting the British Broadcasting Corporation’s broadcasts in Russia and later by expelling several British diplomats from Moscow.

London-Moscow relations further worsened in May of 2007, when British authorities narrowed their suspect list to Lugovoi after having found traces of radioactive material in several places where Lugovoi stayed en route to London and after arriving in London prior to his November 1 meeting with Litvinenko (Litvinenko became ill that same day). On May 22—after tracing the polonium-210 radioactive material used to kill Litvinenko to a Russian nuclear plant as well—British authorities formerly charged Lugovoi with Litvinenko’s murder. The British Foreign Office requested Lugovoi’s extradition to face charges in Britain. In response, Russian authorities, whose own request for Berezovsky’s extradition had been previously refused, rejected the British request on the grounds that it would violate Russia’s constitution. Litvinenko, Alexander Berezovsky, Boris Putin, Vladimir Lugovoi, Andrei

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Goldfarb, Alex, with Marina Litvinenko. Death of a Dissident: The Poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko and the Return of the KGB. New York: Free Press, 2007. Written by a close friend of Litvinenko and by Litvinenko’s wife, this work makes the case that Litvinenko’s death was a KGB-styled execution intended to send a message to other would-be critics of Putin’s Russia.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Litvinenko, Alexander, and Yuri Felshtinsky. Blowing Up Russia: The Secret Plot to Bring Back KGB Terror. New York: Encounter Books, 2007. Part of a three-volume set of articles, interviews, and other materials compiled by Boris Berezovsky, this book focuses on the 1998-2005 period of conflict between Litvinenko and the FSB, whom he suspected would some day kill him.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Litvinenko, Alexander, and Pavel Stroilov. Allegations: Selected Works by Alexander Litvinenko. Slough, England: Aquilion, 2007. Published a year after Litvinenko’s death, Stroilov’s work as editor and translator offers a carefully selected anthology of Litvinenko’s allegations of misconduct at the highest levels in the Russian government.

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Categories: History