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Moscow Diary: The Litvinenko saga

In the first instalment of a fortnightly Moscow Diary the BBC's James Rodgers examines the impact of Alexander Litvinenko's mysterious death in London and its echoes of the Cold War.

Alexander Litvinenko
Russian exiles may be questioned over Litvinenko's death
The Moscow murder squad may soon be on its way to London.

Russian detectives hope to travel to the UK to conduct interviews for the case they've opened into Alexander Litvinenko's death.

Members of the Russian exile community will be top of their list.

Scotland Yard detectives have passed a file on Mr Litvinenko's murder to the Crown Prosecution Service.

They came out to Moscow as part of their investigation.

The poisoning of the former Russian secret service officer has led to countless theories about who might have been responsible.

'Fugitive oligarchs'

There are two main versions. Which one you believe seems to depend on where you're looking from.

"It's well known who the people who want to damage Russia are," President Vladimir Putin said at his annual news conference last week. "It's the so-called fugitive oligarchs who are hiding in Western Europe and the Middle East."

Mr Putin's words largely sum up the views of most people in Moscow. That includes foreigners who live in Russia, and have experience of the way things have worked here since the end of communism.

President Putin
President Putin dismissed any Litvinenko "conspiracy theory"
They suggest that the reasons for Mr Litvinenko's death may be discovered in the more shadowy reaches of the Russian diaspora.

Many Russian exiles, of course, prefer to point the finger at the Kremlin - echoing Mr Litvinenko's deathbed declaration. It's a view which seems to be widely shared in the countries - including the UK - where expatriate Russians have made their homes.

However the investigations conclude - and the Russian prosecutor general long ago made it clear that no Russian citizen would be extradited to stand trial in Britain - the longer term consequences are likely to be political.

There's an old KGB saying: "You can't be a former secret policeman - you can only be a traitor".

'Litvinenko had no money'

I spoke recently to a contact who's an ex-KGB officer. He believed that Mr Litvinenko's death was a settling of scores: business scores.

He suspected Mr Litvinenko was running short of cash, and had no more KGB stories to tell, or sell. That may have led to him getting involved in a potentially deadly deal.

"Litvinenko had no money," my contact suggested. "He needed to earn money. He couldn't write any more books because no-one would talk to him."

Many in Moscow have been shocked by the apparent willingness of people in the West to believe that the Kremlin was to blame for the death. There's a sense of "so that's what you think of us?"

On Friday, I was invited to speak to an English-language conversation group.

Shopping on Tverskaya, Moscow
Oil revenue has helped create new affluence in Moscow
Some of the questions were difficult to answer diplomatically. "Which stereotypes of Russia are true, and which are not?" was one of them.

Trying to answer the question "Why is Russia portrayed so negatively in the West?", I explained that Mr Litvinenko's death - whoever was responsible - had damaged Russia's reputation.

Russia on the rise

Ordinary people here may not care much about potential diplomatic fall-out from the case.

They do care about their country's image and standing in the world.

There's a real sense here that Russia is on the rise again. That makes people proud. But many also suspect that their country's resurgence is resented in the West.

They want to shake off old stereotypes of Russia as a place where people in fur hats keep out the frost with a slug of vodka while keeping an eye out for bears.

The Cold War may be long finished, but the vastly different interpretations of who is to blame for the death of Alexander Litvinenko show that Russia and the West still struggle to trust and understand each other.

Parallel police investigations are unlikely to help.


Your comments:

As Putin said at his recent conference, Litvinenko did not know any secrets and prior to his defection he had been fired from the FSB for beating up suspects and peddling explosives. This defector is of no interest to anyone in Russia. However, his death presented a perfect black PR opportunity to all sorts of Russia-bashers.
Elena, London, UK

"Fugitive oligarchs who are hiding in Western Europe and the Middle East" and all the other Judeo-Masonic conspiracies to keep the brilliant Russians down... Are Russians so stupid to buy again into the Stalin-style anti-Semitism?
Bula de Gaz, New York, NY

I'm a Russian living in the West (US) and to me this whole affair is just a perfect example of anti-Russian bigotry that has permeated Western, and especially English, society. It would seem like you people are taught from birth to hate Russians, to assume we are guilty of something until proven innocent. The only positive I can see coming out of this fiasco is that we'll finally see your true intentions.
Vladimir, Chicago, IL

If the Russians want to be perceived differently then why are there still very bureaucratic means of entering the country. I am sure that more Western people would travel to destinations of historical interest and learn more about the new ways of Russian people and society if boarders were made more open.
Kev, Chester, UK

You are the first journalist who writes about Russia I can't say positive, but at least in more or less balanced way. Good step forward. Thank you,
Leon Vaineikis, Moscow

Russians are no different to any other nation. They want to feel proud about themselves and always look to the better side of life. Unfortunately, without a free press and a strong democratic process, they must make do with often dangerous delusional media, implanted by an autocratic self centred system which without checks and balances, we as their neighbours should rightly be concerned.
Martin Dungay, Tallinn Estonia

The lethal way the killing took place puts a serious question mark against the source of supply and specifically who controls such lethal substances. This surely implies people high up.
Berning Bredenkamp, Cape Town, SA

One of the major reasons why the West distrusts Russia is that for many years, dictators have ruled the country. Stalin murdered many millions and the country is only now coming to terms with its past. Democracy is in its infancy and is severely under threat. It is only natural to worry about Russia's influence and it is relatively easy to believe that the Russian government had a hand in Litvinenko's death.
Bill Wilson, Birmingham, England

The whole Litvinenko story is ridiculous. Is somebody thinking that the Russian secret service or the KGB would be so stupid? Is really somebody believing this? If the Russians wanted to kill Litvinenko they would do it anywhere on the street. Surely not by this crazy and expensive means (Polonium costs millions).
Robert Kiss, Wien, Austria

All well and good saying "we had nothing to do with it" but who has the technology to purify a serious amount of Polonium. If reports are accurate, producing a couple of million Beckerels isn't something you can do in a school chemistry lab or in your garden shed. It has "superpower" with enough nuclear know-how written all over it and who would want to shut Litvinenko up?
CJ, Macclesfield, UK

First of all, I watched Putin's conference, in Russian, and the "fugitive oligarchs" comment was not actually made in reference to Litvienko. At that point Putin was commenting, in general, on those who may pose a threat to Russia (or at least its image). Secondly, as a Russian living in the US, let me tell you, that the Putin conference was more informative than anything I've seen on TV here. It makes me both sad and angry that Westerners buy into the anti-Russian propaganda and conspiracy theories. Putin and his government run the largest country in the world, one full of economic, social and many other problems. The idea that any one ex-KGB man can be so important as to cause this controversy is absurd! And regarding "the wool over Russians' eyes" comment, sir, can you as much as name more than 5 russian cities? It is much easier to judge a country and a culture that you know nothing about than it is to stop listening to your own nation's propaganda and learn something about it.
Ksenia, New Jersey, USA

The most worrying is that a large amount of radioactive material has been brought into the UK and used in central London. Next time it may be Al Qaeda building a dirty bomb. Our security services have demonstrated that they are incompetent and cannot deal with such threat.
Alexander, London

It seems to be obvious to who is responsible for the death of Litvinenko, but really who is surprised? We as the people of our nations standby and let others get away with such ghastly crimes.
Jeff, New York, USA

"Which stereotypes of Russia are true, and which are not?" A good question. Equally, in Russia, I have found that stereotypes of Western Countries are very strong. Britain is foggy and full of gentlemen, Italians make good shoes, and Germany is an ordered and disciplined society. France is the country of love and wine. In my experience from living in Russia, Russians' stereotypes about other countries are even stronger than foreigners' stereotypes of Russia.That's enough stereotypes for now.
Rich, Helsinki

I get the feeling this is unfolding into an unfortunate media driven mystery. When conclusive evidence is found, justice may or may not be served. That's life, move on. Frankly, no single man's earthly and political demise should sway an opinion of an entire country. But until the officials, not the media, solves this, go easy on the face slapping.
Tom, Atlanta, USA

Litvinenko was responsible for Litvinenko's death. Putin is responsible for Russia being the greatest place to live freely and develop.
Peter Jones, Kropotkinskia, Moscow, Russia

During the mass theft and poverty of Yeltsin years, Russia was praised by the West; then it was democratic, free-market and open. We want more of the same, shouted Financial Times and The Economist. Now when it is getting stronger and living standards are improving, it is suddenly "undemocratic". It is very obvious that strong Russia is resented in the West. I hope that Russians do not care, and they shouldn't.
Alex, London, UK

Thank you for this article. It is really good because it is trying to show the problem from different angles. I especially very thankful to the authors for the last extracts stating: "They want to shake off old stereotypes of Russia." I think it's true, many in the West continue to see Russia as an enemy. Thousands are killed in Iraq because of the USA's interests and nobody calls the USA the undemocratic country but if one of the ex-KGB officers is killed (and it is not proved that it was authorised by the Kremlin), Russia is labelled as undemocratic. Very discriminating, don't you think?
Dmitry A Fedotov, Donetsk, Ukraine

I think that by answering the question of where Polonium (if it was Polonium after all) comes from will help to solve the riddle. If they were able to find the traces months after somebody eventually carried it in a plane, they should know more about its origins. Why don't they tell?
Alexey, Moscow, Russia

With President Putin tightening control of the Russian media and the country's energy supplies, it is viewed by some as a return to Soviet tactics. However, the general public in London are not, on the whole, interested in the politics of case. Someone was murdered using highly radioactive material in the centre of London. This is what we are angry about. Had this happened in Moscow, the Muscovites would have been livid and with just cause. No one wants highly radioactive material anywhere near their city centres (hospitals aside). This isn't politics, its common sense!
Clint, London, UK


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