Krem­lin in the dock

Death of a Dis­si­dent By Alex Gold­farb Si­mon & Schus­ter, 369pp, $ 49.95

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Daniel Stacey

AL­THOUGH its cover dis­plays a por­trait of the dy­ing Alexan­der Litvi­nenko, Death of a Dis­si­dent: The Poi­son­ing of Alexan­der Litvi­nenko and the Re­turn of the KGB is as much the story of its prin­ci­pal au­thor, Alex Gold­farb, as it is of the for­mer KGB agent who in Lon­don last Novem­ber be­came the first per­son to be mur­dered through polo­nium- 210 poi­son­ing. But that idea is not a bad one. Gold­farb is far bet­ter po­si­tioned than Litvi­nenko was to de­scribe the shad­owy dy­nam­ics that have de­fined mod­ern Rus­sia. A Soviet dis­si­dent who left Moscow in the mid- 1970s, Gold­farb re­turned to Rus­sia in the ’ 90s to work for Amer­i­can bil­lion­aire Ge­orge Soros, man­ag­ing his phil­an­thropic and busi­ness projects. He mixed with the dom­i­nant plu­to­crats of the Boris Yeltsin era and counted the oli­garchs Ro­man Abramovich and Boris Bere­zovsky among his ac­quain­tances.

To Gold­farb, Bere­zovsky is the Great Gatsby of Rubly­ovka, a colour­ful fig­ure out to gain money and in­flu­ence as quickly as pos­si­ble, while Soros is a mix­ture of so­cial re­former and shrewd fund man­ager, com­bin­ing phi­lan­thropy with ef­forts to snap up cheap Rus­sian as­sets.

Gold­farb is able to trans­late th­ese in­sider ex­pe­ri­ences into a fas­ci­nat­ing and unique ac­count of the evo­lu­tion of con­tem­po­rary Rus­sia. Where Litvi­nenko, in his own ram­bling book Blow­ing Up Rus­sia: The Se­cret Plot to Bring Back KGB Ter­ror , could only spec­u­late as to ‘‘ who it was that pro­posed ( Vladimir) Putin as a po­ten­tial can­di­date to the first pres­i­dent’s in­ti­mate en­tourage’’, Gold­farb ex­plains how Bere­zovsky backed Putin’s ap­point­ment and was even sent by Yeltsin to talk Putin into the job while he hol­i­dayed in Biar­ritz, France.

The book’s es­sen­tial mes­sage is that the bat­tle be­tween the oli­garchs and the KGB/ FSB for con­trol of Rus­sia has been won by Putin ( a for­mer di­rec­tor of the FSB), whose re­formist and pro- demo­cratic rhetoric has given way to com­plete state con­trol of lead­ing news chan­nels and dra­co­nian man­age­ment of dis­sent­ing voices and or­gan­i­sa­tions.

Litvi­nenko’s story of work­ing for the KGB/ FSB through the ’ 90s pro­vides a coun­ter­point for Gold­farb’s tale of the oli­garchs. Litvi­nenko re­mem­bers the KGB in the early ’ 90s not as a ter­ror or­gan­i­sa­tion of ‘‘ snitches re­port­ing on their friends’’ but as a se­cu­rity force whose agents were ‘‘ real he­roes’’: un­der­cover op­er­a­tives in­ves­ti­gat­ing gang bosses and cor­rupt of­fi­cials. In Au­gust 1997 he was trans­ferred from an anti- ter­ror­ist unit to a se­cre­tive wing of the FSB called URPO, where he was asked to carry out ex­tra- ju­di­cial killings; even­tu­ally his friend Bere­zovsky was the in­tended tar­get. Af­ter com­plain­ing to his su­pe­ri­ors and hold­ing a press con­fer­ence to ex­pose this plot, Litvi­nenko was jailed re­peat­edly by the FSB on trumped- up charges, and even­tu­ally fled to Bri­tain.

There are com­pet­ing the­o­ries about Litvi­nenko’s death: there is spec­u­la­tion that he was black­mail­ing Moscow’s busi­ness elite, or that he was killed by Bere­zovsky to drum up sup­port for his dis­si­dent group in Lon­don. Many com­men­ta­tors refuse to ac­cept that the Krem­lin would or­der his death merely be­cause he be­trayed his su­pe­ri­ors. How­ever, this ex­pla­na­tion be­comes plau­si­ble in Gold­farb’s hands. With in­put from Bere­zovsky and other dis­si­dents, he de­scribes Putin’s zero- sum men­tal­ity, his pen­chant for re­venge and his strict sense of KGB loy­alty.

We’re also of­fered a star­tling ac­count of the poi­son that killed Litvi­nenko. Polo­nium- 210 is a heav­ily re­stricted ma­te­rial: only 85g is pro­duced an­nu­ally, 97 per cent of it in Rus­sia. Ac­cord­ing to Gold­farb, it is ‘‘ si­mul­ta­ne­ously the best and the worst mur­der weapon ever de­vised’’. It causes sim­i­lar symp­toms to low- level thal­lium poi­son­ing, so the cause of death is easy to mis­di­ag­nose. How­ever, once dis­cov­ered, ra­dioac­tive traces from polo­nium- 210 are so pre­cisely record­able that de­tec­tives can con­firm ex­actly who came into con­tact with the sub­stance, when, where and for how long. The In­ter­na­tional Atomic En­ergy Agency noted last year that there had never been a known case of polo­nium- 210 be­ing sold on the black mar­ket: it sug­gested Litvi­nenko’s killing was an ‘‘ or­gan­ised op­er­a­tion’’.

As the ti­tle of his book sug­gests, Gold­farb is ask­ing us to see Litvi­nenko’s death as a chance to choose be­tween the oli­garchs and the Krem­lin, some­thing not ev­ery­one may be pre­pared to do. There are many rea­sons for hat­ing the re­form­ers and oli­garchs and em­brac­ing Putin’s au­thor­i­tar­ian restora­tion of or­der. As one World Health Or­gan­i­sa­tion of­fi­cial dis­cussing Rus­sian mor­tal­ity rates in the ’ 90s re­cently told New States­man : ‘‘ You nor­mally only see a pop­u­la­tion dis­ap­pear­ance on this scale when a coun­try has been through civil war.’’

How­ever, there are also nu­mer­ous rea­sons to agree with Gold­farb’s prog­no­sis of a neo- Soviet KGB re­vival. His view echoes that of mur­dered Rus­sian jour­nal­ist Anna Politkovskaya: ‘‘ Re­al­ity is taste­fully dis­played to look like sta­bil­ity . . . We all know about eter­nal re­cur­rence.’’ Daniel Stacey is a Lon­don- based lit­er­ary critic, mag­a­zine ed­i­tor and writer.

Mur­dered: Alexan­der Litvi­nenko on his deathbed

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