Kremlin in the dock
Death of a Dissident By Alex Goldfarb Simon & Schuster, 369pp, $ 49.95
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