The last moments Marina Litvinenko spent with her husband are still vivid in her mind. He had just died after days of excruciating agony from radioactive poisoning, and the doctors asked if she wished to see him one final time.
“When we went into his room, it was so different. We didn’t need protective gloves,” she recalled. “I could kiss him. This time, no one said it was dangerous; nobody told me not to do so.”
Looking back, she reflects: “It was not known at the time that he had died from polonium. That came a few hours later. But I don’t regret one little bit that time we had together, that I was able to touch him again. I will always hold on to that piece of memory. It just adds to my determination to try and find justice.”
The extraordinary and shocking murder of Alexander Litvinenko, by the administration of polonium-210 in the centre of London, remains officially unsolved after almost a decade. But the lethal attack, described by his wife’s lawyers as an act of “state-sponsored terrorism” that put thousands of lives at risk, has become a matter of bitter accusations and recriminations.
Next week, the long-awaited report of a public inquiry into the death, chaired by the coroner Sir Robert Owen, will be presented to Parliament. The incendiary claim at the centre of the inquiry is the allegation that Mr Litvinenko was assassinated on the orders of the Russian president, Vladimir Putin.
For Marina Litvinenko, the report will be fruit of a tireless campaign. “We have waited and waited, sometimes despairing we will ever get anywhere. The waiting was painful,” she told The Independent.
“Maybe this could have been done five years ago instead of ten. But more of the truth has come out over time. Things which had been secret before are now in the open. Sir Robert Owen has been very fair, very thorough. He has helped us get out a lot of information. I will accept what he says.”
The life and death of Alexander Litvinenko have been enmeshed in secrets and intrigue. Before his death, he had claimed that the Russian secret service – the KGB and its successor FSB, for which he worked – had been corrupted by criminality. It had been used by the Kremlin, he also claimed, to blow up buildings in Moscow, with the attacks blamed on Chechens to justify military action in Chechnya.
Mr Litvinenko, it has emerged, had also become an agent of MI6 while in exile in Britain, earning £2,000 a month. On MI6’s behalf, he had been assisting Spanish authorities investigating alleged links between President Putin’s inner circle and the Russian mafia when he was killed at the age of 44.
Two men, Andrei Lugovoi and Dmitry Kovtun, have been named by Scotland Yard as suspects for the murder. It is highly unlikely, as things stand, that they will face trial. The Russian government has refused UK requests for their extradition. Mr Lugovoi is now an MP in the Duma in Moscow; three weeks into the public inquiry last year, President Putin awarded him a medal for “services to the motherland”.
The Russian government maintains that nothing before, during or since the Owen inquiry has proved that it ordered Mr Litvinenko’s killing and absolutely no evidence has been produced that President Putin or anyone close to him were responsible. Officials in Moscow claim that Mr Litvinenko was involved in an illicit trade in polonium and poisoned himself.
Mr Lugovoi, a former KGB officer and Mr Kovtun, a former army officer, have denied any involvement in the murder. Mr Kovtun suddenly offered, after the inquiry began, to give evidence via videolink. He was granted “core participant” status which gave him access to some of the 15,000 inquiry documents; then he announced he was unable to take part.
Sir Robert concluded: “This unhappy sequence of events drives me to the conclusion either that Mr Kovtun never, in truth, intended to give evidence and that this has been a charade. Alternatively, if he has at some stage been genuine in his expressed intention to give evidence, obstacles have been put in the way of his doing so.”
Mrs Litvinenko, a slim, petite woman of 52, is certain that vital information has been suppressed by Moscow. “Both Lugovoi and Kovtun had plenty of opportunities to present their case. It is a shame that the opportunity was not there to question them. They could have been questioned about: If they did it? Did they do it by themselves? Who sent them to do it? How did they obtain that polonium? Why was it that a weapon of mass destruction was used to carry out a murder in Britain?
“Questions have been raised about Mr Putin [that] he needs to answer. He gave Lugovoi an honour, he made him an MP, he made him a TV star; he obviously appreciated Lugovoi’s activities.”
Although the alleged prime suspects are outside the reach of British law, any finding of the Kremlin’s complicity in the murder by Sir Robert will undoubtedly result in serious diplomatic and political repercussions at a highly sensitive period in relations between Russia and the West.
With Ukraine now a semi-frozen conflict, Moscow and Nato are slowly rebuilding contacts, not least because both find themselves fighting Isis. Russia’s help, it is acknowledged in the West, is essential in seeking a ceasefire in the Syrian conflict. President Putin’s musings this week that Bashar al-Assad, viewed as the main obstacle to a deal between the Damascus regime and the opposition, may be given refuge in Russia, illustrates the aces he holds.
The British government initially refused to hold a public inquiry into Mr Litvinenko’s death. Home Secretary Theresa May admitted in a letter three years ago to Sir Robert, who had asked for an inquiry, that “international relations” were a factor in the decision.
A year later, the government’s position reversed, as the West slid towards another cold war with Russia over the Ukraine conflict. David Cameron was particularly vocal after Moscow-backed separatists were accused of shoot- ing down Malaysia Airlines flight MH17.
Mrs May’s original stance had “shocked and disappointed” Mrs Litvinenko. Looking back, she said: “I wonder if it was just her own decision, I think it was the decision of the government. But what happened showed that, if one way is blocked, then you can try another way. That is certainly not the case in a certain other country.
“I have had nothing but sympathy and support in England. People have come up to me in the street and wished me luck in our campaign to get the truth about Sasha.”
What action does Mrs Litvinenko expect the British government to take? She chose her response carefully. “It is premature to expect things now; we don’t know what Sir Robert is going to say. But even if Lugovoi and Kovtun cannot be extradited, what kind of relation can this country have with people who could have organised this kind of terrorism in the British capital? There must be worry about what is happening to Russia and how it affects other countries.”
Mrs Litvinenko, who has kept her Russian nationality, said she despairs that anyone who criticises the state in Russia is now considered an enemy of the people. “Look what happened to Boris Nemtsov [a liberal politician shot dead in Moscow in February last year], look at other killings. At the same time, people in Russia are being constantly fed propaganda about everything from the economy to Ukraine.”
Mrs Litvinenko’s father died last year. Her 80-year-old mother, Zinaida, lives in Moscow. They last met in the Ukrainian capital, Kiev, three years ago. Marina Litvinenko has not stepped foot in Russia since leaving 16 years ago. “I have been thinking about going back for a visit. I don’t need a visa they can refuse, I have a Russian passport,” she pointed out. “My friends say, ‘You will be alright, you are too high profile now for them to do anything.’ But I think about what has happened to some people far higher profile than me and I wonder. I will decide after the report comes out. I will have to think about my family.”
Marina and Alexander’s son, Anatoly, was 12 years old when his father died. “We are very close, we talk about all that has happened. He is now 21 and things have not been easy for him in the last ten years. But he has been very strong through all this, a source of strength to me,” she said.
Anatoly is an undergraduate at University College London. “He is deeply interested in Russia, Russian literature, Russian politics,” said Mrs Litvinenko. “There is a new, very special generation of young Russians who are growing up. They feel Russian, they are proud of their heritage. They will want to bring about changes in the future, they will be good for Russia.”