Johann Hari: Back to the future... Russia, a totalitarian regime picking off its dissidents one by one

This is a way of saying to all critics of Putin: wherever you are, we can get you and you will die in agony
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The Independent Online

The best sound-track to the slow-motion murder of Alexander Litvinenko - leaving a corpse so radioactive there may never be a post-mortem - comes from the Beatles: "We're back in the USSR. Been away so long I hardly knew the place."

To those who stopped following the news from Russia when the Cold War thawed out, the thought of a Russian Bond being despatched to London to take out a dissident in a Mayfair Hotel seems like an inexplicably retro moment. But for those who have cared to see, it has been clear for some time that under Vladimir Putin, Russia is marching back towards totalitarianism.

The Russian journalist Anna Polikovskaya wrote three years ago, "The shroud of darkness from which we spent several Soviet decades trying to free ourselves is enveloping us again." For talking this way, she was swiftly poisoned, and when that didn't kill her, she was found last month with three bullets in her skull in a Moscow lift-shaft.

Politkovskaya, Litvinenko, Victor Yushenko - one poisoning of your enemies could be a misfortune, but three begins to look like carelessness. Or, rather, a deliberate strategy, and the list of victims goes on. But at first glance, this latest attack seems an extraordinarily inefficient way for the FSB - the successor to the KGB - to murder a dissident. They had to smuggle radioactive poison into Britain, and within 130 days administer it so carefully that they killed Litvinenko and nobody else. Wouldn't an anonymous bullet in an alleyway have been smarter? But like the previous attacks, this is a way of saying to all critics of Putin : wherever you are, we can get you, and you will die in agony, and you will know you are dying, and you will know it was us.

In case this sounds too presumptuous - do we really know Putin is responsible for murdering a British citizen on British soil? - it is worth looking at the origins of Putin's power, as documented by his despatched critics. In 1999, he was appointed Prime Minister by the semi-conscious President Boris Yeltsin. It was assumed he was merely the latest in a string of bland functionaries who passed through the Premiership. But then there was a slew of explosions in apartment blocks across Russia, killing more than 300 people. Putin established himself as the President-designate with response, immediately blaming Chechen fundamentalists and restarting the uniquely vicious Chechen War which has, according to some human rights organisations, killed a third of the civilian population since 1991.

But there is considerable evidence these bombs were not planted by Chechens at all. On the day of the apartment explosions, in a town called Ryazan 100 miles south of Moscow, a local engineer spotted another huge bomb, and three suspicious men nearby. They were quickly arrested by the police and revealed to be FSB agents. They claimed that, while the country was under attack, they were planting real bombs in yet another apartment block as part of a "training exercise". A slew of highly respected journalists, from my colleague Patrick Cockburn to Channel Four's Despatches team, have suggested that the bombings were Putin's Reichstag fire.

Yet the British government has a vested interest in not acknowledging these bleak realities about Russia, and in doing anything they can to avoid the conclusion that Litvinenko was killed on the orders of the Kremlin. The hard geopolitical story about Russia over the past week was not the death of a dissident, but the meeting between top EU officials and Putin in Helsinki to talk gas. Put simply, Europe is addicted to Russia's oil and gas supplies. We need them, desperately. If Russia turned off the gas - as they did earlier this year with Ukraine as part of a nasty diplomatic dispute - Europe would freeze.

Putin knows it. As the American journalist Thomas Friedman has put it, no addict stands up to his dealer. If global warming wasn't reason enough for us urgently to develop alternatives to fossil fuels, the fact that Europe's closest supplies are in the hands of a blackmailing gangster provides a second unanswerable case. Until then, our ability to stand up to Putin - even when he kills one of our own, here in London - will be woefully limited.

But this radioactive slap in the face for Britain should also be an opportunity to understand how Russia came to be slumping back into totalitarianism just 15 years after the fall of Soviet tyranny. A conservative-pessimist school has emerged which says that democracy was always an alien implant in Russia. Millions of Russians took to the streets to weep for Stalin when he died, even though he had slain 30 million of their countrymen. Millions cheer for Putin now. Russians will always want a stern father in the Kremlin, they argue. For them, any February revolution in Russia will always find its October.

But the reality is more complex and forces us in the West to take a large slice of the blame for Russia's current condition. The fall of the Soviet Union was quickly presented here as a victory for the Reaganite right. This was largely myth-making: the Soviet system fell because of its own disastrous contradictions. But nonetheless, it meant the supposed victors got to set the terms of the peace. As the Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz puts it, "They argued for a new religion: market fundamentalism as a substitute for the old one, Marxism." Without consulting the Russian people, the International Monetary Fund forced on Russia "shock therapy", a form of regulation-free turbo-capitalism more extreme than anything ever tried in any democracy.

The result was a catastrophe. Russian industrial production fell by 60 per cent. GDP fell by 54 per cent. Life expectancy fell by three years - from the already dire levels of the Soviet Union. Ordinary Russians saw a handful of Yeltsin cronies become billionaires, while there was nothing in the state coffers to pay their $15 a month pensions. Thanks to the Thatcho-Reaganite IMF, Russians came to associate democracy with chaos, criminality and mass unemployment. Think of it as Weimar syndrome. That's why, when Putin arrived with his neo-Soviet totalitarianism, it no longer seemed so repulsive.

And so we are back where we started, with a totalitarian Russia, and the few remaining dissidents being picked off one by one. "The bastards got me, but they won't get us all," Litvinenko said a few hours before he died. I hope so, Alexander. I hope so.

j.hari@independent.co.uk

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