Leading article: A haunting reminder of the Soviet past

Share

A former Russian spy is fighting for his life in a London hospital after being poisoned with the lethal substance thallium. Pictures published yesterday showed Alexander Litvinenko, who was in the prime of life only two weeks ago, a shadow of his former self. Yesterday he was returned to intensive care after his condition worsened.

There is no reason to beat about the bush. This attempted murder, for that is surely what it is, bears all the hallmarks of the Russian security services, the FSB. Thallium, without taste and fatal in even tiny quantities, is the secret services' drug of choice. Its last known use was against the Ukrainian opposition politician, Viktor Yushchenko, when he was standing for the presidency. In the case of Mr Litvinenko, the Kremlin had plenty of reasons for wanting the troublesome former FSB lieutenant colonel out of the way for good.

Mr Litvinenko was indicted three times for treason in Russia in the late Nineties. He was twice cleared, and defected to Britain where he was granted political asylum before the last case against him was heard in absentia. He used what he presumably felt was the safety of Britain to expose the black arts of the FSB. He wrote a book, which was sponsored by the former oligarch who is probably the Kremlin's chief bête noir in London, Boris Berezovsky. And last month he publicly held President Putin responsible for the murder of the investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya.

Neither Mr Litvinenko's high public profile, nor the associates he chose in exile, were calculated to endear him either to the Russian authorities or to his former colleagues. He was clearly a man who lived dangerously, eschewing the judicious silence that might have kept him out of harm's way. Like Ms Politkovskaya, he made no secret of his hatred of Mr Putin and held it a point of principle to speak his mind. Despite the Kremlin's characteristically tardy denial yesterday, the evidence points in that direction. That this might be a freelance operation by aggrieved former colleagues is not necessarily more reassuring. What would this say about the reach of Mr Putin's authority in Russia?

This case has two other profoundly disturbing aspects. The first is that Russia's leaders - or the secret services acting on their behalf - appear to be returning to venal Soviet ways. Those who voice dissent risk being silenced; another critic of the Chechen war was sent to prison yesterday. Those who do not heed initial warnings may reasonably fear for their lives. This is very far from being the free and democratic Russia that we hoped would rise from the wreckage of communism.

The second is the evidence that it supplies of increasingly brazen FSB activity abroad, targeted specifically on the emigrant community. Accounts differ about precisely how or where Mr Litvinenko was poisoned, but it appears that it was at a meeting, probably with one or more former colleagues, in the very centre of London. Our capital has become a centre for Russians living, working or just visiting abroad. Every strand of Russian politics and society is represented here. It is perhaps not surprising that in this relatively relaxed and cosmopolitan atmosphere, foreign security services feel free to go about their business and murderous plots may be hatched.

Until now, with the exception of the high-profile super-rich, such as Roman Abramovich, the Russians have not drawn attention to themselves. The Litvinenko poisoning will bring unwelcome scrutiny. But it should also alert our police and security services to lurking danger. If those granted refuge here obey our laws, we have an obligation to extend to them the full protection of the law. Alexander Litvinenko deserved to have his fears taken more seriously than they were.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Mobile Developer (.NET / C# / Jason / Jquery / SOA)

£40000 - £65000 per annum + bonus + benefits + OT: Ampersand Consulting LLP: M...

Humanities Teacher - Greater Manchester

£22800 - £33600 per annum: Randstad Education Manchester Secondary: The JobAt ...

Design Technology Teacher

£22800 - £33600 per annum: Randstad Education Manchester Secondary: Calling al...

Foundation Teacher

£100 - £125 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: EYFS Teachers - East Essex...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Critics of Fiona Woolf say she should step down amid accusations of an establishment cover-up  

Fiona Woolf resignation: As soon as she became the story, she had to leave

James Ashton
 

Letters: Electorate should be given choice on drugs policy

Independent Voices
Bryan Adams' heartstopping images of wounded British soldiers to go on show at Somerset House

Bryan Adams' images of wounded soldiers

Taken over the course of four years, Adams' portraits are an astonishing document of the aftermath of war
The drugs revolution starts now as MPs agree its high time for change

The drugs revolution starts now as MPs agree its high time for change

Commons debate highlights growing cross-party consensus on softening UK drugs legislation, unchanged for 43 years
The camera is turned on tabloid editors in Richard Peppiatt's 'One Rogue Reporter'

Gotcha! The camera is turned on tabloid editors

Hugh Grant says Richard Peppiatt's 'One Rogue Reporter' documentary will highlight issues raised by Leveson
Fall of the Berlin Wall: It was thanks to Mikhail Gorbachev that this symbol of division fell

Fall of the Berlin Wall

It was thanks to Gorbachev that this symbol of division fell
Halloween 2014: What makes Ouija boards, demon dolls, and evil clowns so frightening?

What makes ouija boards and demon dolls scary?

Ouija boards, demon dolls, evil children and clowns are all classic tropes of horror, and this year’s Halloween releases feature them all. What makes them so frightening, decade after decade?
A safari in modern Britain: Rose Rouse reveals how her four-year tour of Harlesden taught her as much about the UK as it did about NW10

Rose Rouse's safari in modern Britain

Rouse decided to walk and talk with as many different people as possible in her neighbourhood of Harlesden and her experiences have been published in a new book
Welcome to my world of no smell and odd tastes: How a bike accident left one woman living with unwanted food mash-ups

'My world of no smell and odd tastes'

A head injury from a bicycle accident had the surprising effect of robbing Nell Frizzell of two of her senses

Matt Parker is proud of his square roots

The "stand-up mathematician" is using comedy nights to preach maths to big audiences
Paul Scholes column: Beating Manchester City is vital part of life at Manchester United. This is first major test for Luke Shaw, Angel Di Maria and Radamel Falcao – it’s not a game to lose

Paul Scholes column

Beating City is vital part of life at United. This is first major test for Shaw, Di Maria and Falcao – it’s not a game to lose
Frank Warren: Call me an old git, but I just can't see that there's a place for women’s boxing

Frank Warren column

Call me an old git, but I just can't see that there's a place for women’s boxing
Adrian Heath interview: Former Everton striker prepares his Orlando City side for the MLS - and having Kaka in the dressing room

Adrian Heath's American dream...

Former Everton striker prepares his Orlando City side for the MLS - and having Kaka in the dressing room
Simon Hart: Manchester City will rise again but they need to change their attitude

Manchester City will rise again but they need to change their attitude

Manuel Pellegrini’s side are too good to fail and derby allows them to start again, says Simon Hart
Isis in Syria: A general reveals the lack of communication with the US - and his country's awkward relationship with their allies-by-default

A Syrian general speaks

A senior officer of Bashar al-Assad’s regime talks to Robert Fisk about his army’s brutal struggle with Isis, in a dirty war whose challenges include widespread atrocities