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

Recruitment Genius: Project Implementation Executive

£18000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Chiropractic Assistant

£16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Chiropractic Assistant is needed in a ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive - Midlands

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides coaching ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

When a small amount of desk space means the world

Rebecca Armstrong
It’s all in the detail; Ed Miliband with ‘Britain Can Be Better’ (AFP/Getty)  

General Election 2015: Parties must remember the 50-plus vote

Stefano Hatfield
NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

Beige to the future

Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own