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

Opilio Recruitment: UX & Design Specialist

£40k - 45k per year + Benefits: Opilio Recruitment: A fantastic opportunity ...

Opilio Recruitment: Publishing Application Support Analyst

£30k - 35k per year + Benefits: Opilio Recruitment: We’re currently re...

Opilio Recruitment: Digital Marketing Manager

£35k - 45k per year + benefits: Opilio Recruitment: A fantastic opportunity ...

Opilio Recruitment: Sales Manager

£60k - 80k per year + Benefits: Opilio Recruitment: A fantastic opportunity ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Our political system is fragmented, with disillusioned voters looking to the margins for satisfaction  

Politics of hope needed to avert flight to margins

Liam Fox
David Cameron delivers his speech on immigration at the JCB World Headquarters in Rocester, Staffordshire  

Cameron's speech was an attempt to kill immigration as an election issue

Andrew Grice
Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: ‘We give them hope. They come to us when no one else can help’

Christmas Appeal

Meet the charity giving homeless veterans hope – and who they turn to when no one else can help
Should doctors and patients learn to plan humane, happier endings rather than trying to prolong life?

Is it always right to try to prolong life?

Most of us would prefer to die in our own beds, with our families beside us. But, as a GP, Margaret McCartney sees too many end their days in a medicalised battle
Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

What does it take for women to get to the top?

Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night and told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
Christmas jumper craze: Inside the UK factory behind this year's multicultural must-have

Knitting pretty: British Christmas Jumpers

Simmy Richman visits Jack Masters, the company behind this year's multicultural must-have
French chefs have launched a campaign to end violence in kitchens - should British restaurants follow suit?

French chefs campaign against bullying

A group of top chefs signed a manifesto against violence in kitchens following the sacking of a chef at a Paris restaurant for scalding his kitchen assistant with a white-hot spoon
Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour War and Peace on New Year's Day as Controller warns of cuts

Just what you need on a New Year hangover...

Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
Cuba set to stage its first US musical in 50 years

Cuba to stage first US musical in 50 years

Claire Allfree finds out if the new production of Rent will hit the right note in Havana
Christmas 2014: 10 best educational toys

Learn and play: 10 best educational toys

Of course you want them to have fun, but even better if they can learn at the same time
Paul Scholes column: I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season

Paul Scholes column

I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
Lewis Moody column: Stuart Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

Lewis Moody: Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

So what must the red-rose do differently? They have to take the points on offer 
Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

Sarkozy returns

The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game