Leading article: A haunting reminder of the Soviet past


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: Finance Director

£65000 - £80000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Finance Director required to jo...

Recruitment Genius: Medico-Legal Assistant

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a unique opportunity fo...

Ashdown Group: (PHP / Python) - Global Media firm

£50000 per annum + 26 days holiday,pension: Ashdown Group: A highly successful...

The Jenrick Group: Quality Inspector

£27000 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: A Quality Technician...

Day In a Page

Read Next
David Cameron faces the press as he arrives in Brussels for the EU leaders summit on Thursday reuters  

On the Tusk of a dilemma: Cameron's latest EU renegotiation foe

Andrew Grice
John Profumo and his wife Valerie Robson in 1959  

Stephen Ward’s trial was disgraceful. There can be no justification for it

Geoffrey Robertson QC
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

The Interview movie review

You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

How podcasts became mainstream

People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

A memorable year for science – if not for mice

The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

Christmas cocktails to make you merry

Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
5 best activity trackers

Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

Paul Scholes column

It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas