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The Terminal Spy: A True Story of Espionage, Betrayal and Murder

The Terminal Spy: A True Story of Espionage, Betrayal and Murder

3.4 5
by Alan S. Cowell

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In a page-turning narrative that reads like a thriller, an award-winning journalist exposes the troubling truth behind the world’s first act of nuclear terrorism.

On November 1, 2006, Alexander Litvinenko sipped tea in London’s Millennium Hotel. Hours later the Russian émigré and former intelligence officer, who was sharply critical of


In a page-turning narrative that reads like a thriller, an award-winning journalist exposes the troubling truth behind the world’s first act of nuclear terrorism.

On November 1, 2006, Alexander Litvinenko sipped tea in London’s Millennium Hotel. Hours later the Russian émigré and former intelligence officer, who was sharply critical of Russian president Vladimir Putin, fell ill and within days was rushed to the hospital. Fatally poisoned by a rare radioactive isotope slipped into his drink, Litvinenko issued a dramatic deathbed statement accusing Putin himself of engineering his murder. Alan S. Cowell, then London Bureau Chief of the New York Times, who covered the story from its inception, has written the definitive story of this assassination and of the profound international implications of this first act of nuclear terrorism.

Who was Alexander Litvinenko? What had happened in Russia since the end of the cold war to make his life there untenable and in severe jeopardy even in England, the country that had granted him asylum? And how did he really die? The life of Alexander Litvinenko provides a riveting narrative in its own right, culminating in an event that rang alarm bells among western governments at the ease with which radioactive materials were deployed in a major Western capital to commit a unique crime. But it also evokes a wide range of other issues: Russia's lurch to authoritarianism, the return of the KGB to the Kremlin, the perils of a new cold war driven by Russia's oil riches and Vladimir Putin's thirst for power.

Cowell provides a remarkable and detailed reconstruction both of how Litvinenko died and of the issues surrounding his murder. Drawing on exclusive reporting from Britain, Russia, Italy, France, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, and the United States, he traces in unprecedented detail the polonium trail leading from Russia's closed nuclear cities through Moscow and Hamburg to the Millenium Hotel in central London. He provides the most detailed step-by-step explanation of how and where polonium was found; how the assassins tried on several occasions to kill Litvinenko; and how they bungled a conspiracy that may have had more targets than Litvinenko himself. 

With a colorful cast that includes the tycoons, spies, and killers who surrounded Litvinenko in the roller-coaster Russia of the 1990s, as well as the émigrés who flocked to London in such numbers that the British capital earned the sobriquet “Londongrad,” this book lays out the events that allowed an accused killer to escape prosecution in a delicate diplomatic minuet that helped save face for the authorities in London and Moscow.

A masterful work of investigative reporting, The Terminal Spy offers unprecedented insight into one of the most chilling true stories of our time.

Editorial Reviews

Joseph Weisberg
…an absorbing account of Mr. Litvinenko's life and bizarre murder. Along the way [Cowell] explains how Russia lost and got back its tremendous energy resources after the fall of the Soviet Union, describes how wealthy Russians have turned London into "Moscow-on-the-Thames" and tries to determine if the Litvinenko murder is the harbinger of a new and especially dangerous kind of terrorism…Mr. Cowell follows the British investigation as the police chase the traces of the isotope around London, reconstructing the chronology of events on the day of Mr. Litvinenko's murder. For everyone who's tired of the endless forensic investigations that take up so many hours on television and so many pages in crime novels, this nuclear street work is engrossing in a whole new way.
—The New York Times
From the Publisher
'The Terminal Spy: A True Story of Espionage, Betrayal, and Murder' by Alan S. Cowell
A foreign correspondent analyzes the poisoning death of dissident Russian intelligence agent Alexander Litvinenko.
By Tim Rutten
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

August 16, 2008

WHEN veteran foreign correspondent Alan S. Cowell turned his superb newspaper coverage of dissident Russian intelligence agent Alexander Litvinenko's bizarre 2006 murder into a book, he knew he was writing a real-life post-Cold War thriller rich in implication.

His title and subtitles, "The Terminal Spy: A True Story of Espionage, Betrayal, and Murder -- The First Act of Nuclear Terrorism and the New Cold War," suggest just how rich. It's hard to imagine, however, that even Cowell could have foreseen this complex tale's urgently prophetic dimension, since it's a story that repeatedly leads back to Vladimir Putin, shedding important light on the Russian strongman's exercise of power and on his attitude toward the West. As the Georgian crisis grinds on, understanding Putin and his brand of statecraft are matters of more than passing interest.

Cowell, a longtime correspondent for the New York Times, was reporting from the paper's London bureau when the Litvinenko story broke. The Russian had begun a lifetime involvement in intrigue as a counterintelligence agent in the Soviet KGB. After the fall of communism and the disintegration of the Soviet Union, he entered the domestic branch of the FSB, successor agency to the KGB, joining an organized crime unit. Like many a Russian with an eye for the main chance in that wild west interlude, Litvinenko attached himself to one of the emerging oligarchs fattening like carrion birds on the chaotic and corrupt privatization of former state resources -- in his case, Boris Berezovsky.

At one point, Litvinenko intervened to keep his patron from being framed by elements of state security for the murder of a television commentator at a station Berezovsky owned. The mogul fled the country and Litvinenko became a whistle-blower, alleging widespread misconduct and corruption in the FSB, which had him jailed for his trouble. Upon his release, Litvinenko joined Berezovsky and a growing number of Russians in London exile. There, he continued an obsession with Putin and what Litvinenko correctly saw as a reemerging Russian authoritarianism with its roots in the security services -- in other words, a creeping coup by elements of the old KGB.

While denouncing Putin in interviews with journalists and filmmakers, Litvinenko worked at putting together a private security business. It was in that connection that he joined another former KGB man, Andrei Lugovoi -- who was visiting from Moscow -- for drinks at London's popular Millennium Hotel bar. Litvinenko took a few sips of green tea with honey. Three weeks later, after a stunning and agonizing illness, he was dead.

Cowell employs meticulous reporting and numerous interviews with participants to re-create the hotel meeting, but best of all is his recap of the gripping forensic investigation that showed Litvinenko had been poisoned with a minute trace of a rare but deadly radioactive isotope, polonium-210. Investigation showed the substance probably was sprayed into the teapot from which the murdered man was served. Cowell has a "CSI"-worthy eye for forensic exposition, as in this passage:

"What was not generally known on the day that Alexander Litvinenko died was that the polonium had been discovered only in one of the final urine samples taken from him. If the [British]Ministry of Defense scientists at Aldermaston had not run the extremely unusual tests when they did, it is conceivable that the nature of the poisoning would have remained a mystery, as Litvinenko's killers surely intended it to be. . . .

"The scientists' conclusion began to explain how Litvinenko died. Once introduced into his body -- either swallowed or breathed in or enteringthrough an open wound -- the isotope tore relentlessly through his bone marrow and organs, destroying the immune system. The lethal dose measured a tiny fraction of a microgram, a mere speck, but it was far more than was needed to guarantee his death. . . . This was no ordinary murder."

Cowell plays out all the byzantine possibilities behind this killing with heroic clarity. (Lugovoi, by the way, made it back to Russia and was elected to the Duma, the lower house of parliament, as a nationalist deputy. Putin has refused a British request that he be extradited.)

Labyrinthine as the conceivable conspiracies against Litvinenko may have been, it's difficult not to focus on the fact that numerous thorns in Putin's side, from independent-minded journalists to Chechen separatists, have met similar extra-judicial fates, many by poison. The KGB, moreover, has maintained a highly secret laboratory devoted to novel poisons since the 1930s; 97% of the contemporary world's polonium is manufactured in a lab controlled by the FSB.

Litvinenko and Putin both were trained as KGB agents, but while the former was part of the heavy-handed and corrupt domestic service, Putin was educated for foreign service. It was in that directorate that many Russian nationalists believe the idealistic patriotism of Lenin's original secret service, the Cheka, lived on. The service's murderously brutal but incorruptible founder, Felix Dzierzynski, conceived of the Cheka as the "sword and flame of the revolution" and believed the secret services were the only institution capable of wielding supreme power.

As one of his early associates, the Latvian Martins Lacis, wrote: "The Cheka is not an investigative organ: it is the battle organ of the party of the future. . . . It annihilates without trial or it isolates from society by imprisoning in concentration camps. Its word is law." It also claimed in those early days the right to direct any of the nation's economic resources, much as Putin has done with Russia's oil and gas.

Unlike so many of his comrades, Dzierzynski was indifferent to personal comfort or gain. He lived in one room and subsisted on tea, bread and hand-rolled cigarettes. He shot any Chekist found to have taken a bribe and ordered alimony and child support deducted from the pay of agents unfaithful to their wives. Reading Romantic Polish poetry was his only recreation, and he had to be ordered by the Central Committee to take vacations.

Putin also is said to be incorruptible and personally austere, which is why a certain sort of chauvinistic Russian nationalist sees an admirable echo of the idealistic Dzierzynski in him. Even the implacably anti-Communist Alexander Solzhenitsyn embraced Putin before his recent death. Asked to reconcile their association by an interviewer from Germany's Der Spiegel, the Nobel laureate pointed out that Putin had been in the KGB's foreign service rather than the compromised domestic directorate.

All this seems freshly relevant because, as Cowell writes, "The death of Litvinenko would come to be seen as a defining moment of the Putin presidency. Putin sought to restore Moscow's greatness. The death of Litvinenko ensured that Russia's reputation as a land to be feared for the worst of reasons was revived for all the world to see."

Cowell's "The Terminal Spy" is not simply a wholly engrossing and thought-provoking story of espionage and homicide. As the bloody incursion into Georgia indicates, the difference between the way Putin's Russia deals with inconvenient dissidents and with its troublesome neighbors seems to be merely a matter of degree -- poison for one; the bullet and the bomb for the other

From the Hardcover edition.

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Broken homes, broken empire
Alexander Valterovich Litvinenko was born on December 4, 1962, in a hospital in Voronezh, 300 miles south of Moscow, a university town where his father was a medical student specializing in pediatrics. He arrived one month before term. He weighed 2.4 kilograms, around six pounds. His mother, Nina, remembered a difficult birth. She fretted he might not survive. Then a woman in another bed in her ward at the Soviet-era hospital told her that all eight month babies became famous--an adage that noone would deny in Litvinenko's case, though not in the manner his mother would have forecast or preferred. Even so, who could have imagined that a child of the U.S.S.R would secure renown in such a bizarre manner, so far from home?
In 1962, Nikita Krushchev was in power in Moscow and the Soviet empire spanned a half a globe, from central Asia to the Baltic and the Pacific, its satellite states patrolling the line that divided Europe. The Soviets had been the first to put a man in space--Yuri Gargarin--in 1961, a huge propaganda victory over the United States, challenging Americans with the shocking implication that communism, progress and technology were not incompatible. This sprawling, secretive empire was not shy of confronting American power. Litvinenko was born in the year of the Cuban missile crisis that pushed the United States and the Soviet Union to the brink of nuclear war. True, Krushchev had offered a kind of liberalization after the death of Josef Stalin, permitting the publication of the works of Alexander Solzhenitsyn and famously decrying the Stalinist cult of the individual. But Krushchev also led a muscular drive to cement Soviet influence. He approved the crushing of the Hungarian revolt in 1956, the building of the Berlin Wall in 1961. And at home, the state's writ ran unchallenged, its power exercized through the taut sinews of the K.G.B. and other internal forces created to forestall dissent. Soviet troops occupied garrisons across Eastern Europe. Soviet spies tunneled into the Western political establishment. When Alexander Litvinenko was born, the Cold War was decades away from any thaw and the Soviet Union was years from collapse. None of that brought direct comfort to ordinary citizens struggling to meet ends meet, find an apartment, a telephone line, a car, a television set. The economy ran to order, according to the principles of scientific socialism. Save for the elite, and those with scarce American dollars or British pounds to finance themselves, there was no abundance. The output from the collectivized farms failed to keep pace with the growing population. The harvests were often poor. The shelves in the roubles-only food stores were never full, usually empty. Lines formed. In grim concrete apartment houses, ordered up by Krushchev himself to ease a dire shortage of dwellings in post-war Russia, communal heating failed and sputtered. The Russian winter had no mercy.

Litvinenko's life spanned his land's liberation and emasculation--from oppressive superpower to something far less than that, yet something far more than an ordinary nation; a diminished land that dreamed of glory revived. He was a child of history.
"We lived in a small room in a hostel in Voronezh," Nina Belyavskaya, Litvinenko's mother, recalled in an interview, sitting in the same two-bedroom apartment outside Moscow where her son spent some of his early years, while his father moved on to the northern Caucasus and Russia's Far East.

"We went hungry and cold because there was no food in the shops, no meat in Russia at the time. We used to buy bones."

When she spoke in the summer of 2007, Nina Belyavskaya was 67 years old, a frazzled, faded blonde living on the margins of Russian life, remote from the glitzy ostentation of downtown Moscow with its high-end imported cars and smart eateries. She tended a makeshift shrine to her lost son with a photograph and flowers and lived on a pension worth about 150 dollars a month. The early years were not so easy, either.

Imagine a young woman in her early 20s, boiling bones for soup, prising open cans of cheap meat, suckling a child from reluctant breasts. "There was no milk in the shops and I had very little milk. In the factory next to where I worked they used to give workers special milk rations. I'd go there at 4 p.m. as people were leaving with their milk and would ask them to sell me a couple of bottles to feed my baby," she said. "Life was very hard."

In the Soviet way, with the Russian Orthodox Church suppressed, his mother took the infant Litvinenko secretly to a priest for clandestine baptism--a common enough occurrence in those days.1

Through the rose-glow of maternal retrospect, Nina Belyavskaya recalled the early years of motherhood as a valiant, single-parent struggle to make ends meet while tending an ailing but virtuous child.

"Sasha was a very good boy," she said, echoing a familiar maternal refrain. He would come home from kindergarten--the kind of child-care the Soviet system offered to all so that all could work in their designated slots in the command economy--and balance on a stool at the kitchen sink to start washing the dishes she had left unwashed and tell her not to worry, he would "do everything for you." She gave him scarce kopeks to buy ice-cream when he went for a day at the VDNK exhibition complex in northern Moscow. He returned with a cigarette lighter. "I decided to buy you a lighter because you are always saying that by using match-sticks you are poisoning yourself," he told her.

At junior school, he made for her a wood-burning--a pyrograph--depicting Snow White and the Seven Dwarves and she kept it throughout her life. He was a skinny, spindle-shanked boy, too eager to please, begging recognition, offering favors as a coded way of seeking love or, at least, attention. An early photograph of mother and son showed a wistful-looking woman with peroxide blonde hair, wearing a polka-dot dress, with the young Sasha in a white shirt and combed fair hair, peering at the camera with a look that could be reproachful or sulky. Neither of them smiled. For the young Sasha, there was an uncanny resemblance in the set of the mouth and the directness of the gaze to an iconic photograph of the dying Alexander Litvinenko that the world came to know in 2006. Then, as earlier, he sought attention.
"He was gentle and attentive and loving," his mother said, but "we didn't always have much time to spend together."

"Sometimes I'd come home and would do some work at home. Mum, stop working, he'd say: let's spend some time together." The loneliness of the latch-key kid would one day create a yearning for company, for a team, a mentor. Sasha, his mother said, was never designed to be a loner. "He was very sociable," his mother said. When he was a young man and living away from her, "I bought a lovely suit from Finland and when he got back I asked him where it was. He said he gave it to a friend who was going to Germany. He was one of those who would give anything to a friend."

The precise calendar of those early years splintered through the rival memories of those close to him. Litvinenko's genealogy got caught up in a family whose lines bifurcated with divorces and liaisons of the kind that carried over into his own adulthood. Was he, thus, two or four years old when his parents split up? Perhaps it was enough to say that they did split up when he was a toddler, that Nina, his mother, met another man, Vladimir Belyavska, and that this newly-minted couple moved to Frazino, just east of Moscow city limits, when Sasha was nine years old. His mother and stepfather produced a daughter of their own, Svetlana, a half-sister to Alexander Litvinenko, who went on to live in Germany. "Sveta once asked me who I loved more--her or Sasha," Nina Belyavskaya said, remembering a time when Litvinenko was in military training. "I said: Sasha because you are always here with me and he is far away at the academy. Mothers always love their sons more."

By his mother's account, the infant Sasha was sickly, prone to pneumonia and colds, but he grew into an open, gregarious child, shuttled between maternal homes in Voronezh and Frazino and Nalchik, the capital of the Kabardino-Balkar republic in the North Caucasus, where Alexander Litvinenko's grand-parents still lived.
And then, on the other branch of his biological family, there was Walter, his father, who returned to Nalchik, his home-town, in the North Caucasus after graduating in Voronezh, abandoning a failed college marriage to build a second life with three more children--Tatiana, Vladimir and Maxim--and travel far away to Sakhalin Island on his business as a penal colony medical doctor.

In Walter Litvinenko's memory, his young son lived with his grandparents in Nalchik until he was five years old, then spent seven years with his mother before returning to the Caucasus. But the father and son never synchronized their lives. When Sasha returned to Nalchik, his father moved to Sakhalin. And when Walter returned from Sakhalin, Sasha went to the army.

The north Caucasus, 800 miles south-east of Moscow, is known these days as an unstable area, perched uneasily on a faultline of faith and ethnicity. The string of cities that molded so much of Litvinenko's life--places such as Nalchik and Vladikavkaz--were products of the advance of Russian imperialism in the late 18th and 19th century, when tsarist armies built forts and sought with varying degrees of success and failure to subdue regions straddling access to the Caucasus and beyond. In these places, along a fissure of empire, Islam collided with Orthodox Christianity and the Russian advance met fierce resistance for decades. Historians date the Caucasus War as lasting from 1817 to 1864 and argue that many of the modern conflicts that have seized the region, most notably in Chechnya and Dagestan, have their roots in those distant campaigns at the intersection of the same beliefs as molded Alexander Litvinenko, too.

Yet, when his mother sent her son to Nalchik as a child, her reasons had nothing to do with gods or conflict. The fresh air of the Caucasus foothills, 1,600 feet above sea level on the Nalchik River, was known for its restorative powers and its spas.2 "I sent him for two reasons," his mother said. "Firstly it was a healthier place but more importantly because I thought it would be easier for him to get into university there. He wasn't brilliant at school . . . It was hard to get into university then. You had to have an exam but they took students in without an exam if you excelled at sports. In Nalchik there was a very good school for pentathlon. So I decided to send him there."

Were there other reasons she chose not to recall? Possibly. In most broken families, memory is elastic, stretched between denial and half-truth--good training for spies and operatives at ease with ambiguity.

Decades later, with his own son on the cusp of his teens in London, secure in a family that had not divided, it is tempting to imagine Litvinenko thinking back to his own mixed-up childhood, his dislocations and resettlements, glad to be giving his own boy a modicum of security that was not, as it turned out, to endure.
In his early years, his mother said, he was drawn to collections of objects that could be ordered and controlled and catalogued--bright postage stamps and pins and toy soldiers and miniature tanks. She brought recruits for his small armies as gifts when she returned from trips to Moscow, she said, and there is something poignant about these platoons. Litvinenko's many critics said later he was no more than a toy soldier himself, a construct, an artifice created in a world outside reality. But he went on to witness the real wars that gnawed away his faith in Russia's political leaders as much as his belief in the church of his secret baptism. As a child, his miniature heroes fell in table-top battles. As a man, the war games were forgotten: a comrade died in his arms, he would recall for the benefit of interviewers, and others returned from the Chechen fray suicidal with despair, abandoned by the politicians who dispatched them to war. So, maybe, after all, there was no room in a hardened heart for memories of a time when he played with toy soldiers.

If he compared his life with that of his own 12-year-old son, perhaps Litvinenko's thoughts sometimes flipped back on rewind to his own age of pre-teen innocence and the first stirrings of love beyond his family. Alexander Litvinenko, too, was 12 years old when he attended a friend's birthday party in Frazino back in 1974 and met an 11-year-old girl called Natalia, who was to become his first love, his first wife. (He met his second wife at someone else's birthday party, too). The way Natalia described those remote events, Litvinenko had struck up a close friendship with her cousins in Frazino before she ever met him, but he became a regular caller during the summer of 1974 at her family's dacha (her family was better off than his, Natalia said, and his mother thought her quite a catch.)

"He was thin and modest, he did not stand out, but he was good looking. He had big blue eyes and fair hair," Natalia said. "My two cousins were his closest friends. The three of them were always together. He was friendly. In the summer I and my cousins lived at the dacha and Sasha would often come to visit. We'd spend the days running around the fields, swimming in lakes and so on."

How remote those memories seem from Litvinenko's destiny--the sunlit, endless summer days when the twilight never seemed to end, the chill frisson of fresh, clean water on sun-burned skin, the pollen in the air and the games of hide-and-seek and desultory, childish chatter in the heat of the day. It was a time when Soviet military and diplomatic power towards the United States was at its height, the time of Leonid Brezhnev's thaw in the cold war that became known as detente between east and west. It must have seemed as if the world would never change.

"For both, it was our first love," Natalia said. "Once, we sat next to each other during a theater performance and for the first time we sensed this very strong feeling between us, a platonic love between two children which grew with every passing year."

But, in those days as much as later, a dark shadow crossed the sun.
"Vadim, one of my cousins, even then told me that Sasha was not a good friend," she recalled. "He said he was tricky. He could betray you, he told me. I didn't ask why."

From the Hardcover edition.

Meet the Author

Alan S. Cowell was the London bureau chief of the New York Times when the events narrated in this book reached their climax. Previously, Cowell served as a correspondent for Reuters and the New York Times in Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. He has been based in twelve capitals and reported the news from around ninety countries and territories. Cowell is married and has three children. He is now based in Paris. 

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The Terminal Spy: A True Story of Espionage, Betrayal and Murder 3.4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 5 reviews.
KenCady More than 1 year ago
This is an incredibly boring book, all the more surprising because it purports to be about a "true story of Espionage, Betrayal, and Murder." The author goes into minute detail about Russians in London with an insufferably dry style that gives the reader cause to toss his Ambien prescription. Whereas I had looked forward to a tale of intrigue, the author kept going off on tangents that seemed to have no bearing on the reason he wrote the book. A readable version of the exciting events surrounding the murder of Alexander Litveninko is hopefully forthcoming from someone who can write with some interest.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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DuctorCE More than 1 year ago
The Terminal Spy is an intrigue with a Russian theme where the unspeakable do horrid things to the unpronounceable. I tend to confuse my .skayas, with my .oviches, and by the time I have sorted those out I have lost the plot. Mr Cowell anticipated my, and perhaps others dilemma, and opens his book with Dramatis Personae. This introduces us to 40 principle characters. I respectfully suggest that the reader studies these three and a bit pages as it will greatly enhance comprehension of the remaining 430. Cowell's work is at once an important and rewarding example of detailed investigative reporting. Important because it reveals how a foreign (I was tempted to say hostile), country carried out a successful nuclear attack on London, Britain's capital city. Rewarding because it reads like a fiction spy thriller. It will come as no surprise to the reader to learn that Alan Cowell is an experienced and accomplished journalist and citizen of the world. He is 'at-home' in London Paris or New York, and has vast experience of the Middle East and Africa. The Terminal Spy is a dissection, in the minutest detail of the evidence pertaining to the calculated murder in broad daylight of Alexander Litvinenko at London on November 1st 2006. It is the manner of this murder and why, that makes this volume a page turner par excellence. No one has been brought before the courts for this crime, but by the end of the book there can be no doubt of the identity of the culprit and his accomplices. The book is very well written. It is never dull - which is quite an achievement when one considers the exposure espionage and intelligence gets these days. There are no loose-ends or innuendoes which in a book like this can be infuriating. The Terminal Spy is an extremely rewarding and enjoyable read, and I thoroughly recommend it.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago