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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Agent Who Was Left Out in the Cold

APLitvinenko posing with a copy of his book "Blowing Up Russia: Terror From Within" at his London home in May 2002.
Editor's note: This is the first of two articles.

When prosecutors went to search Boris Berezovsky's Moscow mansion in 1995 to investigate the murder of an executive at state-controlled ORT television, a determined armed guard barred the door.

The guard was Alexander Litvinenko, then an officer in an FSB counter-terrorism unit. Litvinenko was protecting Berezovsky, who consolidated his hold over the channel after the executive, Vladislav Listyev, was shot to death.

"He said he would shoot if anyone tried to enter," said former Prosecutor General Yury Skuratov, who later took over the case. "As a result, there was no real search.

"If there had been a search, I think we could have made real progress in this investigation."

It was a key moment in the career of Litvinenko, the former agent whose death last month in London from radiation poisoning horrified the world and provoked fears of a new Cold War-style standoff between Russia and the West.

Many in the West see Litvinenko as a modern-day dissident standing up to the Kremlin. But before he fled to Britain in 2000, Litvinenko's career was far from that of a political activist against a powerful regime.

In the tussle for power in the 1990s, he was by his own account a special agent who helped Berezovsky, then a powerful Kremlin insider who is now accused of looting the national airline, Aeroflot, and the country's largest carmaker, AvtoVAZ.

Berezovsky denies the charges.

Litvinenko's climb from a KGB informant to a mid-ranking officer in the Federal Security Service, the KGB's successor agency, as he shielded Berezovsky, tells much of the tangled relationship between business, power and the secret services in the 1990s. After the Soviet Union collapsed, Berezovsky was among a handful of oligarchs who carved up the country's wealth and took power for themselves.

But when another former KGB agent, Vladimir Putin, became president in 2000, he banished to jail or exile those oligarchs who challenged his rule and set about reasserting the might of the state.

Litvinenko's tale tells much of the bitter rift that continues to rack the security services: a standoff between agents who helped Yeltsin-era oligarchs and those who blanched as the power of the state collapsed. Tellingly, when Putin became director of the FSB in 1998, he moved almost immediately against Litvinenko, jailing him for nine months on a slew of charges of abuse of authority.

Litvinenko's death looks like an escalation of that conflict. To many in Russia, his excruciating death by poisoning with the radioactive isotope polonium-210 appears to be a plot by oligarchs exiled in the West to undermine Putin's international image. Berezovsky has in recent years vowed to overthrow Putin's regime.

Oppositionists, including Litvinenko himself, have accused elements within the security services, acting with or without Putin's backing, of seeking revenge. The tension looks set to heighten further as the country heads toward the presidential election in early 2008.

'Krysha for Oligarchs'

Sergei Kaptilkin / Reuters
Litvinenko, right, at the Nov. 17, 1998, news conference where he said Berezovsky's enemies planned to kill him.
Litvinenko first met Berezovsky in 1994 when he was sent to investigate a car bombing in Moscow that nearly killed the oligarch.

Litvinenko's continued association with Berezovsky -- as he moved from counter-terrorism units tracking weapons smugglers to surveillance of major organized-crime rings -- prompted allegations that he was little more than a bagman for Berezovsky.

"They didn't catch anyone," said Alexander Lebedev, a former foreign intelligence agent who is now a billionaire businessman and a State Duma deputy with United Russia. "They were just krysha [protection] for oligarchs," he said of Litvinenko and other officers who worked in his unit.

Berezovsky refused to comment for this article.

When Litvinenko fled to Britain via Turkey in 2000, he was armed with a stack of inside information that he said showed a litany of crimes by the FSB. But even as he made the break for the West -- and freedom from the clutches of his new bosses in the FSB -- his subsequent disclosures raised questions about whether he had been part of those misdeeds too.

Litvinenko's friends say his account of those times in his 2002 book, "Lubyanka Criminal Group," showed the depths of criminality to which Russia sank as the state collapsed: What began as a battle for freedom from the grip of Soviet dictatorship had turned into a criminal mess.

"The twilight we naively took to be dawn turned out in fact to be the beginning of a long cold night," Litvinenko's friend Alex Goldfarb wrote in the introduction to the book.

Goldfarb, who now runs the New York-based Foundation for Civil Liberties, a Berezovsky-backed group that doles out grants to Russian political activists, was a leading refusenik in the United States in the last days of the Soviet Union.

But other allies say Litvinenko's revelations, which were made in a series of interviews in the book, made him a political dissident and whistleblower against the authorities. "He disclosed their criminal methods and he did this publicly. He was totally convinced that until that structure was destroyed or reformed, there could be no positive change in Russia," said Chechen rebel envoy Akhmed Zakayev, who was Litvinenko's neighbor and a close friend in London. "After Solzhenitsyn, he is the first person who had his books officially banned for disclosing state secrets."

By Litvinenko's own account, he was forced to form an alliance with Berezovsky to avoid carrying out orders that would have put him in breach of the law. "I never killed anyone. I did not kidnap. I was not in partnership with bandits," he said in the book.

Indeed, by publishing the book, Litvinenko was following in the footsteps of his father, who he said was fired from his post as an Interior Ministry doctor after he exposed the conditions at a prison camp on Sakhalin Island. In a letter to Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, Walter Litvinenko said the conditions were little better than in Nazi concentration camps. His father went to live with his family in the North Caucasus town of Nalchik, in Kabardino-Balkaria, where Litvinenko was educated. After school, Litvinenko was sent to the army, and there the KGB recruited him to guard against theft among army units transporting arms abroad.

At that time, Litvinenko recalled, he did not think of the KGB's history of political repression. "I was a young lieutenant. I was fighting against bandits. I didn't even think of politics," he said.

In Berezovsky's Circle

Matt Dunham / AP
Berezovsky standing with an unidentified mourner before Litvinenko's Dec. 7 burial at London's Highgate Cemetery.
As the Soviet Union collapsed, Litvinenko continued to work in the security services. The KGB's name was changed to the Federal Security Service and Litvinenko became part of an anti-terrorist unit. He hunted down weapons smugglers, took part in operations to free hostages in the Chechen town of Pervomaisk and questioned the wife of Chechen leader Dzhokar Dudayev.

But his most fateful assignment came before all that. In 1994, Litvinenko said, he was brought in to investigate an attempt on Berezovsky's life, and the oligarch began questioning him about life in the FSB. Somehow, he said, he became a frequent visitor at Berezovsky's mansion and was pulled into an eclectic circle of friends that included President Boris Yeltsin's chief of staff Valentin Yumashev and his chief bodyguard, Alexander Korzhakov.

Even though Litvinenko only reached the rank of lieutenant colonel, he was nevertheless very useful to Berezovsky, former agents and law enforcement officers said. "Litvinenko was his guy in the FSB. This was his most loyal guy. He was ready to sacrifice his career for him," Skuratov said. "Sometimes it's better to have someone at mid-level than at the top. He was paid. I have no doubt of that."

Litvinenko, however, denied he was on Berezovsky's payroll. When he barred the doors to prosecutors during the Listyev investigation, Litvinenko claimed he was protecting Berezovsky against a provocation by security service clans that were trying to pin the murder on him. In the book of interviews, Litvinenko claimed that he allowed the searches to take place but prevented officials from carting Berezovsky off to the prosecutor's office for questioning.

In 1997, Litvinenko was transferred to a unit charged with keeping an eye on major organized-crime figures. Later that year, he claimed, he was ordered to form Special Division No. 7, a unit that had been licensed to mete out punishments, and even to kill, without the sanction of a court. In later interviews, he never admitted to killing anyone himself, but he seemed to almost boast of the power his unit had wielded then.

"He owned up to doing some terrible things," said James Heartfield, a researcher at London's University of Westminster, who interviewed Litvinenko earlier this year. "He never implicated himself in killing. ... But he took a kind of pleasure in emphasizing his role: on how he would recruit killers and what was the technique."

While Russian officials have denied that such a unit for "liquidations" existed, others interviewed for this article indicated such practices may have been used.

"The division he was in had special methods of its own," Skuratov said, refusing, however, to say what those special methods entailed.

Alexei Kondaurov, a close friend of Litvinenko's boss in the FSB, Yevgeny Khokholkov, also refused to discuss what Litvinenko's unit did.

"That was a different era," said Kondaurov, a former KGB general who went on to work as an adviser to now-jailed Yukos tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky.

Khokholkov could not be reached for comment.

Alexander Khinshtein, a United Russia deputy and journalist believed to be close to the security services, said it was Litvinenko and his associates who had asked to form the special division.

In November 1998, Litvinenko and his closest cohorts in the anti-organized crime unit went public with a spectacular claim. At a news conference, Litvinenko backed up a claim by Berezovsky that the FSB was plotting to kill him.

But now even some anti-Kremlin former secret service officers dispute that claim. "They were absolutely bluffing," Kondaurov said. "No one at that time would think of attacking Berezovsky. He was far too powerful."

Berezovsky, who was then executive secretary of the Commonwealth of Independent States, was considered the second- or third-most powerful person in the Kremlin.

Khinshtein claimed the Litvinenko news conference was a ploy to draw the media's fire away from an attempt by Berezovsky to form his own "hit squad."

But in the meantime, a backlash against all oligarchs was gradually mounting. Even though Berezovsky appeared to still enjoy good relations with Putin, one of Putin's first acts as the new head of the FSB was to throw Litvinenko in jail.

Khinshtein said that, at the time, he had gathered compelling evidence against Litvinenko that showed he had beaten suspects and planted weapons on them. But Litvinenko always maintained that his arrest and subsequent jailing had nothing to do with those allegations. Every time he was questioned, investigators would openly criticize him for going public with the Berezovsky assassination claim, he asserted.

Investigations in Exile

By the time Litvinenko fled for Turkey in October 2000, he had thrown his lot in squarely with Berezovsky. He had little other option but to leave, friends said. His patron, after being questioned by prosecutors in Moscow a few days earlier, had already left the country.

Berezovsky had openly fallen out with Putin, whom he had helped to anoint as Yeltsin's successor, and left the country as a criminal investigation into his business dealings mounted.

When Berezovsky called up Goldfarb with an urgent request -- to use his experience in helping Soviet-era dissidents to help Litvinenko get from Turkey to the United States -- Goldfarb responded immediately. He could not resist revisiting the thrill of his old dissident days, he said.

But matters turned out to be more complicated for Litvinenko than in the black-and-white days of the Soviet-era refuseniks Goldfarb had helped. U.S. Embassy officials in Ankara said they had little interest in annoying Russia by giving protection to an agent who had knowledge of organized crime but not of foreign espionage, Goldfarb said.

"They left us out in the cold, so to speak," he said.

As a result, Litvinenko, his wife, Marina, and their son, Anatoly, flew with Goldfarb to Britain instead. Taking advantage of the lack of the need for a visa on transit flights, the Litvinenkos landed at Heathrow Airport and immediately requested political asylum, Goldfarb said. "We decided that instead of going to the spooks we would have to take the legal route," he said. "The British intelligence services were not interested in this at all."

In London, with the help of a grant from Goldfarb's institute, Litvinenko played a key role in the group of emigre oppositionists clustered around Berezovsky who waged a public campaign against Putin's regime. In a book written with historian Yury Felshtinsky, called "Blowing Up Russia: Terror From Within," Litvinenko accused the FSB of being behind a series of apartment bombings in Moscow and Vologodonsk in September 1999 that killed 246 people. The resulting outrage at the attacks, officially blamed on Chechen rebels, helped to propel Putin into the presidency as he launched a second war in Chechnya.

A commission to investigate the bombings was set up in Russia with the help of funding from Berezovsky. But the probe was wound down after two of its leaders died. First, liberal Duma Deputy Sergei Yushenkov was shot dead on a Moscow street in April 2003. Then, crusading Duma deputy Yury Shchekochikhin died two months later after suffering a mysterious allergic reaction.

While Litvinenko's work on the apartment bombings won him widespread credibility in the West, despite resounding official denials from Moscow, his later claims of corruption seemed less well researched.

"He could not have gotten any decent information in London. His game had long been played out," Kondaurov said.

But as Litvinenko continued to make claims against the Putin administration, Berezovsky continued to fund him.

The grant Litvinenko received was enough to buy him a modest apartment in the middle-class suburb of Muswell Hill, north London, where he and his family lived across the road from Zakayev, the Chechen rebel envoy, who had also been a recipient of a Goldfarb grant. Litvinenko's grant "was a substantial amount of money to maintain a family for a couple of years," Goldfarb said. "It was in line with the average wage in London."

But as the grant money dwindled, Litvinenko began to seek other sources of income. He sought business from Western information-gathering agencies like Erinys, a security agency specializing in sending guards to Iraq. He visited the London offices of Erinys on Nov. 1, the day he fell ill.

Erinys officials declined to comment for this article.

"When he started in business of his own, he made more money than he ever did when he was working for Berezovsky," said Yury Shvets, a former KGB Washington station chief who defected to the United States in the early 1990s. Shvets said by telephone that he had recently helped Litvinenko draft business proposals.

One of those proposals, Shvets said, could have landed Litvinenko in hot water. In an interview broadcast on the BBC's Radio 4 on Saturday, Shvets claimed that Litvinenko had been killed because of an eight-page dossier he had compiled on a "very highly placed member of Putin's administration" as part of a due diligence report for a British company considering a multimillion-dollar investment in Russia.

Shvets said Litvinenko had shown the report to Andrei Lugovoi, a former Berezovsky security officer, as an example of how due diligence reports should be written, mistakenly trusting him as a friend -- a move that triggered his killing, he said.

Lugovoi was one of two former FSB officers who met with Litvinenko on Nov. 1, and he has denied any involvement in the death.

Yet, even Shvets said that sometimes Litvinenko "had difficulty distinguishing fact from fiction."

Others said they doubted the veracity of many of Litvinenko's claims.

One of Litvinenko's last accusations was that the Putin administration was behind the Oct. 7 killing of crusading journalist Anna Politkovskaya. Proof of this, Litvinenko told an audience at the Frontline press club in London on Oct. 19, were threats from the Kremlin that he said were passed on to Politkovskaya by Irina Khakamada, a former liberal presidential candidate, following Kremlin meetings. Khakamada, however, dismissed Litvinenko's claims as "absurd."

Far more likely, according to some of Litvinenko's friends and associates, was that he had stumbled into a spider's web of oligarchs, organized crime and Kremlin agents.

"This is a continuation of the Cold War, but there's a big difference," Goldfarb said. "No. 1 is that back in those days, nothing could happen without the explicit permission of the Politburo. Today, that has fractured, so you can come up with many different scenarios."