Putting Russia in the frame

The response to Alexander Litvinenko’s death implies that all Russians are collectively guilty of skulduggery.

James Heartfield

Topics Politics

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When Julia Svetlichnaja and I interviewed Alexander Litvinenko in the summer, we had no idea that his conspiratorial view of the world would be adopted as official government policy. Before he was poisoned this month, Litvinenko had fled Russia after betraying his former employers in the state security services, the FSB.

Not surprisingly, his world was dominated by rumours, death threats and potential poisonings. He was, after all, trying to alert the world to the excesses of the FSB, and also to make a living as a security analyst. His subsequent death from Polonium poisoning would appear to support the idea that someone was out to get him.

Unfortunately, the way that the police investigation has developed has expanded that proposition into: ‘There’s someone out to get all of us.’ Concentrating on the radioactive poison seems like a good forensic strategy. But the public reception of the news that ever-greater numbers of venues show signs of radioactivity is understandably alarmed. And now, following the discovery of radioactive traces on two planes, British Airways is contacting 33,000 passengers from 21 flights. This is likely to ratchet up people’s anxieties even more.

Generating fear, but little illumination, the investigation so far fits in with the general attitude that everything to do with Russian expatriates is just beyond the bounds of intelligibility. The number of experienced journalists who have said to me ‘of course, we will never know the real truth about who killed Alexander Litvinenko’ is a disgrace.

When the news of Litvinenko’s death first broke, the British security services briefed the press not to take for granted his accusation that the Russian authorities were responsible. In this case, MI5 were right. It should not be assumed that President Putin was responsible. Cold War prejudices should not be allowed to stand without any evidence (see Alexander Litvinenko: a murder mystery, not a Cold War thriller, by Brendan O’Neill).

However, the general effect of the doubts cast on Putin’s culpability only added to another prejudice: that everything to do with Russians abroad is cloaked in mystery. But a man was killed, on British soil, and his killers should be found and tried. The current alarmist campaign of tracing radiation sites, of accusing the Russian authorities one day and taking it back the next, only reinforces the general sense that this is a crime that will never be solved.

Instead of catching Litvinenko’s killers, the British authorities seem to be content to leave all Russians at home and here under the cloud of suspicion – collectively guilty of skulduggery – rather than find the individual responsible.

James Heartfield is a writer based in London. Visit his website here. His interview with Litvinenko was published in the Daily Telegraph on 25 November 2006 – read it here.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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