Saturday 23 March 2019

Widow of Litvinenko, a former spy and critic of Vladimir Putin: 'I'm worried for my son and for those I love'

Sergei and Julia Skripal
Sergei and Julia Skripal

Elizabeth Day

A fortnight ago, Marina Litvinenko was in Germany on a trip with her son when her phone rang. It was a friend calling from the UK.

"Have you heard the news?" they asked.

Alexander Litvinenko
Alexander Litvinenko

"What news?" Litvinenko replied, before turning on the television.

That was how she learned of the attempted murder of Sergei Skripal, the former Russian spy, and Yulia, his daughter. The pair were discovered seriously ill by passers-by on a bench after leaving a restaurant in Salisbury on March 4.

An investigation found they had been poisoned by a nerve agent developed by the Soviet Union in the 1970s and 1980s, although exactly how they were attacked and by whom is still being probed.

France, Germany and the US have backed the UK's assessment that Russian involvement is the "only plausible explanation", despite Russian denials.

"I couldn't believe it," Litvinenko (55) says now, sitting at a table outside a busy central London restaurant in the spring sunshine. "It was happening again."

For Litvinenko, this has brought back traumatic memories of her own husband's death 12 years before. Alexander Litvinenko, a former spy and critic of Vladimir Putin, was fatally poisoned in London in November 2006, when he ingested radioactive polonium-210, believed to have been administered in a cup of tea.

A 2016 public inquiry concluded there was a "strong probability" he was murdered by two agents on the president's personal orders. One of them, Andrei Lugovoi, is now an elected MP in Russia, frequently appearing on state television as a pundit in the wake of the Skripal poisoning.

After the inquiry into Alexander Litvinenko's death, Theresa May - who was then home secretary - wrote to his wife saying she would "take every step to protect the UK and its people from such a crime ever being repeated". No action was ever taken. And now, two more victims are critically ill in hospital.

"You can say the right words and it means nothing," says Marina. "You have to do the right action, too."

She believes the prime minister's announcement that the UK would be expelling 23 Russian diplomats in retaliation for the attack is too little, too late: "I've been waiting 10 years for her to do that. But it was an obvious reaction and I hope there will be more measures to come."

What does she make of Jeremy Corbyn claiming through his spokesman last week that there was not enough proof Russia was behind the attack?

"It's maybe naive," she says. "While this person [Putin] is in power, you will not be able to build any good [diplomatic] relationship.

"Because what happened in 2006 and what happened now is a terrorist attack.

"Do you want to do business with terrorists?" She pauses. "At least terrorists say when they're responsible."

As yet, no one from the UK government has reached out to Litvinenko either to seek her advice or co-operation. That's pretty shocking, I say.

"I know!" She gives a tired smile. "Maybe they're ashamed to look me in the eyes, but I would like to be helpful. There is a lot I could blame the British government for, but I am not looking for revenge."

In person, Litvinenko is a dignified woman. She speaks calmly and precisely in Russian-accented English. She does not raise her voice once. Occasionally when referring to her beloved "Sasha" (the affectionate diminutive for Alexander), her blue eyes fill with tears.

Her equilibrium is all the more astonishing given the circumstances. She still lives in London with Anatoly, her 23-year-old son, who was only 11 when his father died, and is certain that Russia monitors their movements.

She hasn't been back to her homeland since 2006 for fear of reprisals. Two years ago, her father died and she was unable to go to his funeral. Her mother is now 82 and it's clear that keeping in touch over FaceTime isn't the same as being by her side.

Is she scared? "What can I say?" Litvinenko shrugs. "I'm more worried about my son and the people I love."

A few days before we meet, it is reported that Nikolai Glushkov, a Russian exile who was close friends with Boris Berezovsky, the late oligarch, had been found dead in his London home at the age of 68.

On Friday, the police said a murder inquiry had been opened. Glushkov was a family friend and she and her son had known him for many years. "It was absolutely devastating," Litvinenko says.

"For my son, so many people he knew have died in his very short life. I try to help him not to get swamped by depression, but it's very difficult... I try to be a good mother."

Would Alexander be angry at what was happening now?

"Oh absolutely," she nods, pointing out that he warned against Russia's criminal intentions as far back as 1998. "I know that if Sasha had been alive, he might have been able to prevent what happened by giving information. It was his duty."

Back in 2006, when Litvinenko lay shrunken and pale in his hospital bed, it took two weeks for police to launch an investigation and only then because Litvinenko himself raised the possibility that he could have been poisoned.

With the Skripal poisoning, reaction has been far swifter, partly because, Marina says, "lessons have been learned".

"My husband was so strong he didn't die immediately and that meant the hospital could do tests to discover the polonium. I wish the UK government had listened to him earlier. It's very important to understand how serious this is: if you don't solve it now, the next thing will be terrible."

The Skripal case has led Yvette Cooper, the chairman of the home affairs select committee, to call for a review of 14 other deaths over the last two decades in the UK with suspected links to Russia.

I tell Marina I feel naive for not having grasped the extent of what might have been a troubling pattern of state-sponsored murder on British soil. She smiles. "You're not naive," she says. "You're normal. You can't always be having these thoughts."

But for Marina, these thoughts do not go away. She will continue to speak out on behalf of her late husband, no matter what the personal cost might be. "My husband was killed, I couldn't protect him," she says finally. "But I want to give him a voice for the people who didn't listen to him when he was alive."

© Telegraph

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