The Russian Roulette

The fatal poisoning of an outspoken former KGB agent adds to the chill of Vladimir Putin's Russia.

The former spy lay dying in a London hospital--of what he didn't know. (It wasn't until after his death that Scotland Yard realized that the rare compound killing Alexander Litvinenko, 43, had left traces of radioactivity nearly everywhere he had been on Nov. 1.) But Litvinenko wanted the world to know who killed him, not how it was done or where. In a statement released after he died last week, the fierce critic of Russia's government directly addressed the man he said was responsible for his death: "You may succeed in silencing one man, but the howl of protest from around the world will reverberate, Mr. Putin, in your ears for the rest of your life."

Whoever did kill Litvinenko wasn't an amateur. British authorities announced last Friday that he had ingested a radioactive toxin, polonium 210, and that police had found traces of it in three locations: a sushi bar where Litvinenko had eaten lunch, a hotel he had visited on the same day and his home. Polonium 210 is so rare and volatile that the assassin would have needed access to a high-security nuclear laboratory to obtain it. Moscow denies that it had anything to do with the death. At a meeting with European officials in Helsinki, Vladimir Putin called the death a tragedy but also questioned the authenticity of Litvinenko's deathbed accusation and stated bluntly, "There is no issue to discuss."

Whether or not anyone in the Kremlin had targeted Litvinenko, his death, coming just weeks after the murder of investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya in her Moscow apartment block, has sent a subzero chill over Russia's already frosty civil society. Human-rights campaigners and other Putin critics see the killing as the latest blow to democracy and free speech, part of a steady erosion of civil liberties. Russian democracy was chaotically vibrant just a decade ago, after the collapse of communism in 1991. But these days it is looking fragile. New legislation annuls independent candidates for the Duma (parliament's lower house), and no political party can exist without the Kremlin's approval. Regional governors and members of the upper house of parliament are no longer elected but appointed. Most key national media are in the hands of state or state-controlled corporations, and Russian activists live in fear of the consequences when they openly criticize Putin. "There may no longer be shortages of groceries and long lines at every street corner," says Ludmilla Alexeyeva, the doyen of human-rights activists in Moscow, "but Russia today is still a place where human rights and freedom are in short supply."

Litvinenko, for one, was unafraid to speak out. A former lieutenant colonel in the Russian federal security service (FSB), the successor agency to the KGB, Litvinenko gained notoriety in the 1990s for claiming to have refused a Kremlin order to assassinate the Russian oligarch Boris Berezovsky. He had long accused Putin of backtracking on democracy and, in a 2001 book he co-wrote, went so far as to allege that Russian security services organized apartment-block bombings in 1999 that stoked support for a resurgence of the war in Chechnya. He had most recently made public statements tying the Kremlin to the murder of Politkovskaya. Litvinenko was reportedly meeting contacts in London in the hope of gaining information on the case when he was poisoned. "The bastards got me, but they won't get everybody," he told his friend Andrei Nekrasov shortly before his death.

The Litvinenko case revived memories of perhaps the most notorious assassination carried out during the cold war, the 1978 murder in London of Georgi Markov, a Bulgarian dissident who was working for the BBC. He was killed with a ricin-tipped umbrella while waiting for a bus, in a case that has never been solved. Just like the Markov murder, the death of Litvinenko has already given rise to a flurry of conspiracy theories, including speculation among defenders of the government that the poisoning was arranged by Russian émigrés or Western intelligence agencies to discredit Moscow. But for many Russian élites, the whole macabre spectacle has heightened anxieties about the Putin government's backsliding into communist-era intrigue and repression. "People who question the policies of our government are increasingly targeted. People who work for human rights are increasingly under attack," says Alexeyeva. "And even people who support this work are potentially in danger of being singled out by the government. So are we in Russia? Are we back in the U.S.S.R.?" It's becoming harder to tell the difference.

With reporting by Reported by Yuri Zarakhovich/Moscow

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