Blogger David McDuff of A Step at a Time is translating a conversation between Alexander Litvinenko’s widow Marina (pictured, left) and an Israeli journalist, publishing installments. The BBC, which aired two documentaries on Litvinenko yesterday, states that “the Kremlin has angrily branded Alexander Litvinenko’s widow Marina a ‘liar’ following comments she has made in her interview for Panorama. Marina said: “I cannot say exactly that Putin killed my husband but I can say that Putin is behind everything that happens in Russia. It couldn’t happen without his knowledge.” The two programs aired were Panorama’s “How to Poison a Spy” and “My Friend Sasha: A Very Russian Murder” by Andrei Nekrasov. UK Internet users can click the “How to Poison a Spy” link and watch that film right now. Of “My Friend Shasha” the BBC writes: “Nekrasov’s film, which was completed for the BBC with the assistance of Leslie Woodhead, is an extraordinary document. He doesn’t attempt to ‘solve’ the Litvinenko murder. Instead he re-creates Livinenko’s life and, more importantly, his consciousness. And he tells us how terrifying it is to be an intelligent, critical individual in contemporary Russia. The real subject of the film is Nekrasov’s’s admiration for Litvinenko, who was a remarkable and courageous man. His wife, too, appears in the film, and she is also remarkable.” So much for Julia Svetlichnaya’s portrait. Here’s the real thing, with video evidence to back it up. Meanwhile, the Independent has just published extracts from Litinenko’s book Blowing up Russia. Read them here.
Here’s the conversation with his wife from ASAAT:
From: Natalya Mozgovaya, Conversation with Marina Litvinenko – 1 (my translation):
“Almost a month has passed since the moment when Sasha died, but the bitterness of the loss is only coming now,” says Marina Litvinenko. Tears fill her eyes, trickle down her cheeks, and she automatically brings to her face a handkerchief that is already soaked through. “It’s all right, this will happen from time to time… Apparently, there’s some kind of moment of inertia – you still feel the person, you live on feelings from the past, but now it’s going further and further away, and you gradually start to realize this. I think it hasn’t yet started for me, this most terrible moment, it’s only beginning to approach. Even when I saw him on the day he died – I didn’t yet feel that he wasn’t there any more. Sasha always said of our relationship: ‘Marina, I love you more than you love me.’ It was a joke, of course, but it’s only now, with the passage of time, that I realize how much I loved him.”
Marina first met Alexander Litvinenko in 1993. She was a dance instructor, and he was a detective. They were both 31 – she had a divorce behind her, while he was still married, with two children.
“It wasn’t love at first sight,” she smiles with embarrassment. “We weren’t young any more – Sasha had a marriage which had already more or less come to nothing, and I had a marriage which had ended 4 years before that; so there weren’t any particular illusions in that sense. He came to my place on my birthday with some friends of mine. They were also working in dance, and he helped them to clear up an unpleasant episode. They’d gone to Sri Lanka to appear in a show, and their impresario had “given them the boot”. But when my friends found their own contacts, earned some money and came back, the people who had sent them there suddenly began demanding money from them, it was real extortion. At the time, Sasha was involved in fighting organized crime, foul play, extortion. My friends were very scared, they were afraid to go out after one of them had an encounter on the stairs and was very badly beaten, and was told: ‘Next time we’ll just break your legs, and you won’t be able to dance any more.’ When they brought Sasha to me on my birthday, they warned me: ‘We’ve got an FSB man with us (maybe it wasn’t the FSB yet then, but the FSK, after the break-up of the KGB the name changed several times), Marina, he’s an unusual type, so cheerful, he has this sense of humour, he’s not at all like someone from the law enforcement agencies.’ Well, we all have some stereotyped images of what ‘Chekists’ look like, and I had some too. And when I saw Sasha, there really was something that didn’t seem right, somehow – he was like a little boy, easy to get along with, on my first impression.
“It’s true that later on, when we got to know each other better, I saw his hardness, especially in serious situations, when he started to do his work or take decisions. But that was later, when his 10-year-old marriage had broken down – and he’d started to court me, very quietly and unnoticeably. At some point he just wrapped me in his attention, and I felt so comfortable and secure that I probably realized it was serious. He was a very emotional person. For example, when he gave me presents, he couldn’t wait, he would bring them a month, two months before the occasion. He’d say: ‘Marina, this a present for you for March 8 [International Women’s Day, tr.]’, and it was only the end of January. And he’d bring me flowers. Perhaps not as often as I’d have liked, but when I really wanted them I could buy them for myself, and I’d tell Sasha: “I want to say a big thank you for giving me the chance to buy myself these flowers.” I realized that he simply didn’t have the time. But when he did it himself, it was twice as precious.”
You didn’t find his profession a strain?
“Well, Sasha wasn’t in a department where they were involved in spying or where there were any super-secrets. And it wasn’t as if he would come home from work, sit me down at the table and start telling me all about it. Actually it could be compared to work in the police, because he did a lot of criminal investigations, carrying out some sort of detective work. At the time we met he was working on what’s called the “Georgian line” – there were disputes between Georgia and Abkhazia, and in Moscow members of rich Georgian families were often kidnapped for ransom, and the money was spent on the war. To me this didn’t seem especially dangerous – one got the feeling that in this kind of work he was protected, he was working in a serious branch of government, it was all official. But what I saw mostly was how people were grateful in a human way for what he did for them. Just a month after we met, he freed the kidnapped son of one family – and the family said that Sasha was now like a son to them.
“But then he gradually began to move from one department to another, out of anti-terrorist work into other fields, and in 1996-97 I could already sense his dissatisfaction with the work. He was a detective, doing the groundwork before a criminal case was opened, collecting evidence, and when he was given an assignment to carry out he would have this boyish enthusiasm. It seemed me that in some ways he even romanticized his work, because there was no ideology in it for him, he just saw it as a way to help people. And then suddenly the problems began – he took on some some case, and at a certain stage they got in his way, wouldn’t let him carry it through – they said he’d dug too deep. And at some point the disillusionment set in. He wanted to find a place in the system where he would be allowed to take a case to its conclusion. But in the last place he worked – it was URPO [Analysis and Suppression of the Activity of Criminal Organizations, tr.] – the violence had already begun, and it seems to me that there already was a miniature model of what just now has acquired a governmental scale in Russia.
“The bosses simply gave themselves the right to murder – independently of whether it was in Russia or abroad, if they thought these people were terrorists or committing unlawful acts. The task might be to abduct someone, beat them up – and this was done completely outside the law. It was in these conditions that he got to know Mikhail Trepashkin, who is now in prison. That was the first time that Sasha realized something was wrong. Because Misha Trepashkin had once started a conflict in the FSB and had even won a criminal case against Patrushev, who was then the chief of some division. And since Misha still had an official FSB identity badge, an assignment was issued to meet him in the entrance, give him a bad beating, frighten him and take away his official ID. When Sasha began to get to the bottom of this episode, he realized that it quite simply should not have happened, because Misha was an absolutely normal chap, an absolutely straightforward individual, and as a result they became friends. But what happened next was already the beginning of the end, when Sasha received the order to kill Berezovsky. That was a perfect example of how an order could be given orally, in conversation with the leadership – and then you couldn’t even prove that it had been given.”
Viktor Shebalin, who appeared with your husband at that most scandalous press conference in the autumn of 1998, said later on that during his work in the “organs” [security services, tr.] your husband passed all the information on to Berezovsky. There were rumours that the people who took part in the press conference got large sums of money for it.
“Shebalin was the one who took part in the press conference as a provocateur from the FSB. Rumours were spreading that Sasha was getting a million for taking part in that press conference – he told me: ‘Marina, if I had taken money from Boris, we would not be able to remain friends.’ And as for the press conference itself – the discussions about eliminating Berezovsky took place during December, and he first told Berezovsky about it in February – so it wasn’t as if he’d received an order and then run off to report it… I recall that December, because Sasha was very troubled and downcast. Every time I asked him to go to a concert, he’d say: ‘Marina, you can’t imagine how little I feel like going to concerts. The things I know, I can’t tell you.’ He didn’t even say that to me. He would come home upset. I would say: ‘Put it out of your mind!’ He replied: “I can’t do it just like that. If you like, I’ll go for a walk near the house for a while after work, I’ll go away somewhere.’ He took it all very much to heart, it was hard for him to separate his life from his work.
“At some point they decided that the initiative to eliminate Berezovsky came from their chief, their administration, for this was a very independent division – and that the people upstairs didn’t know about it. And they took their report to the director of the FSB, at that time it was [General Nikolai] Kovalev. He listened to what they had to tell him, called in their chief, who of course denied having said what he’d said, claiming that nothing of the kind had taken place. And all those who had taken part was withdrawn from the staff for the period of the investigation. At some point in July Kovalev retired from the post of FSB director, and Putin was appointed. I remember back then asking: ‘ Sasha, is this good or bad?’ He said: ‘We don’t even know who he is.’ In the end it became clear that no one was going to seriously examine the question of the attempt on Berezovsky’s life. And then the matter of their coming out into the open at the press conference came up. That hadn’t been done merely for Berezovsky’s sake. The way Sasha’s saw it at the time was that the corruption in the FSB was ruining the image of the regular officers who were genuinely trying to prevent crime. Looking at it from my woman’s point of view, I got angry: ‘What is all this? It’s dangerous for our family, and no one knows how it will end.’ But Sasha had already developed this position which bordered on teenage stubbornness – ‘If I don’t do it, who will?’”
He didn’t ask your advice?
“No. But even if he had asked me, in the end he would have done it all his own way anyway. I realized it was going to be something serious, and I could have distanced myself, but I decided I would stick with him. Sasha was not just my husband, he was also my friend. And even if he couldn’t initiate me into all of his doings, he knew he would have my support. And I could always turn my back on him and know that that would be my protection.”
When you did you learn about the press conference?
“The day before. They spent the night away from home as they were afraid they might be arrested. After the press conference was over, there was the shock, of course, but they weren’t arrested either the next day or the day after that. This atmosphere of silent anxiety, a sense of danger, set in. First they remained suspended, then they started to be dismissed, and in order not to end up without work they got jobs at the place where Berezovsky worked as the government representative for the CIS. At the same time Sasha told me: ‘Marina, you must be prepared for the fact that they will either kill me in a doorway somewhere or put me in prison.’ I was terrified: ‘Sasha, how can tell me this?’ And he replied: ‘I’m telling you what will happen, and you can take it as you want to.’”
He didn’t regret swimming against the tide?
“No, never once. Every time I reproached him: “Well, why did you do that?” – he would reply: ‘In any case they would have made me do something so that I’d end up with blood on my hands. And if I didn’t come forward, they would take me to a line which, if I crossed it, would mean that I’d never be able to get out of that system.’
“They said he took part in the scandal when he got the feeling that he was being followed and that material was being gathered about his abuse of his powers.
“He was able to take part in the press conference so openly precisely because he was confident of his innocence, of the fact that he hadn’t done anything wrong. He considered that the corruption had to be stopped, there was hope for change. Although, when he took part in the conference, he had a meeting with Putin, at which he showed him materials about the corruption in the FSB – and from Putin’s reaction, he understood that nothing would be done. After that meeting all the phones started to be monitored, and he was placed under secret surveillance.”
But on March 25 1999 Litvinenko was arrested.
“I remember that day well, because Sasha had promised to take me and our son – Tolya was 4 at the time – to some exhibition, but the car wouldn’t start. We walked off, and Sasha told me later that he watched us go, and he felt so sad and hurt that it turned out like that… and that everything did. But in the evening, when I was at work, his colleagues came to see me, and I realized that something happened, because their faces were so strange, and I was somehow morally prepared for it. They said: ‘Marina, don’t get upset, Sasha’s been arrested – there’ll be an inquiry, and in a couple of days’ time he’ll be released again.’ I realized that it wasn’t the worst thing that could have happened, and that at least he was alive. He himself was always ready for unpleasant things to happen, so they wouldn’t take him unawares.
“He was put in Lefortovo [Prison], and all the applications for bail and written undertakings submitted by the lawyers had no effect, and no explanations were given as to why he presented such a danger. The matter he had been jailed for had actually happened two years before that, and the investigator told me quite openly that Sasha had been arrested now because ”he has to appear less on TV’. Landing in jail like that came as shock to Sasha himself, because he was confident that his hands were completely clean. Another prosecuting attorney told me: ‘We have nine charges against him: if one doesn’t stick, we’ll make a second, a third.’ Running a little ahead now, I will say that it was indeed so – nine months later he was acquitted of one charge, and they immediately made another…. And when we left, or more precisely fled, they had already managed to make a third charge, and there was a real possibility that Sasha might quite simply never get out.
“He was charged, among other things, with mocking detainees – something not uncommon in the practice of the special services.
“But it wasn’t even him. I never believed it. All those films were fakes, and when the trial was held – the statements of the witnesses were simply ludicrous. Right from the start, even when this story in Moscow began, I regretted that it had had such a bad effect on our family, but the thought of withdrawing, of leaving him, never entered my mind. Of course, when Sasha was in prison, my mother was very upset. She would say to me: ‘Marina, what is this, why are you so unhappy, you’ve only just started to live, everything you have is so good, you love one another, don’t you? And now, if you please, Sasha is in prison.’ And I replied: ‘Well, so what? He’ll get out prison. Just look at how many unhappy women have a husband who comes home at night but gives them nothing to hope for at all? I don’t consider myself unhappy. I have the person whom I chose, and we will get over this, and everything will be all right again.’”
“When the case was brought to court, the first judge granted Sasha bail. That was the second shock for Sasha – even more of a shock than the arrest itself. His lawyer arrived, said: ‘Here are the bail papers from the judge, you can go home now.’ But at the prison they started to say that the bail papers should not be brought by a lawyer, but officially from the law court, so then there was a second delay, a third. And Sasha was already sitting there with his belongings: all he had to do was get through the door, and he would be free, we were out there waiting for him. He’d already handed in all the things from his cell. Then they said: ‘We can’t let him out, there’s been a fax from the prosecutor’s office.’ We sat there from 10am until midnight, and they didn’t let him out. They acted completely against the law. Later it came to light that he’d been kept in prison unlawfully for three or four weeks. That’s what it’s like trying to obtain justice in a Russian law court.
“The court itself was unspeakable. The witnesses and materials were terrible, the prosecutor was constantly ill. When the lawyers told him that the outcome of the case was obvious, he said without embarrassment: ‘But I’m still on the waiting list for an apartment.’
“I am grateful to the judges of the Moscow Garrison Court who showed themselves to be honest people, and they acquitted him – and then all were set free. When the acquittal was read out it was unreal, like at the movies. It was clear that something was going to happen, all the prosecuting attorneys from the military prosecutor’s office were sitting there. At the time, Sasha was astonished that they had arrived: ‘Are they going to apologize to me or something?’ But as soon as the verdict had been read out, Spetsnaz officers burst into the courtroom, the prosecutor, Ivanov, got to his feet, announced that a new criminal case had been opened on Sasha, Sasha was immediately arrested, together with a second suspect – it was Gusak – and later we discovered that they had been sent to Butyrka Prison….
“Some completely new qualities revealed themselves in me then – they wouldn’t let me have any meetings with him, but I was able to phone a higher official in the State Prosecutor’s Office and began to plug the question of rights: ‘What right do you have to deprive me of meetings?’ I even kept calling the prison governor – at that moment there really were no obstacles for me – until I got permission for meetings. And later there was the change in the law regarding the treatment of the accused.
“When we got there, it was evident that in the court they were trying to make sure that wouldn’t be a repeat of what had happened last time. A group of guards stood there, so that, God forbid, no Spetsnaz should burst in again, the court was being defended from the FSB, you should have seen it. And when the judge took the decision to free Sasha from from his guards, we couldn’t believe it. We grabbed him in our arms and drove him away, because we were simply scared.”
“Next day Sasha was immediately put under surveillance, and a car would constantly follow his. This led to strange episodes, because whenever we went for a long drive – and after all, Sasha knew all these guys – he’d tell them he was going to this place or that, so that the poor fellows wouldn’t have to scour the city looking for him. When we bought a roast chicken, we’d buy two, because we realized the guys were cold and hungry, it was winter, and all this was pure nonsense. The officers were going their job, but they were aware of what they were doing. They may have felt ashamed and embarrassed, but they were being forced to do it. Then the surveillance was removed – and they walked over to us and said: ‘Today is the last day, so have a good Christmas.’ Well, our phone was tapped, obviously, and there were specific restrictions on movement – if we went anywhere, we had to report it.
“But in the summer it was suddenly decided that the trial would be held not in Moscow, but in Naro-Fominsk [about 70 km southwest of Moscow, tr.]. And then Sasha said this wasn’t right – he was afraid that down there they would be able to do anything they liked: there would be no journalists present, there would be no monitoring. He started to be really apprehensive. Just at that time he began to receive hints that the responsibility for his misdeeds would be borne not only by him, but also by his. One of the cops dropped him a hint about how they punished those who went against the system. No one was willing to see that he hadn’t gone against the system, but had rather made an open attempt to clean it up. They said: ‘You had no right to wash that dirty linen in public.’ And when Sasha realized that this could also have a serious impact on us, his wife and child, he began to consider leaving the country.
“He didn’t share his plans with me, and so right until the last moment I didn’t believe that I was leaving Russia forever. First he went away on his own – he said he was going to Nalchik [in southern Russia, tr.] to see his father, to get help with selling the apartment. Then through a friend he told me to buy a mobile phone, so that he could communicate with me. Then he asked me to book a package holiday to any country, and to tell no one that we were going away. I booked a two week tour to Spain, and told my friends I was ill. Apart from mother, no one knew about our departure. Sasha was still suffering so much – we were already sitting in the plane, and he kept asking: ‘Marina, are you on the plane now?’ He was very afraid that they wouldn’t let us out of the country.
“My son and I were alone in Spain, and I really did fall ill. We had three days left, and I was getting ready to go home. And then Sasha said: ‘We probably won’t go home.’ But I didn’t understand: how could it be that we wouldn’t go home? I couldn’t do that. He said: ‘If you go to Russia, I’ll follow you. But if I go back, they will put me in prison again, and they may kill me.’ And again I decided to I would stay with Sasha. We agreed to meet in Turkey, didn’t see each other for almost a month. He was really in a bad state, had lost weight. We met in Antalya, the road back home was already cut off. On Boris Abramovich [Berezovsky]’s request, in Turkey we met Alik Goldfarb, he helped us to find our feet. The first discussion was about obtaining asylum in the USA. We went to the American embassy, but they said: ‘We’re very sorry, but there are elections just now, and we can’t take this responsbilitity.’ It would take a long wait to get an ordinary visa, and Turkey might give us away at any moment; so the decision was taken to travel further. And we went to London -therefore was accepted the solution to go further. And we went to London – there we didn’t need a visa , and it was possible to get a connecting flight from Istanbul to Moscow via London.”
Did your husband have his papers with him?
“No, a passport had been made for him. We’d landed in London, and 15 minutes later Sasha approached a policeman and told him that he wanted to apply for political asylum. Alik [Goldfarb] suffered very badly as a result of this – for several months he was persona non grata for having helped illegal immigrants. We felt so embarrassed in his presence. Even now when he flies to America, he has to answer supplementary questions at passport control – there must be a mark next to his name… “
“On November 1 2000 our new life in England began. We had to wait until May for our case to be decided, and when the decision to give Sasha and his family political asylum came through, that brought some stability, for before that there were constant attempts to extradite him, and he kept being called in for questioning. At the [Russian] embassy they knew where we lived in London. Not that that we were in hiding – but when mother came to visit me for the first time, on her return home she was held for five hours at the customs in Sheremetevo Airport, they subjected her to a humiliating search, undressed her completely, trying to find something, mocked her for five hours. And when they found a piece of paper with our address on it in her purse, they were so happy. Then people were sent from the embassy to that address to serve us with a court summons.
“But, no matter how strange it may seem, we felt very happy in England right from the outset. I personally never felt I was in danger, although Sasha would sometimes tell me not to let Tolya go out on his own. It wasn’t any kind of harsh punishment. He had no desire to change his appearance or keep a bodyguard. Sasha always used to say how safe he felt in London, though he realized he had not been pardoned, and that they would use any chance to try to get hold of him. He thought they wouldn’t dare to eliminate him in London, though he did see himself as a target for them. He was more worried for the safety of Berezovsky and Zakayev.”
What did you live on?
“Initially, Sasha got a grant for the book (Blowing Up Russia, N.M.). He was no businessman. He would say: ‘Marina, what sort of businessman am I? I’m an operative. I can create a security agency,’ – that was what he was trying to do in the last two years of his life. As for me, until I knew English I stayed at home. It’s only in the last year that I’ve started to give lessons to children and adults. But of course, it was Sasha who took care of the basic part of the family budget. He was very punctilious about things related to providing for his family. He was always trying to think ahead, to make sure he had work so there would be a guarantee of a year or two.”
Was he financially dependent on Berezovsky?
“He made a specific point of trying to find some sort of independent sources of income. So they remained great friends, and no one could ever understand that friendship of theirs.”
Did the book change anything in Russia’s attitude towards your husband?
“It certainly did. If you look at what happened to the people who took part in its writing, in the gathering of the material – they’re not around any more, some have been killed, one person died in unexplained circumstances, another – in prison. But I was glad that Sasha was writing – in addition to the books, he wrote many articles, and he didn’t hide, didn’t disguise himself, he always signed them with his own name. I even used to tell him that it had probably been worthwhile leaving Russia, so he could discover himself in a new capacity. Yes, he was a good operative, but he had this kind of social circle there, they were all a bit abnormal… It was simply that in their system there wasn’t any room for people who were different. But here [in London] completely different people appeared. One of those people was Vladimir Bukovsky. A dissident and a former FSB man – those would seem to be incompatible concepts, but I can hardly remember an evening when they didn’t talk on the telephone. Sasha was like a child who had to learn to understand everything all over again, and I am so grateful to Volodya for always being open for us. I saw this regeneration, this rethinking in Sasha. And their friendship with Akhmed Zakayev… He would say: ‘Marina, just think, there will come a moment when the Russians will have to start talks with the Chechens; proper talks – and they won’t be able to find a single Russian person whom the Chechens will trust. But they’ll trust me.’”
“It’s clear that the Chechens who are now in charge are the ones who are advantageous to Russia, but among those who have dispersed around the world, Zakayev as before has very great authority – for the Chechnya which they really consider theirs, not the one in which portraits of Putin are hung up – the man who is up to his elbows in their blood.”
Did he sense any danger during the last months?
“The first signal was in July, when Russia said it will use force where it considers it necessary, and against whom it considers it necessary. I asked Sasha why he thought this was serious. He said, it means they will kill those whom they consider a danger to them, those who criticize them. It was just then that Blair went to the G8 meeting in St Petersburg, and Bukovsky and Gordievsky published the open letter in the British newspaper saying that no one should go, and that Putin should not be allowed to head the G8 for a whole year. And nevertheless the G8 summit took place – well, it means that gas and oil have more value than human life, and nothing can stop them.
When Anya Politkovskaya was murdered, that was the second very serious signal. I knew her a little bit, and Sasha was very close to her. He was very concerned, was always telling her: “Anya, come to Britain”, even tried to give her some instructions about self-defence – what to do when you enter a doorway. He herself was aware of the danger, he often talked about it. When he persuaded her to leave Russia, she said: “All these people – if I leave, who will they go to complain to?” Like Sasha, she understood that if she didn’t do it, then who would? Sasha believed she was murdered because she was a living witness of the crimes that had been committed in Chechnya. For him this was a very fundamental question – to understand who had done it, and why. Of course, he couldn’t a proper investigation, since he was in London. But he had some contacts, some understanding of the situation, and he clearly did something for that.
After Anya’s death he again started thinking about the existence of that hit list, he would say: I’m on that list, Berezovsky is on that list, and Zakayev, too…’ But even so, he spent more time thinking about Zakayev and Berezovsky, about the best way to guard Akhmed’s house… Even more so after we got British citizenship – he was so happy, it this seemed to him like a guarantee of his personal safety. He said: ‘They can’t kill a British subject on British soil.’ And he was wrong.”
You weren’t afraid that at some point the British would say: “We’re fed up with these Russian quarrels of yours, and now there’s radiation into the bargain”?
“That is a very serious point and we did have such fears, but it wasn’t seen as a ‘Russian’ quarrel at all. The British took it very seriously.
Sasha loved England very much, he had a British flag on all his denim jackets, it was almost comical… There were British flags hung up throughout the entire house. He was really very proud of it and very grateful. When he was in the hospital, we got so many letters of support – from ordinary British people whom we didn’t know at all. And the parents of the children at the school where our son is a pupil. After Sasha’s death, on 4 December, when we celebrated Sasha’s birthday with his father at a restaurant, we received the present of a portrait of him – it was standing on the table. A person we didn’t know approached, and he said: ‘If you are that family – please accept my deepest condolences – we are with you.'”
“When the vomiting started that evening, it seemed strange to me, because we’d eaten supper together. But I supposed it might be some sort of infection. When we vomited a second time, I made a manganese solution, we washed out his stomach – but his spasms started again. And when it happened a third time, he said to me: ‘Marina,you have to get up at six to take Tolya to school – I’ll sleep in the other room, so as not to disturb you.’ At 2 am I fell asleep – and at six I looked in to see how he was and saw he was still awake. He said to me: ‘This is so strange: when we were studying at the military academy we read about symptoms like these – like the ones after a gas attack.’ I said: ‘Sasha, what are you saying?’ He replied: ‘Well, I’ve obviously been poisoned.’
“He had a feeling it was poisoning right from the very start, because of the intensity of the vomiting, but he tried not to let himself get hung up on what were after all only guesses. Perhaps it was a defensive reaction – after all, it’s a terrible thing to believe that someone has poisoned you. And when there is even the slightest chance of believing that it’s really some other illness that’s involved – you jump at it. Though in the course of two days he lost nearly all his strength. He said: ‘Marina, I’ve never felt so awful in my whole life.’ On the second day he said: ‘I can’t go on any more.’
“The sensation he had was simply of everything being turned topsy-turvy, he couldn’t get enough air, he kept asking for the window to be opened, though his body temperature was very low. Next day I brought him some medicine to restore the balance in his stomach – I’d decided that some kind of irritation had set in because of the vomiting, and his stomach wouldn’t even accept water. I called a Russian doctor, and he promised to visit us next day, but at night Sasha was again very poorly. He said: ‘Marina, I can’t take any more of this, call an ambulance.’ We dialled 999, that’s the number for the ambulance, fire or police services. The ambulance arrived at two in the morning. At the hospital they said: ‘It looks like an intestinal infection, what are you giving him?’ I said that I was giving him water. They replied: ‘Well, go on doing that. We can take him into hospital, but they’ll do the same thing there.’ They checked his temperature – it was about 35. I have no medical training, but it seemed to me that in infections the temperature should rise. In fact, there was no normal explanation for any of what was happening. So for that reason I don’t blame anyone, though I did think at first: what if they’d done this earlier? What if they’d found the toxin earlier? Later on they said he hadn’t had a chance right from the outset. Sasha was still complaining of abdominal pain – but they said it was caused by the spasms – that his stomach was contracting and the pain was coming from the over-exertion. And they sent him home. But from the very first day he didn’t have a single day without pain, except the last day, when he was already unconscious, connected to the apparatus and feeling nothing.
“The next day, when this Russian doctor arrived, it still didn’t make any sense. When the doctor touched his stomach, Sasha said it was very painful. The doctor said: ‘Well, it looks as though there’s been an infection, and now a process of inflammation has set in, this no longer something you can look after at home, take him to the hospital.’ When they finally arrived, and Sasha tried to get up – it was terrible, what could happen to someone who only had a short time left to live. He felt so dreadful that he simply couldn’t walk. At first he was very weak, exhausted by the vomiting. In the first week he lost eight kilograms. Then he just turned yellow – and when I asked why he was so yellow – again no one could give me any explanation. When they discovered a bacterium in his stomach which they thought the infection might have caused, no one could explain how it had been activated so suddenly, as it normally appears after a course of antibiotics. So what had been wrong with him initially? And again, it was a bacterium that causes diarrhea, not vomiting. In other words, they found explanations, but the explanations were never complete. Then they said it was possible that the antibiotic they’d given him had produced some side effect, because his blood test showed a sharp reduction in his immunity.”
How did they react when you told them you had been granted political asylum in England?
“They nodded understandingly, but that didn’t mean they were automatically bound to test for toxins. Why should they suppose that the patient had been poisoned by someone? At some point we ceased to understand why, if the doctors couldn’t find a complete explanation, they didn’t carry out some additional tests. And we turned to a toxicology specialist in America who wanted to take a look at the results of the blood tests. But all this took time – and the process was taking no time at all… He started to have an inflammation of the larynx, at first he complained of a sore throat. I had a look at his throat – and it wasn’t an ordinary inflammation, the kind you get with angina. I told the medical staff, and they said – well, it’s the antibiotics, they kill off all the healthy flora… When I came to see him on the Sunday, he could already hardly swallow or speak. I’d brought him some tea in a thermos – he couldn’t drink it, but it was important that it was there, because he believed he was getting a little better and would be able to drink it. It was a constant, terrifying struggle for life. Because he believed he was getting over it.
“On the Sunday they gave him some sort of throat medication for removing the process of inflammation after taking antibiotics. I said: ‘Will that be enough?’ By then he was already on a feeding tube, he couldn’t eat anything. On the Monday – this was already the second week now – he was no longer able to talk at all. And when he simply couldn’t move his tongue at all, that was so terrible that I just couldn’t control myself, I ran out to reception and started to yell: ‘What are you doing? When I left yesterday my husband could at least speak!’ At that moment all the doctors came running, they started to explain to me that it might a side effect of the antibiotic, though one of the indications didn’t fit, and it might be the wrong treatment. And then they said: ‘You know, we’ll have to test for hepatitis and Aids.’ They said that in cases of that illness the organism could react in a completely unpredictable way. Their approach was a traditional one, they went by the textbooks, and there was no one who could have kept an eye on the situation from the side. Of course the tests and analyses yielded nothing. When they left that day… My poor Sasha – this was horrible, it was very dreadful – when I passed my hand along his hair, the hair remained on my hand, or more precisely, on the glove, because all along they’d made us wear gloves and aprons so we wouldn’t get infected, if it was an infection. I stroked his head again – and this time it wasn’t just a hair or two, but whole strands. I felt really ill. Then I looked at his hospital pyjamas, at the pillow – there was hair everywhere. And then I started to say – why is his hair falling out? And again they weren’t able to give me an explanation. It might be a result of his weakened immunity. A day later I had my first meeting with the haematology specialist who was in charge of the cancer patients’ ward. He was the first person to tell me: ‘You know, he looks like a cancer patient after chemotherapy.’ And suddenly he said to me: ‘On the twelfth day the hair starts to fall out.’ I said it was twelve days since the day his vomiting had begun. Only then did they start to test his blood for the presence of toxins.’”
Did he look at himself in the mirror?
“No. He still tried to make jokes – he would say: ‘Now that I’m bald, do I look like Buddha?’ Or: ‘This bacterium of mine was wearing uniform.’ He kept apologizing to the nurses for having to have his clothes changed constantly. He would say [in English]: ‘I am sorry’, ‘Excuse me’… That wasn’t like him – moody, short-tempered. I would tell him: “Sasha, there’s no need to say sorry, in this condition you don’t have to apologize for anything.’ I kept asking them at the hospital: ‘Do you really have enough resources here to treat my husband? Are you sure that you know everything?’ And when on the Thursday they discovered a toxin in his blood, they also gave him tests for external radiation, which showed nothing… They made some tests for toxins, and in the evening they came and said: ‘We’ve discovered thallium, and have prescribed an antidote.’ We were even relieved – thank God, at last they’ve found out why it’s happening, the cause is clear, now Sasha will get well again. And he himself constantly lived with that faith.
“After the thallium was discovered they decided to move him to another hospital, and it was also from that point on that the police were called in. Until then we’d been able to say what we liked and ask as many questions as we wanted, but no one would listen to us. In the new hospital, in the haematological department there, he began to give evidence to the police right from the very first day. Those policemen really admired him a lot for giving evidence in that condition. Though he was kept on an anaesthetic all the time, I don’t know how he endured it. They explained to me later that the irritation he had in his throat was also inside him: his bowels, his oesophagus, his stomach were all covered in these ulcers (cries).
“When this antidote was prescribed for him, it was brought in the form of a powder. But it wasn’t completely dissolved, there were these sharp little crystals, and it was so painful for him… And when he was giving evidence for 3-4 hours at a time, I even asked them not to let them in when he fell asleep, so he would at least get a little rest. On the Monday, this was in the last week, they moved him from the haematological department to the resuscitation room. When he’s been brought to this hospital, he’d still been able to get up, he could even walk a bit, arrange his bed the way he liked it, take a shower, fix the tap – but when he was taken to the third floor and hooked up to all those tubes… I didn’t think it was the end, but I realized it wasn’t good.”
There were thoughts that it might be fatal?
“On the very last day. I chased that thought away as best I could. But that day it stabbed me unawares. I suddenly thought: ‘But I won’t be able to live without him.’ And immediately silenced myself: ‘Why are you thinking about yourself – Sasha, who is suffering so badly, is fighting to the last, how can you think those thoughts?’ But no one knew what it was. He was never actually ill, and there was the help of British doctors, it seemed that the situation was under control… Yes, it was hard, but we were sure he’d be able to pull through. We even said, fine, even if there are some problems with his health later on, we’ll manage. They were discussing giving him a bone marrow transplant, as they said it might be necessary, and were already talking about making analyses, starting to select a donor – in other words, no one thought he was doomed. Since he didn’t have any brothers, they were saying that perhaps his father and mother would come, so that analyses could be taken from them. In other words, all the talk was about that he was going to live, and that all that had to be done was to help him. When the day before his death, the 22nd, he had a cardiac arrest during the night, the first thing they said to me was: ‘This is not very good, as it will be very hard to carry out a transplant in this condition.’”
What was the diagnosis at that point?
“They eliminated thallium on the Monday or the Tuesday. I came to see Sasha, and asked: ‘Have you taken the antidote?’ He said he had taken the first portion, but for some reason the second portion hadn’t been brought. He had to take twenty-four capsules a day, eight capsules at a time. I was so surprised, because when they first brought him that powder, he said: ‘I can’t take any more of this, I’m going to leave it’ – a nurse came running and started trying to persuade him: ‘Now then, your life is at stake, you must take them all, every single capsule.’ But now no one brought anything. The doctors arrived, they said: ‘We’ve cancelled the antidote, it’s the wrong treatment.’ We said: ‘How can it be wrong? There was thallium in the blood sample.’ They replied: ‘It’s wrong.’ I said: ‘But what is it, then?’ They replied: ‘It doesn’t really matter now what it is. At this stage it’s important to make sure that all his organs are working. The lung ventilation machine, the liver machine, the kidney machine – whatever happens to him, he’s completely connected up, and whatever happens to him, we’ll check it.’ And as for us, whatever happened, we were absolutely sure about Sasha’s heart, because almost literally the day before leaving for England he had had a medical examination, and he’d been told that his heart was in very good condition. So we were confident that at least his heart would hold out. And then at night for the first time it stopped. On the Thursday Sasha was already unconscious, hooked up to the machine, and then, when I left in the evening – I’d been there all day, and his father stayed on for the night – I asked: ‘Does his condition change from night to day?’ And the nurse said: ‘No, he’s connected up to the machine now, we’ve given him a paralysing drug so the machine will do the work for him, and there’s no way that he can do himself any harm.’ The doctor said there was only one thing they were worried about – if his blood pressure suddenly started to fall, there was nothing they could do, because when they restarted his heart, they’d given him the maximum dose of the drug. But the fact that no change, no deterioration was expected – that calmed me down somewhat. I went home, and once again told myself off for the thought that I might lose him, and then reflected – perhaps this was the crisis which had to occur, after which things would start to improve? I didn’t stay at home very long, about 20 minutes. They rang us from the hospital, and said: ‘Come urgently.’ There was another moment of hope – perhaps it was like last night, when his heart had stopped, and they’d started it again. I asked Tolya: ‘Will you come?’ He said: ‘Yes, I will.’ Before that he had only seen Sasha on the Monday, I tried to take him to the hospital as little as possible, and he hadn’t seen his father hooked up to the machine, unconscious. When we got to the hospital, they met us immediately, but they didn’t take as to Sasha’s ward as they usually did – but took us aside into another one. I immediately understood that it was all over.
“It was so hard. They let us say goodbye to him, without gloves, without the dressing gown, without the mask, because they still didn’t know what he had died of. No one knew anything – the results from the laboratory where it turned out that he had been poisoned with polonium-210 only arrived three hours before his death, and the hospital hadn’t yet received them. They left us with Sasha, I was able to touch him, hug him, kiss him. Perhaps it was a good thing. If they’d known the diagnosis in advance, I might not have been able to say goodbye to him. I, his father, Tolya, and Akhmed Zakayev were the last people to see him. After that, they didn’t show him to anyone.”
Did Zakayev and Berezovsky also think it was food poisoning?
“No, but they didn’t think it was that serious. Almost everyone was certain that it the doctors had it under control. But in fact there was nothing they could have done, so I have no complaints to make about anyone. Apart from the killers – for they didn’t just kill him: it was done with such refined cruelty, they made him suffer such agony – that it could only have been thought up by a perverted sadist.
“When it became known what it was, it was a shock. Because it had been the number one item of news in Britain, and it was so dreadful to see it in all the media every day. The death of a person is always a terrible thing, but you stay with your grief one to one, with friends, relatives. But here it was all brought out for public discussion. There were these constant interviews, these journalists, the first week and a half was awful. The night Sasha died, inspectors from the anti-terrorist centre phoned us, they said they were coming. I was very astonished, told them I was not in a state to talk – it was one in the morning, the night after his death on November 24. They said: ‘You will understand why we want to do this right now.’ When they arrived and told me that it was polonium, I didn’t really understand what they were saying. Even they hadn’t known it until right at the end. I took a degree at the petrochemical institute, and the name was familiar to me – but what effect it could have on the human organism, I didn’t know… They explained to me later what alpha radiation is. But when they arrived, they said that it was polonium, that they had no practical experience of poisoning with that element, and that now even the police didn’t know what to expect. The only thing they could suggest to us was to go away for the weekend, to take a change of clothes with us and wait it out. Then they said they were going to conducts tests on the house, and on us… They brought out some of our things – of course, they were subjected to thorough testing. Later, when I asked the hospital for some of Sasha’s things they said they couldn’t bring anything out of there at all.”
There wasn’t any panic?
“In my case – no. I realized that I’d been in very close contact with Sasha, and next day they gave us all blood tests – me, Tolya, and Sasha’s father. And for four days, as I waited for the result of the test, the thing I feared most of all was that Tolya might lose another parent. Of course during those days I tried to listen to myself, to check whether anything had changed in me. When they asked me questions about whether I felt nausea, whether I had a sore throat… When they brought the results of the tests, it turned out that a certain minimal dose [of radiation] was present in me, but it wouldn’t affect my health in the near future, and might only increase my risk of contracting cancer by one percent. At that point I felt a bit better.”
What did you talk about during the final days?
“He didn’t want me to go leave, always asked me to massage his feet, because he’d stopped having any sensation in them – he would say: ‘Marinochka, when I get out of here I’ll give you a massage every day.’ We talked about the holiday we’d take when it was all over. We didn’t discuss the issue of the poisoning very much, because he’d started to give evidence, and he obviously told the investigators a lot more than he told me, because he didn’t want to overload me. He said there was something suspicious about the meetings he’d had that day – but he couldn’t accuse any of the people he’d talked to directly – after all, it wasn’t as though he didn’t know those people at all. It’s true that according to him Scaramella behaved very strangely. And at the second meeting, with Lugovoy, there were some men he didn’t know. The first reports that appeared in the press pointed to Mario Scaramella.”
Did you know him?
“I met him once. We used to talk on the phone. Sasha said that the meeting he had with him was completely unnecessary, and Scaramella’s behaviour was very strange, nervous. And that document he tried to show him – why couldn’t he just have sent it, by email, for example? Perhaps Scaramella felt there was a threat to his life, and that’s why he was so nervous. And when Sasha looked at the document he thought it was nonsense – there was something not right about it. But I think Sasha analysed something else as well. He didn’t tell me what it was – he apparently thought he would get well again and sort the matter out himself.”
In the letter that was published after his death, your husband placed the blame on Putin.
“That has a very loud resonance in political terms, of course. I can’t speak so harshly of a specific person. The only thing I can say is that the present leadership of Russia has created a situation in which it’s possible to kill people with impunity. And since Putin, the Russian President, is the man who constructed this vertical of power, it could not have been done behind his back. But the question of who technically carried it out is now less important. You see, like women whose husbands are in prison or who were murdered on someone’s orders, I have my own attitude towards Putin which is different from that of some female citizen of Russia who sits watching TV while her drunken husband snores at her side. For she looks at Putin, and says, what a wonderful man – he doesn’t drink, doesn’t smoke, doesn’t beat his wife. You see, I have my own view of him, but my opinion of Putin changes nothing.
“I mean, they waited six years for this moment, in order to get him, to show that you can’t get away from them, even if you’re already a British subject. And no one knows how many other people have also suffered. I don’t know whether they’d intended to carry out such an open action, or whether they didn’t bother to clear up the trail, thinking he’d be dead before anyone managed to discover anything, and that they’d say the man had died of an intestinal disorder. The chaos that began after the break-up of the Soviet Union, and the uncontrolled export of radioactive substances – perhaps the people who poisoned Sasha weren’t fully responsible, didn’t have a proper understanding of what it was. Even at the level of sabre-rattling – is that any sort of a thing to do? I don’t think so. Or perhaps it was something else – they wanted to show they could do anything they wanted anywhere they wanted — and with complete impunity. It’s like the way Russia is behaving with Europe now, flexing its energy muscles, and saying: if we want, you will do what we tell you to do – it’s an attack in that direction.”
What theory are you inclined to believe? Was it revenge for something in the past, or was it related to something he’d got mixed up in more recently? There was even a story in the press that he’d helped to make a “dirty bomb”, either for the Chechens or for Al Qaeda.
‘Well, it was dreadful when those insinuations began, when Yulia Svetlichnaya made those statements – I saw her at our house. Sasha invited her once, because she was writing a book. When she began to say that Sasha bombarded her with email messages – I mean, Sasha distributed messages to all his friends, sent them to hundreds of addresses. He believed that if you possessed information, you should share it, especially if it was something someone had written about Russia. And if you didn’t like it, then you could simply delete it, or start blocking it. But that statement, that interview about how he might have sold information and blackmailed businessmen, the FSB – that was totally absurd, it went against everything Sasha had ever done. Perhaps that was the real trouble – he was always open and frank. At the press conference he sat with his face uncovered, he didn’t wear dark glasses or a mask. If he wrote articles, he signed them with his own name, even if he didn’t need to. It was all on public record. As they once said, the system doesn’t forgive – and they will reach and punish anyone, in order to teach a lesson to others who might take it into their heads to speak openly. Anya Politkovskaya…. that was also a lesson, that it’s forbidden to write like that. Sasha was never a spy, he never sold out any interests. He was a regular employee of the FSB, with secrets of a completely different kind.”
Did he really convert to Islam before his death?
“He expressed that wish. But I don’t think it was dictated by religious motives – it was more of an emotional impulse. A lot of things happened at the hospital during those days, and Zakayev was one of his close friends; that was why Sasha expressed the desire to be buried next to him. I insisted that the funeral should be a civil one, but I allowed Akhmed to bring his Muslim friends so that everyone could say goodbye to Sasha as they thought fit.”
The Russian Prosecutor General’s Office recently issued a statement saying that one of their suspects is Leonid Nevzlin, and that the poisonings have a connection with Yukos.
“I can’t comment on an investigation that’s in progress, but my attitude to the law enforcement agencies in Russia is mostly one of distrust. I’m not going to make an appraisal of their activity, but it’s a pity that instead of searching for the real killers they are busying themselves with settling scores with their political opponents.”
You yourself are not afraid?
“I’ve never once in all this time felt a desire to run away or hide somewhere, take cover. If you start looking round every time you enter a doorway, you might as well just die… It was a happy experience for me when, after a week of the mourning, Tolya went back to school again. And no, I can’t say that I’ve felt any heightened sense of danger. I’ve felt a sense of gratitude to Britain, to the people who have treated us this way… The support we’ve received on every level. I am totally grateful for what the British police are doing. As the wife of an operative, I’m able to appreciate the way in which those people are working. They work day and night, they work very seriously. They’ve carried out tests on every millimetre of our home. And anything they thought was impossible to clean up or presented a danger to life – it’s been possible for them to take all that away. And if they ask for something, I help them. If they request me not to talk about certain questions, I take my first guidance from them. Right from the outset they told me that no political directives can influence their work, and I believe them. Because for them it’s a matter of principle, to find out who killed Sasha, and why.”
How do you plan to live in future?
“It’s still quite hard for me to say. For him, life was in Tolya and in me. And now I have to do for Tolya what Sasha wanted. Sasha was very proud when Tolya began to speak English, was always asking him to say things in English. Then Tolya got into a very good school. Sasha was very fond of giving Tolya presents, he spoiled him more than I did. When Tolya realized he wasn’t going to get something from me, he’d run to his father. They really liked going shopping, going round the stores together. They’d go to museums together. Sasha was a very good athlete – he did the pentathlon, and also horse-riding, shooting, fencing, running and swimming. That year Tolya took up fencing – Sasha had dreamed about it. He used to go to those lessons with Tolya, and he was totally happy. He said: ‘When I retire on my pension I’m going to open a fencing school.’ They went to the swimming pool, talked about when they’d start running. Sasha couldn’t live without running. Even when he was already in hospital, no one was able to explain to me how a completely healthy person, even if he did have a rare gastrointestinal disorder, could look that bad. He looked twice his age, and no one could explain it to me. He himself said: ‘Up until November I could run 10 kilometres in a very short tie. And look at me now – well, is that food poisoning?'”
They’re saying that someone in Hollywood has acquired the film rights to one of his books.
“This issue began to blow up only a few days ago. I don’t know what that film will be like, it obviously won’t be about Sasha, just some kind of story. Perhaps to some extent it’s right that this story which has shaken the whole world shouldn’t just vanish without trace. And if my participation is required, I’m ready, though I never had any plans to for that. Perhaps Sasha’s new book will be published, with some sort of participation on my part. If I can preserve Sasha’s memory in some way, write that book – I will do that, though I’ve have never had a wish to be famous. When Sasha was on show, I always kept in the shadow, tried not to be photographed. The first photograph appeared by chance, six years ago, when we’d only just arrived, and for a long time that was the only photograph that appeared in the British newspapers, because there weren’t any others.”
How is your son coping?
“Tolya has this amazing ability, it’s not so much that he tries not to dramatize the situtaion, he just tries to behave naturally. For example, in the hospital he didn’t sit looking at Sasha in shock and horror, but behaved normally, asked questions now and then. And now, of course, he has a lot of questions, but he doesn’t put them to me. And every time he finds me in tears, he makes an effort and says: “Mum, is everything all right?’ He thinks he doesn’t give me enough support. I really feel awkward just now, making this problem for people, because it’s very difficult to find words in cases like this. Last year a little girl died of heart failure at a dancing lesson – I looked at her mother at the time and was surprised – my God, how much strength and courage one needs, having lost one’s daughter, to try not to create awkward situations for the people around one. Now I understand her well – I see how much people loved Sasha, how much they valued him – and I’m so grateful to them… Both in England and in Russia – even the people who seemed to break off contact with us. I don’t accuse them, because for some people after we left Russia it turned out to be not without danger, some people had their business… It only underlines once again how people in Russia lack freedom, even in the choice of who to make friends with.”