One year ago the Crown Prosecution Service named the suspect in the Alexander Litvinenko murder case. It was an important event for those involved and interested in the story; the indictment gave weight to the popular suspicion that the Russian state security apparatus was behind Litvinenko’s spectacular demise six months earlier. Important for me personally was also that on the day the former KGB officer Andrei Lugovoi became the official murder suspect, Cannes film festival made a surprise announcement that my documentary about Litvinenko was included in the main programme.
This coincidence had an exaggerated significance in the heat surrounding the Litvinenko affair in Russia. Some commentators declared that there is a cross border cross-cultural conspiracy, between the British political establishment and the French cultural one, against Russia trying to reassert itself as a world power. Some claimed that the “anti-Russian” film in Cannes is a sign of France’s new president harsher attitude to Russia; others said that “the piece of anti-Putin propaganda” was to be shown in Cannes on the instigation of the scheming exiled tycoon Berezovsky.
All that would have been just bygone oddities, if it were not for an important connected problem the Litvinenko case presents, in my view, today. In a way it has reached an impasse. Russia will not extradite Mr. Lugovoi, while the British establishment refuses to be drawn into any more speculation on who might have been behind Mr. Lugovoi who seems to have had neither a motive, nor a possibility to pull off such a sophisticated radioactive poisoning on his own. In the meantime the appetite for speculation in the media has proved strong enough. Two journalists, in America and Britain, recently claimed that Litvinenko was involved in the smuggling of radioactive materials. The claims were not based on any evidence and contained contradictions and inaccuracies. Edward Epstein, for example, suggested in New York Sun that polonium 210 which killed Litvinenko may have been acquired during his trips abroad which date back years, or from equally old “stockpiles”. It is known, however, that the isotope completely loses its radioactivity just after four months. Mary Dejevsky wrote in the Independent that, according to Mr. Lugovoi, no tea was served during his fatal meeting with Litvinenko at the Millennium hotel, even though in Lugovoi’s many interviews, including the one in my film, he admitted that Litvinenko had actually drunk tea at that meeting. The tea factor is important because in Litvinenko’s own accepted version the poison must have been put into a tea pot before he arrived at the meeting and was offered to drink from the tea pot already on the table.
There is no need to expatiate on the reasons why different versions of Litvinenko’s death are tainted by world politics. But it is useful to recap some revealing paradoxes. The Russian government categorically denies that its secret services could be involved in any way, and Mr. Lugovoi rejects British accusations with indignation. In his turn, Lugovoi accused the London based exile Berezovsky and even the British secret service of poisoning his former fellow KGB officer Litvinenko. That’s what came across internationally. Yet inside Russia the emphasis is on portrayal of Litvinenko as a traitor, an enemy, an ally of Islamist terrorists and the helper of the inveterate anti-Putin provocateur Berezovsky. In terms of today’s Russian ethics such accusations amount to a death sentence to be executed by a patriotic volunteer. That explains why Mr. Lugovoi, completely unknown before the Litvinenko affair, has thereafter made a meteoric political career.
The basic problem of Western attitudes towards Russia today is that since the fall of the Soviet Union, no code has evolved to interpret the resulting culture, which is no more acceptable in terms of democratic values than Soviet communism. Xenophobic and extreme imperialist language, for example, that would not be out of place in a Nazi rant, is a part of today’s Russian political and ideological mainstream, and is notably the trademark of the leader of the Ultra-Nationalist party (an ally of the ruling “United Russia”) which gave electoral shelter to Mr. Lugovoi. On the international stage the Russian leadership and its friends in the West, such as the former German Chancellor Schroeder, insist Russia is a democracy, yet inside Russia the cultural establishment promotes the idea that the Russians are fundamentally disappointed with the notion of democracy and support the now overt authoritarianism.
There are those among Russia watchers in the West, who take the view that while Russia is clearly not a democracy of the Western type it should be judged on its own terms and therefore considered making a clear progress since the era of the Soviets and that of Yeltsin. Yet in practice judging Russia “on its own terms”, means applying lowered criteria to the understanding of Russian life, and denying the majority of Russians the empathy of contemporary humanism. It is widely accepted that Russians are better off now, but as a Russian I can testify that the theoretical comparisons with the Soviet and Yeltsin times do absolutely nothing to alleviate the daily material and moral pains of ordinary Russians, which most people in the West would simply raise in arms against. In Moscow, which is possibly the most expensive city of the world, 20 percent of citizens live on less than 90 Pounds a month (the government’s “survival minimum”), and that is just the official statistic, and that’s just in Moscow. Other estimates paint a picture which is probably more accurate: half of the Russian population lives in what in the West would be called abject poverty. But what’s probably even worse is the sense of total arbitrariness of the power of the corrupt officialdom, which has gravely increased since Yeltsin years and which is a part and parcel of the destruction of the post-communist civil liberties, undertaken by Putin.
The definitions such as “democratic on its own terms” are a self-delusion which allows some Western observers relay uncritically what is by and large authoritarian propaganda. Characteristically Russian establishment today borrows catch phrases from the times of Stalin’ purges to describe today’s questionable optimism: “Life’s become better, life’s become merrier”. It has been the main task of Russian official ideologues, such as Vladislav Surkov, to create a notion of Russian own type of democracy (“sovereign democracy”), and the main practical trait of that project was the use of censorship to suppress any free discussion on the subject.
The notion of a special Russian democracy is based on the paradoxical acceptance that the majority of Russians don’t care about the rule of the majority. To take the Russian leadership’s word on that is not just gullible, it’s arrogant and undemocratic. The West has to use its historic experience and logic to deny “another democracy” a status of respectability. An authoritarian oligarchy has no right to speak on behalf of Russia as long as it keeps a paranoid grip on the nation’s media, culture and the interpretation of history. It is precisely for that reason that those who see the Litvinenko case in the context of a putative new cold war between equally guilty adversaries are wrong. To see how the lack of real democracy in Russia is responsible for mega-corruption and the break down of the rule of law leading to the epidemic of political murders and state robbery – does not mean being prejudiced against Russia. It means caring for the Russian people. That is the essence of the Litvinenko case.