Murder by Polonium-210: A Widow's Stalled Quest for Justice

In the Litvinenko murder, the key suspect is safe in Russia.

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Alexander Litvinenko.

LONDON—In November 2006, former KGB officer Alexander Litvinenko died in London after being poisoned with the radioactive isotope polonium-210. His widow, Marina, holds back sobs and wipes away tears with a tissue, as she talks about her life since then, about the old letters from her husband that she reads often to cling to his memory. Enduring each day is hard, she says, but one thing seems to upset her most: her husband's enemies' getting away with murder. "They killed a person," she says. "That's the main thing, the center, and someone should answer for it."

That, however, looks increasingly unlikely.

In part because of the unresolved Litvinenko case, British-Russian relations have reached perhaps their lowest ebb since the end of the Cold War. Marina Litvinenko may have to get used to the idea that she will never see justice for her late husband. Moscow has refused an extradition request for Scotland Yard's main suspect, millionaire Russian businessman (and former KGB officer) Andrei Lugovoi. Marina's theory is that he acted on orders from Russia's secret services. Despite facing a murder charge in Britain, Lugovoi—whose own claim is that Litvinenko was a renegade British agent killed by the British intelligence service MI6—has been lionized in Russia as a hero who stood up to the West. In the December elections, he was even voted into the parliament.

Diplomatic fallout. A chill between London and Moscow was in the air before the Litvinenko affair: Russia has long complained about Britain granting asylum to fugitives wanted on criminal charges in Russia, including the oligarch Boris Berezovsky and Chechen separatist Akhmed Zakayev. And in January 2006, to British bemusement, Russia accused four employees at the British Embassy in Moscow of using a fake rock filled with electronics for spying. But after London requested Lugovoi's extradition in May 2007, tensions increased. Russia refused, citing its Constitution, and both sides expelled each other's diplomats. In the most recent move, Russia in January forced Britain to close the St. Petersburg and Yekaterinburg branches of the British Council, an organization that promotes British culture abroad, a move that Russian officials described as political fallout from the Litvinenko case.

Alexander Litvinenko rose quickly through the ranks of the KGB and then the FSB, one of its successor agencies. His career came to a dramatic end in November 1998, when he publicly accused senior FSB officials of corruption and of plotting the assassination of Berezovsky. He had met Vladimir Putin, then head of the FSB, to make similar complaints a month before, Marina says. After a brief imprisonment, Litvinenko claimed political asylum in London, joining a burgeoning Russian community that has earned the city the nickname "Moscow-on-the-Thames."

On Nov. 1, 2006, Litvinenko met with Lugovoi to discuss a business deal at the Pine Bar, located in the Millennium Hotel, across an elegant square from the U.S. Embassy. "It was a busy, busy day. Every table was occupied," recalled Norberto Andrade, the headwaiter. Andrade said he didn't notice anything suspicious. "They had green tea with honey and lemon," he says.

That evening, Litvinenko vomited after dining at home, Marina recounts. He threw up every half-hour and so decided to sleep in a separate room to avoid disturbing his wife. Worried, Marina called an ambulance the next day but was told by medics that he probably had stomach flu and should rest at home. On the third evening, he grew sicker and was taken to the hospital, where doctors were taken aback by his odd symptoms. Litvinenko's bone marrow and mucous membranes had been almost completely destroyed. His hair fell out. At first, they thought him to be suffering from the side effects of a medication, later deciding that he had ingested thallium. The last time Marina spoke with him was the evening of November 23, just before she went home to take care of their young son, Anatoly. "Sasha smiled and said sadly, 'Marina, I love you so much.' He had such sadness in his eyes." Hours later, he died.