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'This Is A Love Story': 15 Years On, Litvinenko's Widow Refuses To Let The World Forget

Marina Litvinenko talks to members of the media during the press launch of an opera on her late husband's life in London in February 2020.
Marina Litvinenko talks to members of the media during the press launch of an opera on her late husband's life in London in February 2020.

On November 23, 2006, former Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) officer and fierce Kremlin critic Aleksandr Litvinenko died in a London hospital of radiation poisoning, more than three weeks after he fell suddenly and violently ill. Litvinenko's death sent the life of his widow, Marina Litvinenko, in a completely new direction: For 15 years, she has dedicated herself to the fight to establish justice in her husband's case.

"I found myself between two walls," she told Current Time in an interview in London earlier this month. "One was Russia, which didn't want to investigate. And the other was Britain, which had no interest in that either."

Many in the British establishment were reluctant to rock the boat with Russia, particularly in view of the massive sums of money that Russians were pouring into London.

Yet she has never considered giving up.

"I guess the main difference between me and other people is that my glass is always half full,” Litvinenko told RFE/RL in a separate interview in September.

“Gradually, I believe, the things that I do and those that people who are living in Russia and who are continuing to struggle are doing will bear fruit – even though people tell me now that it is pointless."

One of the main fruits of her years-long struggle came on September 21 when the European Court of Human Rights ruled that Russia was responsible for Litvinenko's "assassination." The court said it was "beyond reasonable doubt" that Litvinenko was killed by former KGB agent Andrei Lugovoi -- now a member of the lower house of Russia's parliament -- and Russian businessman Dmitry Kovtun. Investigators have found that the two men arranged for Litvinenko to drink tea laced with polonium-210 -- a rare, highly radioactive isotope – and that they themselves left a trail of radiation across London.

"There is a strong prima facie case that, in poisoning Mr. Litvinenko, Mr. Lugovoi and Mr. Kovtun had been acting as agents of the Russian state," the court ruled. The court found it highly unlikely that the men could have acquired polonium without the help of the Russian government.

"The acknowledgment of the Russian government's guilt is, of course, the main victory," Marina Litvinenko said at the time.

Despite the evidence, Lugovoi, Kovtun, and the Russian government have denied involvement.

'Ahead Of His Time'

Aleksandr Litvinenko, who was 43 when he died, publicly claimed in 1998 that his FSB superiors had ordered him to murder Russian oligarch Boris Berezovsky. He fled to Britain in 2000 and was granted political asylum. During his time there, he accused the FSB of organizing a series of deadly explosions in Russian apartment buildings in 1999 as part of an effort to bring Vladimir Putin to power.

He also accused Putin of ordering the murder of investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya, who was shot dead in Moscow less than a month before Litvinenko was poisoned.

Aleksandr Litvinenko (right) and a colleague wearing a mask to protect his identity are seen at a 1998 press conference in which rebel FSB officers demanded an end to state corruption.
Aleksandr Litvinenko (right) and a colleague wearing a mask to protect his identity are seen at a 1998 press conference in which rebel FSB officers demanded an end to state corruption.

"Aleksandr was ahead of his time," his widow told Current Time, the Russian-language network run by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA. "He was the first to warn us of the regime evolving in Russia. Or, more accurately, the regime that had always been there because the Soviet security services were never overhauled. The system that had been developing in the Soviet Union for decades had not only been preserved but had formed the foundation of a more horrible system."

On his deathbed, Litvinenko repeatedly accused Putin, himself a KGB officer in the Soviet era, of ordering his murder.

The case that the Strasbourg court decided in September was initially filed by Marina Litvinenko in 2007, just months after her husband's death.

"Time passed," she recalled. "Correspondence with Russia began. They did everything they could to muddy up the situation. They demanded papers from us. They sent their own papers…. So it dragged on and the case only came before the court last year."

In its ruling, the Strasbourg court criticized Russia for not investigating the case properly and not sharing its findings with the court.

"I think it is very important to a lot of people to understand that, if things don't work out immediately, don't despair," Litvinenko said. "Don't quit. Keep the faith. Particularly if your case is just. You are obligated to achieve that justice."

After years of lobbying, Litvinenko won the right for a U.K. coroner's inquest into her husband's death in 2011. That inquest was delayed for years, but finally convened in January 2015.

Litvinenko's Widow Says Inquiry Vindicates His Deathbed Statements
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The following year, the inquest ruled that Lugovoi and Kovtun had carried out the killing, "probably" acting under the orders of the FSB with the approval of Putin and then-FSB Director Nikolai Patrushev, now the secretary of the presidential Security Council. The Strasbourg court largely based its ruling on the findings of the U.K. inquest.

'The Accusations Will Be Heard'

Marina Litvinenko has also worked hard to keep her husband's name and image in the public eye. She has cooperated with Guardian journalist Luke Harding in his nonfiction study of the case, A Very Expensive Poison: The Definitive Story Of The Murder Of Litvinenko And Russia's War With The West. That book was turned into a play, also called A Very Expensive Poison, by Lucy Prebble that premiered in 2019. Anthony Bolton and Kit Hesketh-Harvey in July premiered an opera called The Life And Death Of Alexander Litvinenko.

Such efforts, she argued, constantly remind the world of her husband's case and of the accusations against Putin.

"Every time he appears on stage -- when the play is performed or in the opera or in the film that is going to be made -- every time, these accusations against Putin will be heard."

"The crimes that the Russian state is committing against people and against other countries will never be forgotten," she added.

The Strasbourg ruling does not mark the end of her quest, Litvinenko said. Her pursuit of justice for her husband will continue.

"I always say that this is a love story," she said. "It’s that simple.”

Written by Robert Coalson based on reporting by Dariya Ali-zade and Shahida Rusekas