A Very Expensive Poison by Luke Harding

By Luke Harding

1 November 2006. Alexander Litvinenko is openly poisoned in valuable London. Twenty days later he dies, killed from the interior. The poison? Polonium; an extraordinary, deadly and hugely radioactive substance. His crime? He had made a few robust enemies in Russia.

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Sample text

He parachuted from planes, learned how to handle a variety of weapons and to plant mines. He was taught how to blow up bridges and to interrogate enemy prisoners. He learned guerrilla tactics. He was instructed not to think or query the state. ’ One of Shvets’s classmates at the KGB academy was Putin. Putin had grown up in a working-class family in Leningrad; an older brother died during the Nazi siege of the city; his grandfather was Lenin’s cook. As a teenager he learned judo to defend himself from neighbourhood toughs.

Ivanov’s rise coincided with the collapse of the Soviet Union, and followed a late-1980s order from the KGB’s top brass to go into business. At the time, the only people who understood the free market were criminals. Ivanov established relations with the Tambovskaya crime gang and its leader Viktor Kumarin, a villain with a mop of dark hair and a neat moustache. Kumarin was then embroiled in a major turf war with his rival Alexander Malyshev, and Malyshev’s gangster army. The prize was control of St Petersburg’s seaport.

In January 1999, Putin fired Litvinenko, personally signing an order kicking him out. Putin also disbanded his unit. ‘Sasha knew it [the press conference] was a very extraordinary event, that the FSB will not take it so easy,’ Marina Litvinenko said. Her husband had told her, in darkly humorous tones, that one of two things would now happen to him. ‘They will kill me or I will be arrested,’ he predicted. He was right: on 25 March 1999, Litvinenko was arrested. ’ They bundled him into the back of a van and started beating him with fists on his back.

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