The Litvinenko Affair and the Jump to Conspiracy

Today’s Kommersant has a detailed report on the Litvinenko Affair. Most reports now concede that Litvinenko was not poisoned by thallium because his symptoms don’t match the poison, but do agree he was poisoned by something and by someone. The rapid deterioration of his health doesn’t suggest otherwise. The speculation about who did it has centered around two theories. The first theory suggests that Litvinenko was poisoned by former FSB associates perhaps seeking revenge for his accusations that the FSB is responsible for the 1999 Moscow apartment bombings. The second points the finger directly at the Kremlin because of Litvinenko’s open criticism of its policies and Putin personally. Some may collapse these two theories into one with the assumption that the FSB does not act without the Kremlin’s blessing. Such an assumption is a presumptuous because it doesn’t account for possible rouge and independent elements in the FSB. One problem that there is simply no evidence to suggest that the Kremlin is involved. Another is that doctors are currently at a loss of what is the cause of Litvinenko’s condition.

For its part, the Russian government has denied involvement. Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov told reporters, “Litvinenko is not the kind of person for whose sake we would spoil bilateral relations.” Adding, “It is absolutely not in our interests to be engaged in such activity.”

Still the perpetrators are narrowed to two Russians: Andrey Lugovoi and a mysterious man named Vladimir. According to Kommersant,

Scaramella was the last, but not only, person Litvinenko met with on the day of his poisoning. London newspapers, citing former KGB officer and defector Oleg Gordievsky, reported yesterday that Litvinenko drank tea with two Russian acquaintances on November 1. According to The Daily Telegraph, that meeting took place in a hotel and one of the people involved was Andrey Lugovoi, former head of security for ORT television. The second person was named Vladimir. Litvinenko had never met him before. Scotland Yard is not mentioning the two Russians as suspects, but admits that it is investigating the circumstances of that meeting.

Lugovoi graduated from the Supreme Council Military School in Moscow in 1987 and was assigned to the Kremlin division of the 9th department of the KGB of the USSR. In 1992, he was transferred to the Main Department of the Guard. In 1992 and 1993, Lugovoi worked as deputy head of the guard for Egor Gaidar, who was prime minister at the time. From 1997 to 2001, he was head of the security service for ORT. In June 2001, Lugovoi was charged with arranging the escape from custody of Nikolay Glushkov, one of the suspects in the so-called Aeroflot case. Lugovoi was sentenced in court to a year and two months’ prison, but since he had been held that long by the time the trial ended, he was released. He then went onto business.

Kommersant contacted Lugovoi yesterday. He refused to comment on the publication sin the British press where he is mentioned in connection with the attempt on Litvinenko’s life. “I won’t give any comments until I have met with representatives of the British embassy in Moscow and answered their questions to clear up the situation,” he said. “Then maybe I’ll say what I think about all of this.” He said that he contacted the British embassy yesterday morning and talked to a high-placed member of the diplomatic corps.

The British Foreign Office and MI5 and MI6 intelligence services are refraining from official actions until the first results of the Scotland Yard investigation are received. The Foreign Office stated that the Litvinenko case had been discussed with Russian diplomats, but only “in the format of a note on the high interest in it by the press.”

Western analysts’ unofficial opinions support the idea that Litvinenko was the victim of the Russian special services. “The poisoning looks like the handiwork of former agents in new dress,” said Fritz Ermath, former head of the CIA intelligence council. He recalled three poisonings, of Yury Shchekochikhin, Anna Politkovskaya (in September 2004) and Viktor Yushchenko, that the press attributed to the Kremlin. Ermath is of the opinion that “the desire of many people to accuse the Kremlin of poisoning is premature until the medical results are received… Too many different people could have done it – the Kremlin, friends of the Kremlin, and its enemies.”

The readiness for Westerns to believe that the Kremlin is behind every nefarious plot is a long standing view. In fact, suspicion, rumor and a willingness to accept conspiracy drove a whole generation of Soviet historiography. For example, many historians explain every bad thing that happened in the 1930s as a result of Stalin’s direct hand. This includes the murder of Sergei Kirov in 1934 and Ordzhonikidze’s suicide in 1937 as well as the belief that there was a plan behind collectivization and the Terror. Some historians like Robert Conquest even go so far to suggest that Maxim Gorky’s death was at Stalin’s hand despite the fact that the writer was 68 years old and the total lack of evidence. It seems that dying of “natural causes” under Stalin just didn’t happen. What is funny about all of this is that some of Stalin’s most vociferous critics have in many ways bought into the vozhd’s cult of personality.

Evidence doesn’t matter when it comes to Stalin, Russia, and now, even Putin. They are all given magical powers to direct events and history at will. This line of thinking only shows how difficult it is to break the Cold War’s cultural and ideological structures that still inform how we in the West think about Russia. As a recent editorial in the Guardian reasoned:

What is not in dispute is that there is a readiness in the west to believe the worst about Vladimir Putin’s government. Half of all Britons and more than 60% of French people think badly of Russia – and with good reason: the erosion of basic freedoms and the rule of law are regrettable hallmarks of Mr Putin’s “managed” or “sovereign” democracy. Foreigners worry about Russia’s tightening grip on the energy sector, and its bad habit of bullying and intervening in countries such as Ukraine and Georgia in the old Soviet “near abroad”. It is not entirely incredible to suggest that unaccountable security men – whose budgets and influence have been boosted in recent years – could think that their old comrade in the Kremlin might not be too bothered by the demise of a man they consider a traitor to the motherland. And if old habits die hard, priorities change too: when the Federal Security Bureau exposed British spies at work in Moscow earlier this year, the charge was not that they were involved in Smiley-type skullduggery to recruit agents but were funding Russian non-governmental organisations, now routinely subject to Soviet-style smears.

These are good reasons to be concerned about Russia for sure, but the language to explain Russia’s actions is telling of something more. The above is peppered with words and phrases like “erosion,” “tightening grip,” “bad habit of bullying,” “intervening,” “unaccountable,” and “Soviet-style.” There are other language tricks that conjure ghosts of the Soviet past. In the editorial, Litvinenko is a ‘Russian defector” and a “dissident.” Oxford defines the former as “to abandon one’s country or cause in favor of an opposing one”, suggesting a Cold War between Russia and the West continues unabated. Further, the use of “dissident” is a strong term for someone who opposes official policy and its usage in the Guardian piece inflates Litvinenko’s outspokenness to a higher level of importance and impact than it perhaps is. Though perhaps his importance as a critic of the Kremlin is on the rise. His book, Blowing Up Russia: Terror from Within, is now ranked #469 on Amazon.

My point is that our own subjective imagination about Russia clouds our ability to make sense of its objective reality. The language used to think about Russia places it in a perpetual state of backsliding to authoritarianism whether it actually is or not. It is the suspicion that Russians are always up to something that makes it so difficult, even for myself, to pause and look at the facts before attributing conspiracy to the Kremlin.

This is not to suggest that Russia doesn’t share some of the blame for its negative image. Putin’s reaction to Anna Politkovskaya’s murder was cold and indifferent. In addition, Russia does have serious problems with nationalism, racism, democracy, political and press freedom, and corruption. The Kremlin’s ambivalence and lack of action feeds into assumptions about its ill intent. As an editorial in the International Herald Tribune rightly states, “instead of going into a snarling, defensive crouch over each political hit, the Russian government has to start reining in the former spies, organized criminals and Chechen quislings, and start solving some cases.”

Still, the jump to conspiracy without evidence, let alone the Tribune’s animalistic ascriptions, perpetuates Russia as some sort of abnormal society. Not only does it make Russia appear hopelessly and eternally backward, it also inevitably posits the West as normative. And this is exactly what Orientalism does: it is a position from which to claim enlightenment at the expense and detriment of the Other. If you don’t think so, take a look at the final line of the Guardian’s editorial, “Poisoning dissidents cannot be part of a modern, democratic agenda.” True enough. But who but the West is the silent measurement for what is “modern’ and ‘democratic’ in this statement?