Steve LeVine


Spies, Murder, and the Dark Heart of the New Russia


Just before midnight on November 1, 2006, Alexander Litvinenko, a former Russian intelligence agent living in political exile in London, awoke terribly sick. Within days, a ghastly photograph of his wasted body in a hospital bed shocked the world. Three weeks later, he was dead. He had been poisoned by polonium-210, a radioactive isotope that investigators believed had been slipped into a beverage.

The forty-three-year-old Litvinenko had fled his native country with his wife and six-year-old son six years earlier. He was an unrelenting and harsh critic of President Vladimir Putin and the methods of Russia’s intelligence apparatus, which he labeled immoral.

In life, Litvinenko had been only a foot soldier in the opposition to Putin, and his outbursts were often dismissed by journalists, politicians, and researchers. But his death became an international sensation, and many suspected the president’s involvement. The poisoning of Litvinenko riveted attention on Russia’s visible slide toward autocratic rule and its increasingly bellicose attitude toward the West, even as Russia’s economy was booming, thanks to the surging value of its energy exports, and Putin was seeking to restore his nation’s lost stature after the Soviet collapse.

I could find no precedent for an assassination of this type. Who was responsible? I traveled to Moscow to sort through the circumstances of his death. My investigation gradually widened to encompass what seemed to be an epidemic of assassinations and bloodletting, both inside and outside the country.

I came to view Litvinenko’s assassination—and the spectacular use of polonium to kill him—as emblematic of the dark turn that Russia had taken under Putin’s rule.


This is a book about death in Russia.

The world is familiar with Russia’s long history of murderous rulers and ruthless assassins. But even now, a decade into the twenty-first century, brutality and violent death is so ordinary that it is usually ignored by all but the victims themselves, their families, and their friends.

After sixteen years of living in or visiting the former Soviet Union, I have come to believe that Russia’s acquiescence to this bloody state of affairs sets it apart from other nations that call themselves civilized. I realize this is a harsh judgment, and can only say that it was not hastily reached.

When I first arrived in the country after three years of reporting in Pakistan and Afghanistan, I mainly felt awe. Russia’s enormous size, remarkable history, and rich language wholly engaged me. I was assigned to cover territories on the fringe of the old Russian empire—Georgia, Armenia, Central Asia, the northern Caucasus mountain regions of Chechnya and Ingushetia. I maintained a Moscow apartment as a base of operations.

There were discordant notes from the outset. Resident foreigners and a disgruntled minority of Russians said the country was meddling beyond its borders—provoking wars in the Caucasus, blocking oil deals and energy pipelines in Central Asia, and generally working to preserve Moscow’s influence in the neighboring republics that comprised the former Soviet Union. At first, these complaints seemed unfounded; yes, Russia was seeking to reinvent and perhaps enrich itself, but it was not attempting to reestablish an empire. I would soon be disabused of this somewhat benign view.

In December 1994, a number of foreign journalists, including myself, gathered in Grozny, the capital of Chechnya. We were Americans, Britons, French, Russians, Azeris, and Georgians, including our translators and drivers. I was accompanied by my Georgian driver, Yura Bekauri, and assistant, Nana Kiknadze.

We headquartered in an inn that became known as the French Hotel and waited for the Russian military to attack the city. Russia’s president, Boris Yeltsin, and his defense minister, Pavel Grachev, had threatened just such an assault—a show of force to quell the region’s pretenses of independence.

Russia and the region of Chechnya had been antagonists for hundreds of years. They fought a long guerrilla war in the nineteenth century before Chechnya was subjugated. In the next century, the Chechens chafed under Soviet rule, and in 1944 Stalin, who thought they were siding with the Nazis, deported them en masse to Kazakhstan. Nikita Khrushchev allowed them to return, and when the Soviet Union broke up in 1991, the Chechens saw an opportunity at last for independence. They behaved as though they were governing an autonomous land. That led to Yeltsin’s threat three years later to compel the Chechens to return to Russia’s fold.

Yeltsin had set a deadline of December 12 for all foreigners to be out of Grozny. Journalists were separately warned that Russia could no longer assure our safety, but there was nothing about the notification that I construed as threatening. Western correspondents had heard similar cautions in other war zones, and we were unworried. But there was a palpable rumble among the Georgians in our group. Two or three Georgian drivers, Yura among them, began packing their cars. They intended to leave, and quickly. “You don’t know what the Russians can do,” Yura replied when I protested.

Why was Yura, an ordinarily unflappable man, so agitated? His behavior seemed unreasonable, but it forced me to reassess the situation. For one thing, his panic was clearly genuine. For another, he intended to take the car with him, which would leave us without personal transport in a war zone.

We left with him—Nana, my colleague Carlotta Gall, then of The Moscow Times, and I. As we drove away, I wondered how to explain to my editor that I had left the scene of a story. We traveled east, and a half-hour later Yura drove into a gas station and employed his usual magic. He struck up a friendship with another motorist, who invited all of us to eat and stay the night at his home in the city of Gudermes.

So began a several-months-long discovery of what was behind Yura’s terror.

I returned to Grozny in January, in time to witness the main Russian assault for The Washington Post and its sister publication Newsweek. In my absence, the dispatches of my colleagues Anatol Lieven and Bill Gasperini, who had stayed behind, had kept me abreast of events there. Now Gasperini told me how he had been pursued by a Russian helicopter, first while on foot and then in a car, being shot at all the way. He was certain that the pilot had known he was a foreigner. It was my first realization that Western correspondents weren’t necessarily regarded as neutral noncombatants by the Russian military.

The Russian term bespredel translates roughly as “anything goes.” That describes how the Russians pursued their campaign in Chechnya. Grozny was a city under siege. More than half of its four hundred thousand inhabitants had fled. The Russian military subjected the remaining population to around-the-clock artillery bombardments, block by block, street by street, and building by building. It regarded no one as an ally, no one as a civilian.

Outdoor markets were a favorite target. After such attacks, people usually emerged from cover to retrieve the dead and wounded, only to be fired upon by Russian choppers returning for a second run. They typically dropped cluster bombs that fired shrapnel in an upward trajectory, seemingly designed to decapitate their victims. That was how a young Boston photographer named Cynthia Elbaum was killed in late December—decapitated when she left the safety of a bombed-out building to photograph the slaughter in a bazaar outside.

The assault reduced the city to rubble, leaving behind only the carcasses of buildings. Grozny resembled scenes in photographs from World War II depicting the carnage of Europe.

At the end of January, Nana and I returned without Yura, and we began to visit outlying villages. The war had shifted there as the Russians widened their assault. Now there was a new wrinkle in the stories we heard. Oleg

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