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The Daily Wildcat

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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


    “A spy murdered, a country gone astray”

    It was an outrage in October, and it’s an outrage now – except, back then, the murder was carried out on Russian soil. When Alexander Litvinenko was murdered Nov. 23 with the radioactive isotope polonium-210, it was clear that a morbid settling of accounts had taken place not in Russia, but in the posh neighborhoods of London – and against a British citizen no less.

    It smacked of James Bond-esque intrigue; it reeked of tyrannical overextension.

    In October, the shrewd and courageous Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya was murdered in her Moscow apartment building in a blatant and outrageous contract killing. Politkovskaya had long criticized the government of Russian President Vladimir Putin, especially with regards to the brutal war still occurring in Chechnya.

    But the spectacle of silencing critics via shootings, poisonings and other means has a distinguished history in post-Soviet Russia. In July 2004, the American-born editor of Forbes Russia, Paul Klebnikov, was gunned down in Moscow. In September of this year, Andrei Kozlov, a pioneering Central Bank official, was shot dead, presumably for his campaign to rid corruption from the banking sector.

    The list goes on:

    October 2006: Alexander Plokhin, a manager at Vneshtorgbank, Russia’s second-largest bank, shot in the head the day after Politkovskaya’s funeral.

    “”One expert estimates that there are, on average, seven contract killings per month in Russia if not more. Some may go unreported.””

    October 2005: Alexander Slasarev, former bank head, shot to death near Moscow.

    February 2004: Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev, Chechen president-in-exile, murdered in Doha, Qatar, when a bomb ripped through his sport utility vehicle.

    October 2002: Valentin Tsvetkov, governor of the Magadan region, gunned down in Moscow.

    March 2002: Ibn al-Khattab, Chechen resistance fighter and financier, poisoned.

    November 1998: Galina Starovoitova, a liberal minister of parliament, shot in her apartment in St. Petersburg.

    The list of lesser figures murdered in contract-style killings since the collapse of the Soviet Union is longer by many orders of magnitude. One expert estimates there are, on average, seven contract killings per month in Russia, if not more. Some may go unreported.

    What made the Litvinenko killing so remarkable? For one, Litvinenko was a former KGB spy who defected to Great Britain in May 2001. He became a naturalized British citizen in October. Litvinenko was investigating the murder of Politkovskaya and had previously written a book blaming the Kremlin for bombing Russian apartment blocks in 1999, an act for which the Kremlin blamed Chechen terrorists in order to initiate its current war there.

    Litvinenko’s murder was also unique in its means: The rare radioactive isotope polonium-210 was the killer’s weapon of choice.

    Poisonings are commonly used against enemies of the Kremlin. In September 2004, during the Beslan hostage crisis, Politkovskaya was poisoned on her flight southward to help with negotiations. In December 2004, pro-Western Ukrainian presidential candidate Viktor Yushchenko was poisoned, with likely Kremlin involvement, and suffered facial disfigurement.

    It is speculated that Litvinenko’s murder may not have been as successful as intended. Trace amounts of polonium-210 have been identified in 12 London locations and two British Airways jets, implying the killer was shedding his killing agent while going through the entire operation. And instead of killing the target immediately, it took nearly three weeks for Litvinenko to succumb to the poisoning.

    The bigger question, though, is whodunnit?

    Speculation and rumors are running rampant in Western media, the blogosphere and Russia itself. Litvinenko himself, before his death, put the blame squarely on Putin. The Kremlin claims that exiled Russian communities murdered Litvinenko to make the Putin regime look bad. Others believe that different factions within the Kremlin ordered the murder in a constant struggle for additional influence.

    The third hypothesis seems closest to the truth. In the run-up to the 2008 Russian presidential elections, it is unclear who the next president of Russia will be. Most likely, that president-to-be will be anointed by Putin. Hence, different factions are positioning themselves to gain the most from Putin’s eventual choice.

    Tragically, Alexander Litvinenko was probably a victim of that infighting. Did his murder have the blessing of President Putin? Only a few know the answer.

    And while Russians kill each other senselessly, the country continues to languish in an economic and political wasteland. When does the West’s outrage at such atrocities translate into outrage by Russians themselves? When do Russians demand accountable, effective governance instead of the malign indifference that plagues the country to this day?

    Alexander Litvinenko would be asking himself the same questions.

    Matt Stone is an international studies and economics senior. He can be reached at

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