The Essence of the Alexander Litvinenko

(Russia Profile, May 25, 2007. Abridged version.)

By William Dunkerley

This report will show that:

--many headlines and storylines in this story have no apparent basis in fact
--one of the major themes in coverage doesn’t make sense
--press bias was evidenced by its failure to report the change in Alexander Litvinenko’s theory of who poisoned him
--the Press virtually ignored a web of mysterious connections
--there was an active PR push behind the Litvinenko story

The focus of this report is on the coverage of the story, not the details of the case.

AN UNRELENTING media frenzy erupted in November, 2006 when Alexander Litvinenko was poisoned in London. Widely identified as a former Russian spy, Litvinenko quickly became a household name across the globe. Stories about him led news broadcasts and made worldwide headlines. For example:

“Russian Ex-Agent ‘Poisoning’ Probed”

“Poisoning Prevented Litvinenko from Disclosing Names of Politkovskaya’s Killers”

“British Police Investigate Poisoning of Putin Critic”

I studied the stories that followed these headlines, along with many other reports, both Western and Russian, to put everything into context for you, i.e., a description of the essence of the story, with a focus on its beginnings, and to then analyze press coverage of the story.

What I found is a story and media reportage full of contradictions, claims and counter-claims, twists and turns, and unexpected relationships. But, overwhelmingly, the story of the story is utterly enormous.

How Big Is It?

Just to approximate the magnitude of this story, and to put it into some perspective, I did several comparative investigations on Russian- and English-language search engines. The results were indicative not only of stories in the mass media, but also references in blogs, on websites, and in media archives.

In English, +Litvinenko and +Murder brought 585,000 entriees on Google. The same search with “Politkovskaya,” produced 221,000 hits. I followed that with “Klebnikov,” the name of the American of Russian descent who was the founding editor of Forbes magazine in Russia. He was murdered in Moscow in July, 2004. That yielded 53,600 hits.

As to coverage in Russia, one journalist claims that there has been indifference. Tony Halpin, Moscow correspondent for the (London) Times wrote: “The fate of Alexander Litvinenko may be hot news in Britain, but Russia’s press is almost completely ignoring him.” He cites a page-one story in the English-language Moscow Times as an exception. Otherwise, “none of the major dailies covers the story today (November, 21),” he asserts.

I looked further into Halpin’s premise that the Litvinenko story was being ignored in Russia. Before Halpin’s story appeared, his paper, the Times, had covered the Litvinenko case on two previous days, the 19th and 20th. In the U.S., the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times didn’t begin coverage until the 20th. But, in Russia, several online news outlets kicked off coverage on November 11, as did a Chechen website apparently located outside of Russia. That same day, the Russian Service of BBC broadcast an interview with Litvinenko himself. By the 13th, three Moscow papers had picked up the story (Kommersant, Moscow Times and The Moscow News). But, the earliest story I found in the London Times wasn’t until the one on November 19.

The London Times may have been late, but it made up for it with the number of stories. I counted six Litvinenko stories on the 20th and 6 six on the 21st. With the one story on the 19th, that’s a total of 13 stories in three days. During that time, the New York Times ran just one story. The Washington Post ran three, but one was an editorial.

So, the level of Russian coverage around the time of Halpin’s story was actually consistent with that in the American press. Moreover, coverage in Russia began a full eight days earlier than it did in the Times.

A search engine investigation also refuted Halpin’s claim that the story found no interest in Russia. I repeated the same searches I described earlier in Russian on Rambler, yielding more hits for “Litvinenko” than the Google search: 690,000. But, this time, the disparity with “Politkovskaya” was far less. The Politkovskaya search produced 578,048 hits. Klebnikov, 41,455.

That left the nagging question of, when compared to Politkovskaya, why was the Litvinenko story so much larger in the English-language searches? The poisoning happened in the UK, of course. But was that the only reason? There may be another contributing factor.

The Financial Times reported that Lord Bell, who “promoted Margaret Thatcher towards Downing Street in 1979, was cooperative in answering media inquiries” regarding Litvinenko. The Independent said Bell’s company, Bell Pottinger Communications, “handled media calls about Mr. Litvinenko and arranged for the distribution of photographs taken of him in hospital.” The Financial Times also added that “Lord Bell has been representing Boris Berezovsky for four years.”

(Note: All the search engine investigations referenced above were done in March, 2007. Searches done at other times will produce variously differing results.)

The Beginnings of the Litvinenko Story

I’d like to examine how the Litvinenko story unfolded in the early days and weeks. The details may shed light on what might really have been happening with the coverage.

It appears that the Litvinenko story first broke at 8:35 AM Moscow Time on November 11, in a report on, a Chechen news site. It carried the headline “FSB Attempted to Murder Russian Defector in London.” Later in the day, the story was picked up by the Regnum News Agency. had it, too. They reported getting it from a Chechen source. carried the story, and referred to an Echo Moskvy story of the same day, which in turn had referenced Chechen media. The BBC Russian Service ran an interview with Litvinenko at 4:48 PM. They told me it had been taped in London about an hour earlier.

On November 13, three more Moscow outlets had stories that referred to Litvinenko. Kommersant ran the headline, “Litvinenko Did Not Digest the Information,” and explained that Litvinenko said he was “poisoned when meeting an informer who delivered documents about the murder of Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya.” The Moscow Times reported that Litvinenko claimed he “might have been poisoned by a man who had sought to meet him, saying he had documents related to the death of the journalist.” Later Moscow News carried the same information with attribution to the Moscow Times.

What’s significant about these reports is that they indicate Litvinenko originally believed he had been poisoned by the person who had given him documents about Politkovskaya’s death. That fits the description given to Italian Mario Scaramella in other stories. Litvinenko was not blaming Russian President Vladimir Putin. Yuri Felshtinsky who coauthored a book with Litvinenko that accused Putin of blowing up apartment buildings in Russia backed this up. In a December 5 episode of The Charlie Rose Show on the American Public Broadcasting System, Felshtinsky said, “He done it in conversation with me, we were talking this probably fifteen or twenty minutes by phone probably on 8th November, and at that time Litvinenko was sure that this was Mario Scaramella who poisoned him.” Felshtinsky also indicated that before he died, Litvinenko came to say that Putin was involved.

What happened between these early reports and the statement of November 21, in which Litvinenko accused Putin? For one thing, Boris Berezovsky paid him a hospital visit on Friday, November 17, according to the Washington Post. After that meeting, Berezovsky said Litvinenko had told him there was no doubt he had been poisoned by an “order from President Putin to kill him.”

That should have left journalists wondering why Litvinenko changed his story. Had he made up his own mind based on new information, or was he influenced by others? I don’t know.

There is little doubt, however, that within two days after Berezovsky’s hospital visit, the media blitz commenced, and the world came to know about Alexander Litvinenko like never before.

The Spy Who Knew Too Much

Many news reports connected Litvinenko’s poisoning with his interest in the Anna Politkovskaya murder. The French news agency AFP reported on November 19, that he “fell ill after meeting a contact at a London sushi bar who purportedly had information on the murder of Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya.” On November 20, the Washington Post put it this way: “British police are investigating the poisoning of a former Russian spy and outspoken critic of President Vladimir Putin,” adding that he became ill after lunching with “a man who gave him documents related to the recent killing of Anna Politkovskaya.”

The New York Times, also on November 20, pointed out that “Russian authorities had no immediate comment on suggestions in news reports that the Russian secret service had poisoned Mr. Litvinenko, who is hospitalized and seriously ill, because he had criticized former colleagues and President Vladimir V. Putin.” Perhaps Izvestia expressed this theme most succinctly in a November 13, headline that read, “Poisoning Prevented Litvinenko from Disclosing Names of Politkovskaya’s Killers.” It went on to report that “he met with Italian Mario Scaramella, who had promised to send him important information on the murder of journalist Anna Politkovskaya.”

This “spy-who-knew-too-much” theme really took off across the world. But, it left two very significant questions unanswered. The first is, why was Alexander Litvinenko investigating the Politkovskaya murder? He was not identified as a journalist. No one claimed that he was a private investigator working on behalf of a client. Why was he doing this? And, might the answer to that shed some light upon the circumstances of his poisoning? But, it seems no one was asking these questions.

The second significant question has to do with the underlying premise, i.e., that he knew something that would be incriminating of others, and that he was poisoned to keep him from talking. This theory was effectively proven false. In the three weeks before his death, Litvinenko didn’t reveal these secrets. He gave a number of interviews, but didn’t name names. That raises one very big challenge to the plausibility of the spy-who-knew-too-much theme. Yet, I found no journalists came to grips with that. It is as if everyone pretended that the story made sense. In reality, however, there was no sense to it.

Common Themes

Though sometimes related to the Politkovskaya angle, the alleged culpability of President Putin was a popular theme. A story in the Guardian Unlimited quoted Boris Berezovsky saying, “Vladimir Putin authorized the murder of Alexander Litvinenko.” No evidence was offered, however. The London Times pointed out that the Russian Duma “passed laws allowing the Russian head of state to use special units to eliminate individuals regarded as a threat to Russian security wherever they are found.” That certainly is a speculation-provoking law. But, no news outlet seemed to have any evidence that it had been invoked.

The flip side of the “Putin did it” theme is one that accuses Boris Berezovsky of having engineered the murders of Litvinenko and Politkovskaya just to embarrass Putin. Circumstantial evidence for this theory is offered by outlets, citing that both tragedies were related to dates of significance for Putin: (1) Politkovskaya was murdered on his birthday. (2) The media blitz over Litvinenko occurred as Putin posed in ceremonial garb for the official group portrait at the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting in Hanoi.

I could find no real evidence in media reports to tie Berezovsky to either the Litvinenko or Politkovskaya murders. And, while the timing of the Litvinenko media blitz may make one wonder if Berezovsky called on his PR connections opportunistically, that is certainly no reason to conclude complicity in the poisoning.

But some media outlets disagreed about the “embarrass Putin” theory. On one hand a November 28, item about Litvinenko in the Telegraph was headlined, “Was he sacrificed to embarrass Putin?” The article said this is the most popular theory in Moscow, and suggested that “Berezovsky has not escaped suspicion.”

However, on December 15, Kommersant wrote that “there is no dominant opinion on the matter among the public.” It backed up that claim with a Levada Center poll that also indicated only 15 percent suspect Berezovsky of the crime.

Dueling Newspapers

The Litvinenko story also saw world news outlets dueling with one another. On November 20, the London Times wrote, “Britain will be plunged into its worst crisis with Russia since President Putin came to power if a Scotland Yard investigation into the poisoning of a former Russian security agent leads back to the Kremlin, diplomats said last night.”

The next day, in response, Pravda, accused the Times of speculation, indicating that Russia has had good relations with Great Britain throughout the tenure of Tony Blair. Then, the Times came back with a story entitled, “Kremlin’s denials fall flat,” elaborating upon concerns “that the Kremlin remains ready to use force abroad against its enemies.”

It is certainly understandable that any country would be concerned about the possibility of foreign agents killing targets within its sovereign territory. It was just in February, 2004 that the former Chechen leader, Zelimkhan Yanderbiyev had been killed in Qatar. When a court in Doha found two men guilty of the crime, the trial judge said “the men had been acting on orders from the Russian leadership,” according to BBC.


Boris Berezovsky had told CBS News is that “he had recently reduced his financial support of Litvinenko.” The Guardian Observer (December 3, 2006) quoted Julia Svetlichnaya, a university graduate student who was writing a book about the Chechen conflict, as saying Litvinenko told her that he was short of money.

But, that’s not all that Svetlichnaya had to say about Litvinenko. The same CBS News item that quoted Berezovsky above (a January 7, 2007 60 Minutes program), also quoted Svetlichnaya extensively on Litvinenko: “He told me that, at the moment, he’s doing a project for blackmailing one of the Russian oligarchs which resides in UK,” she said. “He thought that it was actually an OK thing to do because this particular person, as Litvinenko claimed, had a connection with the Kremlin, had a connection with Putin. And so in his view, it was OK to blackmail him.” She told a similar story to the Guardian Observer: “He told me he was going to blackmail or sell sensitive information about all kinds of powerful people including oligarchs, corrupt officials and sources in the Kremlin.”

Perhaps these were the “investigations” that Berezovsky said Litvinenko had not shared with him?

According to a couple of Russia-related blogs, the Sunday Times (London) suggested on December 10, that Svetlichnaya was part of a Kremlin campaign aimed at discrediting Litvinenko.

But then, on February 18, 2007, came the following correction from the Times: “Our report on the investigation into the death of Alexander Litvinenko (‘Kremlin wants to quiz exiles’, December 10) referred to reports that Julia Svetlichnaja, a researcher at the Centre for the Study of Democracy at Westminster University, may have been part of a Kremlin-orchestrated campaign to discredit Mr. Litvinenko and said it was believed that she had previously worked for a state-owned Russian company. We are happy to make it clear that Ms. Svetlichnaja has never worked for a state-owned Russian company and we accept that she was not part of any Kremlin-inspired campaign to discredit Mr. Litvinenko. We apologise for any distress our report caused her.”

The copy of that story (“Kremlin wants to quiz exiles”) on the Times’ website no longer contains any reference to Svetlichnaya.

Litvinenko Was a Journalist

Alexander Litvinenko was a journalist working with the Chechen Press State News Agency. Between May 7, 2005 and October 24, 2006, just 8 days before the poisoning, the Chechen Press agency carried 26 bylined stories of Litvinenko’s. They are datelined London where, by the time of his poisoning, he had become a British citizen. (Will the Committee to Protect Journalists record this as a death in Great Britain through work as a journalist?)

Why was this occupational activity overlooked in the news stories about Litvinenko? There was more than adequate attention paid to what he used to be, i.e., a security services worker. Why didn’t journalists pick up on the fact that Litvinenko was a journalist? It doesn’t seem like that’s all he was, though. The question still remains regarding what else Litvinenko did. Having some facts about that might have given news audiences more context regarding his fate than the seemingly endless repetition about his previous occupation.

The Deathbed

Following Alexander Litvinenko’s death, a statement attributed to him appeared. It expressed gratitude to many of those who had touched his life and went on to express contempt for “the person responsible for my present condition,” subsequently identified in the statement as “Mr. Putin.” BBC reported on November 24, that the statement had been “read out by his friend Alex Goldfarb outside University College Hospital, London.” I am appending the full version of this report with what appears to be a photocopy of the statement that I found on an Italian website. I didn’t independently validate its authenticity, but its text matches the text quoted widely by many news outlets.

CNN and the London Times reported the statement had been dictated by Litvinenko. The Washington Post called it “...a statement Litvinenko’s family and friends said he dictated on his deathbed.” NBC News in its March 14, 2007 Dateline program referred to it as “an extraordinary letter that Litvinenko had written to President Putin from his deathbed.”

I don’t want to make too much of a small point. But this illuminates the kind of sloppy or inaccurate journalism that has plagued the Litvinenko story.

The Washington Post deserves credit on this one for attributing the characterization of the statement to “family and friends.” The NBC News claim that it was written to Putin seems to be the epitome of inattention to detail.

But, the overarching issue is that, on its surface, the Litvinenko statement doesn’t sound like something that was just dictated on a deathbed. It is in English, and was typed in English. It appears to be signed by hand, with the day of the month inserted by hand also.

Why should that be significant? First of all, Alexander Litvinenko was not extremely proficient in English. A London organization named Frontline, a media club whose slogan is “championing independent journalism,” hosted Litvinenko as a speaker shortly before he was poisoned. He began his remarks, “My name is Alexander Litvinenko. I am former KGB and FSB officer. Ah, Mine ah, my difficult, ah my speech is difficult for me. Can I use translator?”

Compare that with the eloquent language of the “deathbed” statement. Of course, it may have been spoken in Russian and then translated into English. The point of this discussion, however, is simply that it doesn’t sound like an off-the-cuff statement of any kind. And, media audiences deserved to have had questions asked by journalists about the circumstances surrounding the statement: Had Litvinenko been assisted in composing the statement? If so, who helped? And in what way? Those answers might have helped audiences to judge whether the statement’s content purely represented Litvinenko’s position, or if it perhaps served someone else’s ends?

Final Observations

Before November 2006, Alexander Litvinenko was little known in the world. Even less was known about the work in which he was engaged.

One of the most puzzling aspects of this is why the story about him grew to the proportion that it did.

If Litvinenko had died in his sleep somewhere of natural causes, it would have gone virtually unnoticed in the world.

But, there were sensational claims that a Kremlin plot caused his death. Even a novice journalist should have taken care to question those as-yet-unsubstantiated allegations. But, experienced, practicing journalists didn’t. They took the photos that were handed out, and ran with the story.

The story grew to huge proportions.

And, perhaps, that is the essence of the Alexander Litvinenko story. The most remarkable aspect of it is the coverage itself. That’s the big news here:

The story is the story.

But, no one covered it!