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I imagine that most people in Britain had never heard of Alexander Litvinenko prior to November 2006 when he started appearing daily in our news. For the last two weeks of his life he was the main news story in Britain. This former FSB (modern equivalent of KGB) counter-intelligence officer had been living in Britain since 2000 after seeking political asylum. Suddenly he was everywhere with claims of Russian state sponsored nuclear terrorism. At the time I intended to read into the background of the story but I never got too far into it. So when I saw 'The Litvinenko File' by Martin Sixsmith available for £3 in a discount book store I thought it would fill in a lot of the background.
Martin Sixsmith was the BBC's correspondent in Russia for a few years so he understands the Russian culture and speaks the language. I felt this was essential for a proper investigation into what happened. So many sayings and gestures have different meanings when translated that it is very easy to misinterpret them. Having a respected journalist, who has lived in both countries, write the book seemed ideal. Sadly though my hopes for this book never quite materialised.
Where Sixsmith excels is in telling the story of how Litvinenko got to the situation where he was arriving in Britain seeking asylum. I would say over half the book covers this aspect. While as a reader you want to be getting to the crux of the book, i.e. who was behind the murder, you appreciate all of the knowledge you are gaining at this stage of the book will be essential in reaching your own conclusions.
Sixsmith is also an expert at presenting all of the information in a readable and clear manner. It would have been easy to lose the reader but I was surprised at just how easy the story was to follow.
The actual murder was a curious one. In fact the subtitle of this book is 'The true story of a death foretold'. Which sums up how Litvinenko felt. He would tell anyone who would listen that the Russian authorities (and specifically Vladimir Putin) would one day end his life. The chosen method of poisoning was ingenious in a way; but foolish in another. The person(s) administering the poison would be long gone before the recipient started to fell unwell (approximately 12 hours later in this case). However, the recipient would then have days to recount his every movement and acquaintances to the police. So whilst the initial getaway would be easy, it would be impossible to stop a detailed investigation, with the victim's input for a number of days at least (Alexander Litvinenko lived for 2 weeks but that was due to his impressive physical shape). In addition the polonium 210, which was used to kill him, leaves a radioactive trail which serves as a detailed timeline if you follow it's half-life decay. This provided crucial evidence in establishing where the poisoners had been and allowed certain suspects to be eliminated from the enquiry.
The thing that comes over in the book is that there are at least half a dozen fairly plausible motives for different people wanting to arrange this incident. In fact Martin Sixsmith comments that he was amazed at just how many people had an apparent motive to do or authorise something like this. Without going into all the detail here, you get drawn into different theories and have to decide which one you believe to be most likely. This is where Martin Sixsmith is very clever. He doesn't impose his view. The book is presented as more of an investigation than a conclusion. This encourages you to weigh up each of the options he presents. However, ultimately you have to put your faith in the author, that he is presenting all options to you and presenting them in an accurate way.
The book is not a long book at just over 300 pages and with a fairly large typeface. I became increasingly concerned with how few pages were left and was unsure how the author was going to tie up all the loose ends, or, at least present his conclusion. He achieved this by not bothering with either. This was the biggest disappointment for me and why I cannot recommend the book in the manner it has been marketed. Whilst the background is essential, the real reason you read a book such as this is in the hope that you can find out who did it (or was most likely to be behind it). All the author does is sets out a variety of people with different motives and agendas and then rules a couple of them out. Even this was done in an entirely unconvincing way with the author seemingly taking some people saying 'It wasn't us' at face value. There is little in the way of evidence provided for how the few conclusions (to rule people out) are arrived at. Even when the author visited Russia it was really anti-climatic. I guess by this point it was not that surprising. The official investigation struggled to get much co-operation from the Kremlin so it was very unlikely that Martin Sixsmith would get anywhere.
I think the final thing worth commenting on is Martin Sixsmith may have uncovered more than he has released in the book. It would be extremely brave (and/or stupid) to name a man you think killed another in such a manner. I imagine if you named the right person then you would be more or less writing your own death warrant. Sixsmith covers this Russian solution to business problems in detail and you feel he is completely aware of this when presenting his general conclusions.
So this book was ultimately a disappointment in terms of solving the murder. However, it did give a valuable insight into how Putin came into power, the rise of the Oligarchs and the Russian mindset. I would view it as being a good introduction into these things but ultimately it just scratches the surface. I found out more by spending a couple of hours on Wikipedia after reading the book, although it did give good pointers on what to look up.
Worthwhile read at £3, would be reluctant to pay much more.