Will Storr writes: Tucked into the Millennium Hotel on London’s Grosvenor Square, the Pine Bar is a place of hush and shadows. Dark wood panelling, leather seats and black shaded chandeliers cosset those who seek discretion in style. Head barman Norberto Andrade has hidden many celebrities in its recesses during his 27 years of service, including James Bond stars Sean Connery and George Lazenby.
The three Russians who ordered drinks on the chilly afternoon of November 1, 2006 had little of the lethal glamour one might expect of spies. True, two of them were smoking cigars and drinking gin. But the other, a fair-haired man whose slightly angelic face and wide eyes gave him a look of worried alertness, was dressed inelegantly in a khaki t-shirt, jeans and denim jacket. He sipped green tea as the smokers, complaining about the small British measures, ordered several rounds of drinks at once. Andrade placed their orders on a tray, but when he reached their table, one of the men obstructed him. The moment had an unforgettably hostile edge to it. He struggled to put the drinks down, finally managing to sit them next to the tea pot.
The men eventually left, and Andrade cleared the table. As he poured the remaining tea away, he noticed that the consistency of the liquid that tipped into the sink was strange. Gooey. He couldn’t have known it as he puzzled over its weird yellow tinge, but the man who’d been sipping the tea was a 43-year-old Russian dissident called Alexander Litvinenko, and the tea itself, draining away into the London sewers, was lethally radioactive.
Litvinenko lived in north London’s desirable Muswell Hill; he left the Pine Bar and arrived back home around seven. He changed his clothes, sat down to a chicken dinner prepared by his wife, Marina, and spent the evening watching Russian news online. Four hours later, he went to bed.
Before long, however, he was up again — vomiting with such violence that Marina began to panic. She brought him wet towels, dosed him with magnesium tablets. Nothing seemed to work. During the night, his temperature plummeted, yet he begged for the windows to be opened so he could gulp down more of the freezing November air. “It looks like they’ve poisoned me,” he said to his wife.
The next night she called an ambulance: doctors took a cursory look, diagnosed a stomach infection and sent him home. But two days later he was sicker yet. His doctor immediately sent him to Barnet General, a bright local hospital not far from his home. When Litvinenko told the medics his theory — that he’d been poisoned by the Russian security services — they suggested he call a psychiatrist. The probability, they thought, was that his sickness had a far more routine cause: food poisoning from an unfortunate lunchtime dose of sushi.
The doctors treated Litvinenko with a heavy dose of antibiotics. And yet his body continued to break down. Three days after admission, he was being fed through a tube. His hair was falling out, and Marina gathered it in little bundles from his pillow and pyjamas. As the medics tested Litvinenko for AIDS and hepatitis, he kept telling them: I’ve been poisoned. [Continue reading…]