Alexander Litvinenko and the banality of evil in Putin’s Russia

Following the release of the UK report on the 2006 death of Alexander Litvinenko, Julia Ioffe writes: It’s a salacious tale of revenge and espionage, straight out of a John le Carre novel: an F.S.B. man turned whistleblower meets in a posh London hotel with his former colleagues, who slip polonium 210 into his green tea. Investigators find a clump of debris laced with the radioactive stuff in a sink drainpipe a few floors above, near where one of the F.S.B. men was staying. The other suspected assassin gave Litvinenko’s wealthy benefactor, the banished oligarch Boris Berezovsky, a T-shirt that said, “nuclear death is knocking your door [sic].”

And yet, in Russia the report merited little more than a yawn. Immediately, the familiar reactions kicked in. Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said the report wasn’t of any interest to the Kremlin and, in a pointed turn of phrase, expressed regret that the report “only poisoned” relations between Russia and Britain. Maria Zakharova, spokeswoman for the Russian Foreign Ministry, called the findings “politicized,” and a report on the main evening-news program on Russia’s Channel One hinted that the British killed two key witnesses in the case. The British, in turn, said they would freeze the assets of Andrei Lugovoi and Dmitry Kovtun, the two former F.S.B. agents accused of poisoning Litvinenko. Theresa May, the British home secretary, said that the Russian ambassador to London was summoned for a talking-to.

All of this changes exactly nothing. Relations between Russia and Britain could hardly have been worse before the report was released, and Lugovoi and Kovtun haven’t been to London in ages — not since the British police fingered them in Litvinenko’s murder and sought their extradition, which Russia has flatly refused. Lugovoi now has immunity as a member of the Russian Parliament, as well as a medal from Putin for “service to the nation.” The murder itself took place nine years ago, and since then, the sordid details have become endlessly familiar. Even the le Carre comparison has become a nauseatingly common cliché, bandied about endlessly since Litvinenko’s death.

It may be crass to be bored by the details of a man’s murder, but here we are. The West and Putin’s opponents at home believe that the Kremlin killed Litvinenko — that his death was a Cosa Nostra-style murder of a traitor. Putin loyalists and the masses who will see the news on Russian television believe this is all a Western ploy to tarnish Russia’s image. Nothing that came out in Judge Owen’s report will sway them; in fact, it only hardens the two positions. The same happened this summer with the release of another supposedly scandalous report on Russia’s nefarious deeds: The Dutch marshaled reams of evidence in the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over eastern Ukraine, carefully laying it out in a report that pointed to Moscow’s role in the tragedy. The Russians pooh-poohed it and showed their own report on television, one that directly contradicted the Dutch investigation. Only 3 percent of Russians believe the Dutch narrative of the crash. [Continue reading…]

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