Editor’s Note: This article was originally posted on December 12th, 2006. It has been lightly edited to reflect some changing facts. If you have other updates that should be posted, please contact me.
On August 31st of 1999, in the town of Buynaksk in the Dagestan province of southern Russia, a bomb is detonated in an apartment building, killing 64 people including Russian soldiers. This is the second bombing in a week and one of four bombings that will later be known as “The Russian Apartment Bombings.” These attacks will claim more than 300 lives in just under two weeks, and will be blamed on the growing Chechen separatist movement, prompting the Russian military to occupy that disputed territory. Before the dust has settled and the victims removed, the newly-elected President Putin will declare – fully two years before the United States – Russia’s own War on Terror.
Elsewhere, former KGB/FSB agent turned political dissident Alexander Litvinenko sits in prison on charges stemming from an alleged misuse of power in the line of duty in the early nineties. Litvinenko had been working in the Central Staff of the FSB, charged with counter terrorism and infiltration of organized crime. In time, Litvinenko will publish a book charging Vladimir Putin with using the FSB to mastermind the Russian Apartment Bombings. In time, Alexander Litvinenko will die.
Seven years later, as Litvinenko’s body is put to rest, dead of a polonium-210 poisoning – while former Prime Minister Yegor Gaidar recuperates from the same poison, while Italian security expert Mario Scaramella recuperates from the same poisoning and while traces of radiation are showing up throughout London and on British Airlines planes – the headlines ring with the echoes of that far-away explosion. The seeds that formed the Chechen conflict have until now registered not a whit on American media radars, but that is changing. Gone are the days when tales of KGB spies filled our prime time television shows, but the truth of the current controversy will prove much stranger than the fiction of our past.
As different media outlets here and abroad report on the developments of the day, they pepper those reports with innuendo and accusations stretching over more than a decade, a parade of Russian spies, business men and politicians, all in a bewildering panoply that leaves our heads whirling. Accounts seem to suggest many connections and relationships from the past, but in this avalanche of information, it is difficult to know what those are. Stitching together news articles, Wikipedia entries and other information, this article seeks to illuminate some of those connections.
Alexander Litvinenko began his career in the KGB in 1986 during the tumultuous days of Perestroika, rising rapidly in the ranks and developing his career in the Counterintelligence department of the KGB, the Third Chief Directorate. A great many other men’s careers were formulating as well, including Yegor Gaidar. Gaidar is an economist and writer for the “Communist” ideological journal who would soon renounce his Communist Party affiliation along with his long-time ally, Anatoly Chubais. Gaidar and Chubais would both go to work for the newly-minted Boris Yeltsin Administration and go on to be known as “The Young Reformers,” ushering in an era of decentralization.
In those formative years, Vladimir Putin was struggling with a less-than-illustrious career in the KGB. After having graduated from the International Department of the Law Faculty in the Leningrad State University, Putin eventually got stuck in what he regarded as a minor post in East Germany. Eventually by 1991, he became the head of the International Committee of the St. Petersburg Mayor’s office, promoting foreign investment, but he would soon resign his post in the KGB entirely.
Litvinenko was meanwhile promoted to his counter-terrorism, mob-busting role in the Central Staff. In the following year, Yegor Gaidar became Russia’s Prime Minister for a brief stint and Litvinenko was promoted to the detail of the Main Directorate charged with protecting Gaidar.
It is in this six-month period of Gaidar’s Prime Ministership that he and his friend, now the Vice Premier of Russia, Anatoly Chubais, become known as “The Young Reformers,” and probably not without a little irony. The Yeltsin Administration generally – and this period specifically – are marked by vast instability, civil unrest and lawlessness. Before long, inexperienced decentralization turned into corporate oligarchy.
And chief among the burgeoning corporatist petitioners to the Yeltsin Administration would be Boris Berezovsky. Berezovsky is generally known as the chief proponent and one of the primary benefactors of the new-found Russian economic “liberalism,” working his way into intimate familiarity with Boris Yeltsin and using that influence to land lucrative government contracts. He is also a man familiar enough with the Russian Mafia to have survived several assassination attempts, including a shootout in the middle of Moscow.
Much of the mafia hostility was because of Berezovsky’s closeness to the Chechen mafia. Indeed, Boris Berezovsky is reported to have many ties with Chechens, though apparently nothing proven to connect him with Chechen organized crime, specifically. Ties to Chechnya do not seem to have done anyone good in Russia, and indeed with the Chechen conflict due to flair up again in a few years, Berezovsky and may others would find themselves at the wrong end of Russian government fire.
Russia’s credit problems and wide-spread corruption abounded, the Ruble plummeted on the world market, and public opinion began to shift in the direction of the hard-liner’s old ways. Eventually, while then-Communist Party Leader Mikhail Gorbachev was on vacation, the KGB became emboldened to attempt to force him from power in a coup. This was the famous moment in Russian history when Boris Yeltsin stood on the back of a tank and declared the insurrection defeated. All of us in the West cheered and felt better in that moment, but after the cameras left and the moment was gone, the very real problems that led to the coup remained. It was during this coup attempt that Vladimir Putin resigned from the KGB.
The KGB was formally disbanded and reconstituted as the FSB. Boris Yeltsin’s entire cabinet, including Gaidar and Chubais, were fired. Still, the problem persisted, and probably in no little part this was due to Berezovsky.
In 1996, Forbes Magazine published an article by journalist Paul Klebnikov about Berezovsky entitled “Godfather of the Kremlin,” detailing the close ties Berezovsky had to both organized crime and the heads of state in Moscow. Berezovsky tried to sue Forbes to get the article retracted, but curiously did not pursue that course for the book of the same name that Klebnikov released later that same year.
The following year, Alexander Litvinenko was promoted to Senior Operational Officer of the FSB Seventh Section, this time guarding Boris Berezovsky himself. Berezovsky currently held the post of Secretary to the Security Council and had recently become the chairman of ORT, Russia’s biggest media outlet. He became head of ORT when the post became available; the chair had been vacated by a man who was recently killed in a gangland-style murder. Litvinenko would keep his post as Berezovsky’s protector for another four years, and maintain his relationship with Berezovsky right up to the moment of his polonium intoxication.
In July of 1998, Vladimir Putin returned to the agency he left in ’92, now reformulated into the FSB, to become the first civilian leader of the KGB/FSB in its history. His brief tenure at the FSB must have been a tumultuous one. By November 17th of that same year, Alexander Litvinenko and four other FSB officers would accuse the FSB of returning to a practice of political assassination; specifically, they accused the Director of Analysis of Criminal Organizations of ordering the execution of Boris Berezovsky and also an FSB agent turned attorney Mikhail Trepashkin. His closeness to the Chechen resistance was suspected to be one of the main reasons that he was being targeted.
Two days after the announcement, Galina Starovoitova, leader of the Democratic Russia Party and defender of ethnic minorities in Russia including the Chechens, was shot dead in the entryway to her apartment. Vladimir Putin declared no evidence to suggest that her murder was politically motivated.
Alexander Litvinenko, meanwhile, would be dismissed from the FSB and arrested on charges which twice failed to stick, but not before spending some time in the Moscow prison system. It would be during his third time arrested in 1999 when the Russian Apartment Bombings would commence. After he was released from prison, he and Mikhail Trepashkin began work on an independent investigation of the apartment bombings to find the guilty party, but this investigation went nowhere largely due to Kremlin stonewalling.
In 2001, Litvinenko and fellow former FSB security agent Andrei Lugovoi participated in a jail break of Nikolai Glushkov, business partner of Boris Berezovsky in one of his first companies, Aeroflot. Lugovoi and Litvinenko had worked together in the past, guarding both Yegor Gaidar and Berezovsky as members of the FSB. Glushkov was currently serving time in the pokey for fraud. The attempt failed.
Despite the Kremlin stonewalling and despite their investigation not really producing much evidence according to reports, Litvinenko published a book in 2002 entitled Blowing up Russia : Terror from Within. In it, he charged that it was Vladimir Putin, facilitated by the FSB, who was personally responsible for the Russian Apartment Bombings, and that his objective was to force the Second Chechen Conflict into being and ride that into the Kremlin as the new president. He also writes a second book, The Gang from Lubyanka, which alleges that Putin is personally involved in organized crime.
This is an interesting charge from a former mob-busting KGB cop whose publishing career was funded entirely by his former boss, mob-adjacent Boris Berezovsky. Berezovsky, meanwhile, fled the country in this same year to avoid prosecution by the FSB. Whether the FSB was after him for his criminal associations or because his opinions as a member of the government against the escalation of the Chechen Conflict were not welcome remains in question.
Litvinenko kept up his attack against the Kremlin and his personal nemesis, Vladimir Putin. In an interview held in 2003 for the Australian SBS television network, Litvinenko alleged that two of the terrorists involved in the Moscow theatre crisis were in fact working for the FSB. This allegation was seconded by Mikhail Trepashkin. Also in 2003, Anna Politkovskaya, journalist, activist and friend of Litvinenko’s, released a book entitled A Small Corner of Hell: Dispatches from Chechnya. Her book painted a picture for the world of the brutality of the Chechen Conflict and also pinned Putin’s rise to power to the escalation of violence in Chechnya.
During this same time, Boris Berezovsky became an investor in Neil Bush’s Ignite! Learning company while living in London in exile, putting him in the same company as George Herbert Walker Bush and Sun Myung Moon, who together with other investors were paying then Governor of Florida an extra $180,000 annually. In presidential politics elsewhere, Berezovsky was alleged to have participated illegally in funding the presidential candidacy of Ukrainian president Viktor Yushchenko, and a former president produced documents confirming it in 2005.
In July of 2005, Paul Klebnikov, author of the book detailing Boris Berezovsky’s alleged mob connections, was murdered in Moscow. In that same month, Litvinenko spoke to a Polish newspaper and posited that Ayman al-Zawahiri and other al-Qaeda members were trained in Dagastan by the FSB in 1998. Moreover, within the context of the London bombings, Litvinenko told reporters that the KGB/FSB were the main supporters of terrorism worldwide.
By the summer of this year 2006, Alexander Litvinenko was accusing Vladimir Putin of pedophilia. It is hard to say what motivates anyone involved in these twisting, turning corridors of relationships and enmity, but by now, Litvinenko is utterly inscrutable to someone on the outside. Putin the Pedophile seems something of a stretch, and all of his accusations combined start to sound impossible. But while Litvinenko and Berezovsky might be considered the men in black hats by this point in their history, remember that they are the losers in a deadly game of power and murder. Certainly, the winner must be better at the game?
On October 7th, Anna Politkovskaya was shot dead in the elevator of her central Moscow apartment. Litvinenko, Anatoly Chubais and many others lay the blame for the journalist’s death squarely on Vladimir Putin. November 1st, Litvinenko met with a few old friends before eventually succumbing to sickness due to a radioactive poisoning.
One was Andrei Lugovoi, his partner in jailbreaking for Berezovsky. Lugovoi brought with him an associate by the name of Dmitry Kovtun and one other. It is believed by Scotland Yard that this was the moment of his intoxication. But Litvinenko also met with Boris Berezovsky himself.
He also met with an Italian security expert of whom little is known, Mario Scaramella. Scaramella was supposed to have been in possession of documents showing that the Putin government was targeting Russian émigrés to Britain for assassination. Scaramella was also supposed to have had documents proving that Putin was responsible for Politkovskaya’s assassination. None of this evidence has surfaced subsequent to Litvinenko’s death.
So what, exactly, did happen on that day? Even time may never tell, but it is certain that picking a favourite Russian politico based on a moral compass is folly at best. No one seems to hold the high ground. The best that can be said of Litvinenko and Berezovsky is that they fought for an oppressed people, but even that seems like a plausibly justifiable cover for plain-old swindling. Meanwhile, the enemies of the state and of Putin’s ambition keep ending up dead and it seems more and more to Western eyes that nothing really much has changed in Russia.
It has been said that the Soviets killed dissidents and exiles because their continued existence represented an affront to the Kremlin’s power. Perhaps Litvinenko’s continued escalation of rhetoric against Moscow was a mirror image. Perhaps he believed that the purpose of dissidence is to give your expatriate government as many sucker-punches as you can before they eventually take you down. Who knows? Perhaps he was even right.