This is possibly the first serious book to look at the murder of Alexander Litvinenko, post the publication of the official inquiry. Even prior to that, while there were many books on the subject, more than a few were either conspiracist in nature or had an axe to grind.
Luke Harding, an experienced Guardian journalist and the paper’s former Moscow correspondent, has long followed the story. In fact, as his previous book Mafia State makes clear, part of the reason he was banished from Russia was due to his persistent questioning of the Kremlin’s narrative.
A Very Expensive Poison is a book of two halves, or perhaps more accurately, three thirds. The first two thirds of the book focus exclusively on Litvinenko himself, the two main suspects, Andrei Lugovoi and Dmitry Kovtun, and the events leading up to Litvinenko’s poisoning. Harding handles this with precision, examining every detail, every event, to draw a picture of a plot that veered from the deeply sinister, to the comically farcical, and back again.
The most striking thing to emerge is just how amateurish it all was. For those used to the cold, clinical, professional KGB hitmen of spy fiction, this will come as a huge surprise. Kovtun in particular comes across as a Walter Mitty-esque clown, the sort of person one would be tempted to dismiss as a fantasist. Indeed, Kovtun confessed to one associate in Hamburg that he was carrying a “very expensive poison” (hence the book’s title) and was going to murder someone in London, only for this friend to assume that he was telling tall tales. But even Lugovoi, on the surface a much more likely hired killer, having served as a Kremlin bodyguard, appears to have been little more than an oaf.
This blundering ineptness is never more apparent in the trail of radioactivity they left throughout London (and Hamburg, and the plane they arrived on from Moscow). They literally pored it down sinks, left it on towels; a scattering of toxic breadcrumbs leading police to hotel rooms, cafes, restaurants and night clubs. And if like me you assumed at the time that Alexander Litvinenko’s agonising death was a very public warning to others, you’d be wrong. The plan seems to have been to get him to ingest a lot more of the stuff, to have him die quickly and mysteriously. Instead, thanks to his killer’s incompetence, he was left to tortuously suffer slow organ failure, leaving him enough time to help the police piece together events and point the finger at their bosses in Moscow.
There is just one problem in Harding’s account up to this point. If Polonium is so dangerous, why was Litvinenko the only one to get sick? Why not Kovtun and Lugovoi, who while not digesting it, certainly manhandled it? And why not innocent members of the public who came into contact with sites irradiated by the killers? This question is never satisfactorily addressed in the book. There is discussion of Polonium’s properties, it’s incredible toxicity, but nothing to adequately explain this fact. I did in fact ask Luke Harding this very question via twitter and he explained that Polonium is only deadly if ingested, and then even micro-amounts might kill you.
While I applaud the author’s willingness to engage with his readers, it would have been much better had Harding explained this in greater depth in the book itself. For while it appears that Lugovoi and Kovtun had no idea of exactly what they were carrying, the knowledge of how polonium might be “safe” under certain circumstances helps to explain one peculiar aspect of the case. Just after successfully poisoning Litvinenko’s tea, Lugovoi called his own infant son over and made them shake hands. Why risk your own infant son unless you knew the poison had to be ingested to work? So while they might well have had no idea it was polonium they were carrying, they might have been advised that the toxin had to be ingested to cause harm and that handling it in and of itself was not likely to lead to adverse effects.
The last third of the book I found a lot less satisfying. Harding’s thesis is that the murder of Litvinenko was the first shot, if you will, of covert conflict with the west. Indeed, the subheading of the book is “the definitive story of the murder of Litvinenko and Russia’s War with the West.” In support of this premise, he widens his analysis to include other suspicious deaths of Russian dissidents, Russia’s annexation of the Crimea and the conflict in the Ukraine. While this is valid up to a point, I felt that these are big subjects in and of themselves, and that this section was let down by the necessary brevity he had to treat them with.
I also felt Harding overextended himself here. I am no supporter or apologist for Putin, his autocratic rule is obvious enough and Harding achieves nothing if not convincingly laying the murder of Litvinenko and others at his door. But while Russia’s aggression in the Ukraine is beyond doubt, is it really inconceivable that the West wasn’t whiter than white in the conflict? There is an argument to be had that America’s support for NGOs in the region is not as benign as the Washington establishment might have us believe and I don’t feel it unreasonable to question the narrative that Russian fears are completely without foundation. Harding is equally dismissive of Russia’s involvement in Syria, but again, one doesn’t have to be in the Putin fan club to ask why? While it is beyond doubt that Assad is a nasty tyrant and that Russian airstrikes have been aimed at the Free Syrian Army as well as more radical jihadist groups, it is also perfectly reasonable to point out that Russia has shown more leadership than the UK and US combined. Can we really fault the Russian bear for liberating Palmyra from ISIS?
In all I found that Harding lost some objectivity in this last section, which is a shame. Putin and the Russian state are bad enough as they are - as Harding amply demonstrates in his forensic analysis of Litvinenko’s murder - without having to overegg the pudding. Indeed, I would argue that it does Putin’s critics a disservice. For the Russian President’s supporters can point to arguments and facts prematurely and hastily discarded as evidence of bias.
In conclusion, A Very Expensive Poison is a hugely accomplished work and leaves the reader in little doubt that Putin and his chums are little more than underworld dons who have hijacked an entire state. But the last third of the book skims over huge territory, whilst lacking some objectivity of what came before it. This dilutes the force of Harding’s analysis.
4 out of 5 stars.