Saturday, January 9, 2016

Concentrated Evil

The Litvinenko case, the polonium trail, and Putin's Russia.

A decade ago, a grisly case right out of the cold war erupted in Britain, when former KGB/FSB officer Alexander Litvinenko was poisoned and killed. On the day of his death, almost a month after the poisoning, it was finally established that he was poisoned with polonium, one of the more obscure radionuclides known to man, and one only manufactured by man, indeed manufactured only in Russia.

Within a matter of months, Martin Sixsmith produced the definitive account of this case (at least until the Russian government files are opened) in his book, The Litvinenko File. An interesting aspect of the case is the question whether the killers knew the nature of their poison. One has to conclude that they didn't, as they left trails all over the place. Polonium had been used before, in Russia, and, Sixsmith surmises, on Litvinenko in London a few weeks previously, though at an insufficient dose.

In some respects it is the perfect poison, killing slowly and remorselessly, with no antidote or treatment. It is colorless, odorless, and generally undetectable, even by airport security equipment tesing for radiation, which responds to beta and gamma rays. Polonium only produces alpha particles, which have the distinction of being immensely powerful, but also very heavy. They rip up a person's cells, but do not travel far, either in liquid or in air. Yet once Scotland Yard knew what to look for, it was child's play to trace the killer's trail in all its complexity and carelessness, through numerous hotels, restaurants, airplanes, and offices.

Primer on forms of radioactivity. The alpha particle is large, very energetic, and bumps into things readily, so it can't go very far but does a lot of damage.

The killers were former KGB/FSB agents, on very friendly terms with Litvinenko. Indeed, he never suspected them and the ruse to meet with him revolved around various business dealings they had together to gather business intelligence on Russian firms, seemingly the leading industry of Russian ex-agents.

But people do not leave so easily from the FSB. Its hold is both operational (terror-ational, one might say) and sentimental. Like the Marines, or any other high-intensity and high-stakes brotherhood, it forms very strong psychological, tribal bonds. Even when, as the FSB, it is infected by business interests, gangsterism, and rampant corruption. Litvinenko had truly burned his bridges, however. He found himself in London a hunted exile and turncoat, tarred far and wide by the Kremlin and his old associates as a traitor, his image used as target practice on the FSB shooting range. Nothing rankles quite like hearing someone tell you the truth about yourself.

His fall happened in two steps. First, Litvinenko had been asked by his FSB boss to knock off the leading oligarch of the day, Boris Berezovsky, the power behind the throne of Boris Yeltsin. The rationale for this may have been competing business interests, and/or disagreement with Beresovsky's dovish stance on the Chechen insurgency, or something else. In any case, it was an unwritten, verbal order. Litvinenko was shocked, and did a couple months of his own due diligence (so to speak) to see where this order came from and how the cards would fall if he carried it out. He decided to refuse, and not only that, went to Berezovsky to tell him about it. Not only that, but the two then hatched a press conference to tell the world about it, with the ostensible aim of pressuring Vladamir Putin, whom Berezovsky had just installed as head of the FSB, to root out these presumably rogue elements. As Berezovsky owned the leading national TV channel, the coverage was generous, to say the least.

But were they rogue elements? Here we get to the ever more concentrated precincts of evil. While Berezovsky was no shrinking violet, had mob connections of this own, and had knocked off his share of rivals in his climb to wealth & power, he was a progressive force in the Kremlin, tamping down the Chechen disaster, fighting corruption, and trying to bring the government into the modern era, at least in the telling of this book, which relies heavily on Berezovsky's own testimony. He thought Putin was sympatico, but it quickly became apparent that the press conference did not have its intended effect. Instead it made Putin and everyone under him livid with rage. Where Putin has taken Russia since that time, one can see for oneself. It is a despotic system with extensive media and political censorship. Dissidents, such as Anna Politkovskaya, get shot in uninvestigated, not to mention unsolved, murders. Putin has taken his bullying to global dimensions now with Ukraine and Syria, attempting to export his vision of despotic state terror- the "strong leadership" that seems to be such a turn-on to our own Donald Trump and other elements of the Republican right.

To make a long story short, Berezovsky continues to look on the bright side, recommends Putin to be Yeltsin's successor, and is promply destroyed by Putin, eventually finding a very comfortable exile and political asylum in London (if occasionally punctuated by assassination plots). Litvinenko is jailed several times by the FSB and put through various courts, one of which is less kangaroo-like than the others, and eventually flees the country with great difficulty. The FSB has turned the handful of colleagues who had joined him at the press conference, but can't quite turn Litvinenko himself- whether due to his romantic heroism and integrity, or his estimation that he would be sacrificed anyway, is not quite clear. Litvinenko continues to be Berezovky's flunky in London, and both continue a campaign of vilification and propaganda against Vladimir Putin. More in a long line of Russian dissidents and agitators operating in Western Europe, starting with Lenin himself. One particularly irritating truth Litvinenko turned up was that the FSB was responsible for the Moscow apartment bombings which killed 307 civilians and which they quickly pinned on the Chechens, leading directly to Putin's election and the renewed and vicious Chechen war.

There are many more twists to the plot, but that is the essence. Britain refused to render Berezovsky or Litvinenko extradited to Russia for their supposed crimes, and in return, after the murder and investigation, Russia refused to render the two killers to Britain either. Sixsmith does not surmise that Putin was directly responsible for ordering the killing, or even the official FSB, but rather that an atmosphere of permissiveness and impunity, combined with livid hatred and an implicit desire to do something sure to please the bosses, including Putin, resulted in this dangerous and cruel plot. The murderers were not current FSB officers, but very much part of the larger FSB family.

What is particularly appalling about all this is the lying and attitude towards decency and truth that is endemic to this story, to Russian culture generally, and to the KGB/FSB most centrally of all. When the case blew up, the Russians put out fanciful theory after extravagant lie. A private business deal blew up. Killed by Berezovsky. Killed by British intelligence. Litvinenko killed himself. The idea that anyone might be interested in the truth seems, to them, a joke. ["Russia Today's editors wrote that Epstein said there was "no substantial evidence against Lugovoy"] Putin tried various ploys to blame others and made nacissistic jokes about it being done on purpose by some Western element or agency to embarrass him at a high-profile summit. Putin and his cronies- at home, in the Ukraine, in Syria, and elsewhere- continue to wage information warfare, treating their people as sheep to be bludgeoned by propaganda, in a macho demonstration of who can screw with whom. But what can you expect from someone whose first toast when elected to the presidency was to ... Comrade Stalin?

Extra note. The chemistry of polonium 210 is interesting, as gleaned from a paper cited on the Wiki site. US scientists at the Hanford complex (now the most toxic superfund site in the US) published its method of production. Bismuth 209 metal is placed into a reactor, bombarding it with neutrons. This produces polonium atoms, which are removed by melting the bismuth and extracting (mixing) it with immiscible sodium hydroxide at 500 degrees C. Virtually all of the new polonium goes into the hydroxide liquid phase, after which the bismuth can be re-solidified and put right back into the reactor. On the one hand, it is a very elegant procedure, chemically. But obviously it is also susceptible to extremely dangerous accidents.

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  • Marilynne Robinson on religion, fear, more fear. And why bad religion wins.
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  • Fact, schmact. How postmodern Christianity saves us from polarization, distinctions, facts, reason, etc.
  • The changing and growing shape of hatred in the Middle East.
  • Can joyful tidying go too far? "To discard the stuff we’ve acquired is to murder the version of ourselves we envision using it."
  • China's cruel status quo policy on North Korea- keep them barefoot, so they don't turn in to South Korea.
  • Yanis Varoufakis on the European situation.
  • Real guns are OK. Fake guns, not so much.
  • What it is like to own a gun in Australia.

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