It was an assassination straight out of a Cold War spy novel – an East European dissident resident in London stands at a bus-stop, waiting to get to Bush House where he will broadcast on the BBC World Service; a sharp pain suddenly shoots through the back of his thigh; he gazes behind him and sees an anonymous man walking away carrying an umbrella. Only when he develops a fever that evening is a connection made between the sickness and what resembles a bee-sting on his leg. Gradually convinced he has been poisoned by foreign agents, he dies before any action can be taken. He was Bulgarian novelist, playwright and critic of his country’s Communist regime, Georgi Markov, and a pellet containing the poison ricin had been jabbed into his leg via the tip of the umbrella carried by a man believed to be a KGB operative. Nobody has ever been charged with his murder, which took place in September 1978.
Both Markov’s minor celebrity and the novelty of the method used to assassinate him garnered headlines at the time, even though agents of both East and West were routinely engaged in such cloak-and-dagger hits back then. The notoriety attached to Markov’s murder merely confirmed the activities of operatives as played out in the pages of John le Carré novels were far-from fantasy; le Carré’s own day-job at MI6 gave him an insight into the realities of international espionage that infused his books with the kind of accuracy Ian Fleming had avoided. When the Cold War officially came to an end with the collapse of the Soviet Union and Boris Yeltsin’s attempts to implement a Western-style free-market economy on Russia in the 90s, many assumed the age of East-West antagonism was over. Not so an ex-KGB officer and rising star in Yeltsin’s administration, Vladimir Putin.
For the last half-decade of his 16-year KGB career, Putin was stationed in East Germany, where he worked in tandem with the Stasi. As the DDR entered its final days, he was instrumental in the burning of KGB files and was then recalled to Moscow; during the KGB-engineered coup to topple Gorbachev in 1991, Putin sensed which way the wind was blowing and switched sides. After a period in local government in St Petersburg, Putin transferred to Moscow and was promoted into President Yeltsin’s team, falling back on his KGB experience to head its successor, the FSB. By the end of the 1990s, his hardline approach to the conflict in Chechnya earned him public plaudits and he was awarded the post of Prime Minister before winning the nomination as Yeltsin’s Presidential heir, a position he ascended to in 2000.
During his first stint at President (2000-08), Putin’s aim seemed to be to restore pride and prestige to a country that had lost an empire and had suffered the exploitation of Yeltsin’s economic reforms by a handful of businessmen who acquired immense riches whilst the majority of the population endured hardship. Putin’s persecution of the Oligarchs unsympathetic to his rule forced most of them into exile before they could be imprisoned, whereas his crackdown on free speech and media independence attracted his first heavy criticism from the West.
When he stepped down as President in 2008, Putin was accused of being a backseat driver when his successor Dmitry Medvedev appointed him Prime Minister, a position he held for the next four years before running for President again in 2012. By this time, Putin had moved the Presidential goalposts, altering the constitution in order to extend a third term from four years to six.
His re-election was widely condemned as rigged, but despite protests both home and abroad, Putin’s grip on power was reinforced. The expansion of the Russian military and interventions in Chechnya, Georgia and Ukraine, as well as the annexation of Crimea, all of which were initiated to return the country to its Soviet-era size, served to restore the only kind of Russian pride and prestige a man raised in the USSR and employed by the KGB could relate to. What some have referred to as a Mafia-style concept of governance is not without its home-grown critics, one of whom was Alexander Litvinenko. The former FSB officer had defected to the UK as his ex-boss Putin was poised to be inaugurated President and embarked upon a career in journalism and adviser to the British secret service. His accusations that both the FSB and Putin were complicit in several acts of terrorism, including the 2006 murder of Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya, earned him the enmity of his countrymen
Just a couple of weeks after implying Putin had ordered the assassination of Politkovskaya, Litvinenko suddenly fell ill on the same day he had met two ex-KGB agents in London; hospitalised, his condition worsened as it was discovered he had traces of polonium-210 in his blood; evidence that he had been poisoned by a rare radioactive substance backed-up Litvinenko’s claims that Putin had been behind the poisoning, but he died within three weeks of being admitted to hospital. Litvinenko’s widow fought long and hard for a public inquiry into her husband’s death and was finally given the green light in January 2015. Now, twelve months later, the conclusions of the inquiry are that her husband was indeed deliberately poisoned and effectively murdered by two fellow Russians, named as Dmitry Kovtun and Andrei Lugovoy, the pair he had met on the day he fell ill.
Relations between Russia and Britain, weakened by the initial murder of Litvinenko and not helped by Putin’s subsequent military adventures and persistent macho posturing, appear to now be at their worst since the Cold War. Russia’s refusal to allow the extradition of the two men accused of Litvinenko’s murder and their counter-accusations of the inquiry being ‘politicised’, along with Theresa May’s vocal condemnation of the Russian state’s response, suggest this particular case will remain a thorn in the side of British-Russian relations for a long time to come. All accused parties deny any involvement in Litvinenko’s death, but to paraphrase dear old Mandy Rice-Davies, they would, wouldn’t they?
William Gladstone’s belief that Britain and Russia should be natural allies due to their geographical similarities, situated on opposing edges of Europe, both part of and yet outside of the continent, was an alliance he surmised would be a useful means of preventing a dominant France or Germany in the centre. 150 years later, the two nations have never seemed so distant from one another; and neither France nor Germany will lose much sleep over that.
© The Editor