‘A Very Expensive Poison’: How Politics Still Lives In The Shadow Of Litvinenko

Written by Caroline Frost on 13 September 2019 in Editorial

“Whenever you tell a story, you tell a lie.” That’s a great line from the play, and it feels very now.

I hear a grim chuckle from Luke Harding, author of the book ‘A Very Expensive Poison’, a forensic account of how Alexander Litvinenko – FSB officer turned defector turned British citizen – was poisoned on London soil by two clumsy assassins in 2006, in a murder everyone now agrees was state-sponsored. His book inspired Lucy Prebble’s play of the same name, now playing at the Old Vic and astonishing audiences afresh with both the killers’ blunt audacity, and the UK’s reluctance to call them to account. So why is he laughing?

“Well, because it is darkly funny,” says Harding. “You have these dim, often comic killers who we know were pretty incompetent back in 2006, but it’s also a show about the nature of reality and how you can distract people from what is really going on, by doing something alluring and shiny. It’s a very theatrical show.

“And from a political viewpoint, it’s about expedience, it’s about Britain’s role in the world, especially at a time of Brexit - how do we deal with kleptocracies that might spend a lot of money but are also corrosive and corrupting? So it’s sharply about the present political scene.”

There is no mention of present-day politicians in Prebble’s script - in fact Putin isn’t even mentioned by name, he is simply ‘Mr President’ in the narrative which travels between Litvinenko’s life in Moscow and later in London following his defection - but they might still squirm at parts. At a later point in the play, we hear Theresa May’s real voice from her halcyon days as Home Secretary, calmly explaining why a public inquiry into Litvinenko’s death is impossible, and it makes for chilling listening.

“It took a very long time for Marina Litvinenko to get any kind of reckoning about what happened to her husband,” remembers Harding, who followed the story from his time as the Guardian’s Moscow correspondent from 2006 all the way to the eventual public inquiry that concluded in 2016. “She wanted an inquest but William Hague, the Foreign Secretary back then, said that couldn’t happen because the Russians’ role couldn’t be discussed.

“Then she and her legal team went for a public enquiry, and that was rejected by Theresa May on the grounds that it might affect international relations.

“It’s poignant because, as Marina says in the play, she went to talk to Theresa May, and she said, ‘If your husband had been killed in this terrible way, wouldn’t you want to find out the truth?’ This is exactly what happened, and May smiled and did the opposite.

“These days, instead of ‘international relations’, you hear phrases from Boris Johnson about ‘bumps in the road’, so although it’s not explicitly about him, it speaks to the current institutions.”

Harding has experienced his own bumps in the road, describing his arrival in Moscow in 2007, only a few weeks after Litvinenko’s murder as “possibly the most unpropitious time for a UK correspondent to be there”. He spent much of the next four years following the story, interviewing the killers, following one of them, Andrey Lugovoy, around the countryside as he became a deputy in the Russian State Department, “more or less as a Russian reward for his actions”. Harding was explicitly intimidated, less clearly spied upon and eventually thrown out of Moscow in 2011. By the time his visa was renewed, he had made the decision not to return. Now based in London, he sounds bemused by the prospect of any continuing brushes with Russian enforcers:

“The Kremlin has various tools at its disposal, it has lots of trolls as well as spies, and it supports the far left and far right, eager to exploit chaos and create problems. I get a lot of abuse, some genuine, some professional, which could or could not be state- supported. It’s a bit hard to tell.”

Harding’s efforts contributed much to the public’s knowledge of the Litvinenko affair, he gave evidence at the eventual inquiry, but for him, the true heroine of the story is Marina Litvinenko, and it is the strength of her personality that really comes through in both his book and Prebble’s play:

“People know the story or think they know the story of Litvinenko, this FSB operative turned dissident lying on the bed in University College Hospital with all his hair falling out, but the main motor is a love story between him and his wife, Marina, who spent years struggling for justice, both in Moscow and London.

“When I got kicked out of Moscow, came back to the UK and met Marina Litvinenko in London, we still didn’t really know what had happened. It took eight and a half years to get full evidence from the police, from ghosts like (exiled oligarch and Putin opponent) Boris Berezovsky, and it became possible for the first time to reconstruct what had happened The killers were lousy assassins, it took them three attempts to kill him, and they were strewing polonium all over London.”

Sure enough, in one the blackest bits of humour in the play, Andrei Lugovoy shouts at his idiot sidekick Dmitry Kovtun, “You poisoned everybody apart from the man we are trying to take down.”

This ineptitude - lethal doses of polonium-210 scattered across London’s West End – Harding concludes, is the only reason the Russian state feel any regret over the fate of their former officer. “I heard from contacts there were acknowledging they’d killed him, but he’d deserved it because he was a traitor, and their only embarrassment was the shoddy unprofessional way in which it was done, not that he was executed.”

Which leads us seamlessly onto Salisbury, 12 years later, when defected former Russian military officer Sergei Skripal and his daughter were poisoned in very similar circumstances – in a public place, and by two buffoons who later claimed they were visiting the city to indulge their love of cathedrals. If Harding’s experiences in Moscow means he is never surprised by events, even he confesses his eyebrows were raised by the copycat nature of the crime.

“The whole Russian trajectory in recent years has been hyper-aggression, revisionism, adventurism, but I was surprised by the copy and paste version of the Litvinenko killing. And once again they weren’t very good, in fact they succeeded in killing somebody other than Skripal.

“Why would they do that? I think they believe the UK is weak and friendless, marred in Brexit, and so they were taking advantage of that.”

For Harding, then, the theatrical weapons at our disposal are currently as powerful as the political, at least when it comes to satisfying some form of justice:

“There is an acknowledgement that this regime means there is zero prospect of Litvinenko’s killers being extradited for jail, and Putin is ultimately culpable. The public enquiry was a vindication, when the judge went far further than anyone expected, pointing the finger at the Russian president, and this piece of theatre, three and a half miles from where Litvinenko died, is another piece of reckoning. It’s art as truth telling and that makes it very powerful. It’s entertaining, it’s non-judicial but it’s a form of prosecutorial statement, just done in a theatrical way.”

13 years after Alexander Litvinenko died, three years after a public inquiry so reluctantly staged by the UK government and which has exercised no enforcement since its conclusions were aired, is there a message to be found in Prebble’s play? Luke Harding is optimistic:

“It’s about the importance of empiricism, the importance of fact, of holding true to the idea that there is an actual version of events, rather than multiple stories or narratives spun out by politicians and other snake oil salesmen.

“We have to restate the importance of factuality and, despite what powerful actors, whether they be unscrupulous foreign governments or huckster politicians say, real things happen and real people sometimes die. It’s about Russia, but it’s about all those other events, when planes get blown out of the sky, that however much you lie and fake, we all need to go back to a place of fact and reason. And if you can do all that and entertain a crowd, you’ve done something pretty special.”

A Very Expensive Poison runs at the Old Vic, London SE1, until August until 5 October. Tickets available here

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