The Millennium hotel is an unusual spot for a murder. It overlooks Grosvenor Square, and is practically next door to the heavily guarded US embassy, where, it is rumoured, the CIA has its station on the fourth floor. A statue of Franklin D Roosevelt – wearing a large cape and holding a stick – dominates the north side of the square. In 2011 another statue would appear: that of the late US president Ronald Reagan. An inscription hails Reagan’s contribution to world history and his “determined intervention to end the cold war”. A friendly tribute from Mikhail Gorbachev reads: “With President Reagan, we travelled the world from confrontation to cooperation.”
The quotes would seem mordantly ironic in the light of events that took place just around the corner, and amid Vladimir Putin’s apparent attempt to turn the clock back to 1982, when the former KGB boss Yuri Andropov – the secret policeman’s secret policeman – was in charge of a doomed empire known as the Soviet Union. Next to the inscriptions is a sandy-coloured chunk of masonry. It is a piece of the Berlin Wall, retrieved from the east side. Reagan, the monument says, defeated communism. This was an enduring triumph for the west, democratic values, and for free societies everywhere.
Five hundred metres away is Grosvenor Street. It was here, in mid-October 2006, that two Russian assassins had tried to murder someone, unsuccessfully. The hitmen were Andrei Lugovoi and Dmitry Kovtun. Their target was Alexander Litvinenko, a former officer in Russia’s FSB spy agency. Litvinenko had fled Moscow in 2000. In exile in Britain he had become Putin’s most ebullient and needling critic. He was a writer and journalist. And – from 2003 onwards – a British agent, employed by MI6 as an expert on Russian organised crime.
Latterly, Litvinenko had been supplying Her Majesty’s spooks and their Spanish counterparts with hair-raising information about the Russian mafia in Spain. The mafia had extensive contacts with senior Russian politicians. The trail apparently led to the president’s office, and dated back to the 1990s when Putin, then aide to St Petersburg’s mayor, Anatoly Sobchak, worked closely with gangsters. In a week or so, Litvinenko was to testify before a Spanish prosecutor. Hence, it appeared, the Kremlin’s frantic efforts to kill him.
The men from Moscow were carrying what Kovtun confessed to a friend was “a very expensive poison”. About its properties he knew little. The poison was polonium-210, a rare radioactive isotope, tiny, invisible, undetectable. Ingested, it was fatal. The polonium had originated at a nuclear reactor in the Urals and a production line in the Russian town of Sarov. A secret FSB laboratory, the agency’s “research institute”, then converted it into a dinkily portable weapon.
Lugovoi and Kovtun, however, were rubbish assassins. The quality of Moscow’s hired killers had slipped since the glory days of the KGB. Their first attempt, in a Grosvenor Street boardroom, had not worked. They had lured Litvinenko to a business meeting, where – the radiation stain later showed – they had tipped polonium into his cup or glass. But Litvinenko did not touch his drink. As of 1 November 2006, he was stubbornly alive.
Even modern CCTV has its limitations. Some parts of the Millennium were not covered by it – as Lugovoi, an expert in surveillance, and a former Kremlin bodyguard, would have noticed. One camera was fixed above the reception desk. Its footage shows the check-in counter; a bank of three computer screens; uniformed hotel staff. In the left of the picture is a part view of the foyer. There are two white leather sofas and a chair. Another camera – you wouldn’t notice it, unless you were looking – records the steps leading up to the lavatories.
The hotel has two ground-floor bars accessed from the foyer. There is a large restaurant and cafe. And the smaller Pine Bar immediately on the left as you enter through a revolving door from the street. The bar is a cosy wood-panelled affair. Three bay windows look out onto the square. In CCTV terms, the Pine Bar is a security black hole. It has no cameras; its guests are invisible.
On the evening of 31 October, camera 14 recorded this: at 20:04 a man dressed in a black leather jacket and mustard yellow jumper approaches the front desk. On either side of him are two young women. They have long, groomed blonde hair: his daughters. Another figure wanders up from the sofas. He is a strikingly tall, chunky-looking bloke wearing a padded black jacket and what resembles a hand-knitted Harry Potter scarf. The scarf is red and blue – the colours of Moscow’s CSKA football club.
The video captures the moment the Lugovois checked in – on this, his third frantic trip to London in three weeks, Lugovoi arrived with his entire family. He came from Moscow with his wife Svetlana, daughter Galina, eight-year-old son Igor, and friend Vyacheslav Sokolenko – the guy with the scarf. At the hotel, Lugovoi met his other daughter Tatiana. She had arrived from Moscow a day earlier with her boyfriend Maxim Bejak. The family party was due to watch CSKA Moscow play Arsenal in the Champions League the following evening. Like Lugovoi, Sokolenko was ex-KGB. But Sokolenko was not, British detectives would conclude, a murderer.
CCTV shows Kovtun arriving at the Millennium at 08.32 the next day – a diminutive figure carrying a black bag over one shoulder. The events of the next few hours were to become infamous – with Litvinenko the fated victim, the Russian state an avenging god, the media a sort of overexcited Greek chorus. What actually took place was a piece of improvisation that might easily have misfired. Lugovoi and Kovtun had decided to lure Litvinenko to a further meeting. But the evidence suggests that they had still not figured out how exactly they were going to kill him.
Litvinenko had first met Lugovoi in Russia in the 1990s. Both were members of the oligarch Boris Berezovsky’s entourage. Later, while living in exile in London, Berezovsky became Litvinenko’s mercurial patron. In 2005, Lugovoi recontacted Litvinenko and suggested they work together, advising western firms wanting to invest in Russia. At 11.41am, Lugovoi called Litvinenko on his mobile. He suggested a meeting. Why didn’t Litvinenko join him later that day at the Millennium? Litvinenko said yes; the plot was on.
Scotland Yard would later precisely fix Litvinenko’s movements on the afternoon of 1 November: a bus from his home in Muswell Hill in north London; the tube to Piccadilly Circus; a 3pm lunch with his Italian associate Mario Scaramella in the Itsu sushi restaurant in Piccadilly. In between, he fielded several calls from Lugovoi, who was becoming increasingly importunate. Lugovoi called Litvinenko again at 3.40pm. He told Litvinenko to “hurry up”. He had, he said, to leave imminently to watch the football.
Lugovoi would tell British detectives that he arrived at the Millennium at 4pm. The CCTV shows that he was lying: half an hour earlier, at 3.32pm, Lugovoi appears at the front desk and asks for directions to the gents. Another camera, number four, records him walking up the stairs from the foyer. The image is striking. Lugovoi seems preoccupied. He is unusually pale, grim, grey-visaged. His left hand is concealed in a jacket pocket. Two minutes later, he emerges. The camera offers an unflattering close-up of his bald spot.
Then, at 3.45pm, Kovtun repeats the same procedure, asking for directions, vanishing into the men’s toilets, reappearing three minutes later. He is a slight figure. What were the pair doing there? Washing their hands, having set the polonium trap? Or preparing the crime, a heinous one, in the sanctuary of one of the cubicles?
Tests were to show massive alpha radiation contamination in the second cubicle on the left – 2,600 counts per second on the door, 200 on the flush handle. Further sources of polonium were found on and below the gents’ hand-dryer, at over 5,000 counts per second. There was what scientists called “full-scale deflection” – readings so high they were off the scale.
The multiplex system shows someone else arriving at 15.59 and 41 seconds – a fit-looking individual, wearing a blue denim jacket with a fawn collar. He is on his mobile phone. This is Litvinenko at the blurred edge of the picture; he calls Lugovoi from the hotel lobby to tell him that he has arrived. The CCTV tells us little beyond this. Apart from one important detail. Litvinenko never visits the hotel bathroom. He is not the source of the polonium; it is his Russian companions-turned-executioners who bring it with them to London, in this, their second poisoning attempt.
The Soviet Union had a long tradition of bumping off its enemies. They included Leon Trotsky (ice-pick in the head), Ukrainian nationalists (poisons, exploding cakes) and the Bulgarian dissident Georgi Markov (ricin pellet fired from an umbrella, on London’s Waterloo Bridge). There was a spectrum. It went from killings that were demonstrative, to those where the KGB’s fingerprints were nowhere to be found, however hard you looked. Such murders were justified by what you might call Leninist ethics: they were necessary to defend the Bolshevik revolution, a noble experiment.
Under Boris Yeltsin these exotic killings mostly stopped. Moscow’s secret poisons lab, set up by Lenin in 1917, was mothballed. After 2000 though, with Putin in the Kremlin, such Soviet-style operations quietly resumed. Critics of Russia’s new president had an uncanny habit of ending up … well, dead. In power, Putin steered the country in an increasingly authoritarian direction, snuffing out most sources of opposition and dissent. The president’s fellow KGB comrades, once subordinate to the Communist party, were now in sole charge.
The murders of journalists and human rights activists could not be explained in terms of protecting socialism. Rather, the state was now synonymous with something else: the personal financial interests of Putin and his friends.
As an FSB officer in the 1990s, Litvinenko had been shocked to discover how thoroughly organised crime had penetrated Russia’s security organs. In his view, criminal ideology had replaced communist ideology. He was the first to describe Putin’s Russia as a mafia state, in which the roles of government, organised crime and the spy agencies had grown indistinguishable.
While serving with the FSB, where his role was akin to that of a detective, Litvinenko had also perfected his observation skills. It was part of his basic training. How to describe the bad guys: their height, build, hair colour and distinguishing features. What they were wearing. Any jewellery. How old. Smoker or non-smoker. And of course their conversation – from the major stuff, such as admissions of guilt, down to trivial details. For example, who offered whom a cup of tea?
When DI Brent Hyatt of Scotland Yard later interviewed Litvinenko, the Russian gave him a full and – in the circumstances, remarkable – account of his meeting with Lugovoi and Kovtun in the Pine Bar. Litvinenko said that Lugovoi approached him in the foyer from the left side and said: “Let’s go, we are sitting there.” He followed Lugovoi into the bar; Lugovoi had already ordered drinks. Lugovoi sat with his back to the wall; Litvinenko was diagonally across from him on a chair. There were glasses on the table – but no bottles. And “mugs and a teapot”.
As Lugovoi knew, Litvinenko did not drink alcohol. Moreover he was hard-up and reluctant to spend any money of his own in a fancy establishment. The barman, Norberto Andrade, approached Litvinenko from behind, and asked him: “Are you going to have anything?” Lugovoi repeated the question and said: “Would you like anything?”. Litvinenko said he did not want anything.
Litvinenko told Hyatt: “He [Lugovoi] said, ‘OK, well we’re going to leave now anyway, so there is still some tea left here, if you want to you can have some.’ And then the waiter went away, or I think Andrei asked for a clean cup and he brought it. He left and when there was a cup, I poured some tea out of the teapot, although there was only a little left in the bottom and it made just half a cup. Maybe about 50 grammes.
“I swallowed several times but it was a green tea with no sugar and it was already cold, by the way. I didn’t like it for some reason, well, almost cold tea with no sugar, and I didn’t drink it any more. Maybe in total I swallowed three or four times.” Litvinenko said he didn’t finish the cup.
Hyatt: The pot with the tea in it was already there?
Hyatt: How many mugs were on the table when you came in?
Litvinenko: I think three or four cups.
Hyatt: And did Andrei drink any more from the pot in your presence?
Hyatt: OK, and what happened next?
Litvinenko: Then he said Vadim [Kovtun] is coming here now … either Vadim or Volodia, I can’t remember. I saw him for the second time in my life.
Hyatt: What happened next?
Litvinenko: Next Volodia [Kovtun] took a place at the table on my side, across from Andrei.
The three men discussed their meeting scheduled for the following day at the private security firm Global Risk. In previous months, Litvinenko had tried to supplement his £2,000-a-month MI6 salary by doing due diligence reports for British firms keen to invest in Russia. The bar was crowded, Litvinenko said. He felt a strong antipathy towards Kovtun. It was only their second encounter. There was something strange about him, Litvinenko thought – as if he were in the midst of some personal torment.
Litvinenko: Volodia [Kovtun] was – seemed to be – very depressed, as if he was very much hungover. He apologised. He said that he hadn’t slept for the whole night, that he had just flown in from Hamburg and he wanted to sleep very much and he couldn’t stand it any more. But I think he is either an alcoholic or a drug addict. He is a very unpleasant type.
Hyatt: Volodia, how did he know to come to the table? Did Andrei contact him and ask him to come and join you, or was there already an arrangement for him to join you?”
Litvinenko: No … he [Kovtun], I think he knew in advance. Even possibly they had been sitting before this and maybe he went up to his room.
Hyatt: Just going back to when you had some tea, you didn’t ask the waiter for a drink. It was mentioned that there was some tea left. How insistent was Andrei that you have a drink, or was he indifferent? Was he saying, “Go on, go on, have some?” Or didn’t he care?
Litvinenko: He said it like that, you know, “If you would like something, order something for yourself, but we’re going to be leaving soon. If, if you want some tea, then there is some left here, you can have some of this…”
I could have ordered a drink myself, but he kind of presented in such a way that it’s not really need to order. I don’t like when people pay for me but in such an expensive hotel, forgive me, I don’t have enough money to pay for that.”
Hyatt: Did you drink any of the tea in the presence of Volodia?
Litvinenko: No, I drank the tea only when Andrei was sitting opposite me. In Volodia’s presence, I wasn’t drinking it …. I didn’t like that tea.
Hyatt: And after you drank from that pot, did Andrei or Volodia drink anything from that pot?
Litvinenko: No, definitely. Later on, when I left the hotel, I was thinking there was something strange. I had been feeling all the time, I knew that they wanted to kill me.
There is no evidence to say whether it was Kovtun – an ex‑waiter, who once worked in a Hamburg restaurant – or Lugovoi who put polonium in the teapot. From Litvinenko’s testimony, it is clear that this was a joint criminal enterprise. Lugovoi would subsequently explain that he could not recall what drinks he had ordered in the Pine Bar. And that Litvinenko had insisted upon their meeting, to which he had reluctantly assented.
Subsequently, police tracked down Lugovoi’s bar bill. The order was: three teas, three Gordon’s gin, three tonics, one champagne cocktail, one Romeo y Julieta cigar No 1, one Gordon’s gin. The tea came to £11.25; the total bill £70.60. Lugovoi was a man who murdered with a certain breezy style.
By this point, Lugovoi and Kovtun must have concluded that their poisoning operation had worked. Litvinenko had drunk the green tea. Not much, admittedly. But, he had drunk. Surely, enough? The meeting lasted 20 minutes. Lugovoi gazed at his watch. He said he was expecting his wife. She appeared in the foyer and, as if on cue, waved her hand, and mouthed: “Let’s go, let’s go.” Lugovoi got up to greet her, and left Litvinenko and Kovtun sitting together at the table.
There was one final, scarcely believable scene. According to Litvinenko, Lugovoi came back to the bar accompanied by his eight-year-old son Igor. Lugovoi introduced him to Litvinenko. He said to Igor: “This is Uncle Sasha, shake his hand.”
Igor was a good boy. He obediently shook Litvinenko’s hand, the same hand that by now was pulsing with radiation. When police examined Litvinenko’s jacket they found massive contamination on the sleeve – Litvinenko had picked up and drunk the tea with his right hand. The party, plus Litvinenko, left the bar. The Lugovoi family and Sokolenko went off to the match. Kovtun declined to go, declaring: “I’m very tired, I want to sleep.”