The Terminal Spy: A True Story of Espionage, Betrayal and Murder

The Terminal Spy: A True Story of Espionage, Betrayal and Murder

by Alan S. Cowell

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In a page-turning narrative that reads like a thriller, an award-winning journalist exposes the troubling truth behind the world’s first act of nuclear terrorism.

On November 1, 2006, Alexander Litvinenko sipped tea in London’s Millennium Hotel. Hours later the Russian émigré and former intelligence officer, who was sharply critical of Russian president Vladimir Putin, fell ill and within days was rushed to the hospital. Fatally poisoned by a rare radioactive isotope slipped into his drink, Litvinenko issued a dramatic deathbed statement accusing Putin himself of engineering his murder. Alan S. Cowell, then London Bureau Chief of the New York Times, who covered the story from its inception, has written the definitive story of this assassination and of the profound international implications of this first act of nuclear terrorism.

Who was Alexander Litvinenko? What had happened in Russia since the end of the cold war to make his life there untenable and in severe jeopardy even in England, the country that had granted him asylum? And how did he really die? The life of Alexander Litvinenko provides a riveting narrative in its own right, culminating in an event that rang alarm bells among western governments at the ease with which radioactive materials were deployed in a major Western capital to commit a unique crime. But it also evokes a wide range of other issues: Russia's lurch to authoritarianism, the return of the KGB to the Kremlin, the perils of a new cold war driven by Russia's oil riches and Vladimir Putin's thirst for power.

Cowell provides a remarkable and detailed reconstruction both of how Litvinenko died and of the issues surrounding his murder. Drawing on exclusive reporting from Britain, Russia, Italy, France, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, and the United States, he traces in unprecedented detail the polonium trail leading from Russia's closed nuclear cities through Moscow and Hamburg to the Millenium Hotel in central London. He provides the most detailed step-by-step explanation of how and where polonium was found; how the assassins tried on several occasions to kill Litvinenko; and how they bungled a conspiracy that may have had more targets than Litvinenko himself. 

With a colorful cast that includes the tycoons, spies, and killers who surrounded Litvinenko in the roller-coaster Russia of the 1990s, as well as the émigrés who flocked to London in such numbers that the British capital earned the sobriquet “Londongrad,” this book lays out the events that allowed an accused killer to escape prosecution in a delicate diplomatic minuet that helped save face for the authorities in London and Moscow.

A masterful work of investigative reporting, The Terminal Spy offers unprecedented insight into one of the most chilling true stories of our time.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780767930987
Publisher: Crown/Archetype
Publication date: 08/05/2008
Sold by: Random House
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 320
Sales rank: 1,104,123
File size: 563 KB

About the Author

Alan S. Cowell was the London bureau chief of the New York Times when the events narrated in this book reached their climax. Previously, Cowell served as a correspondent for Reuters and the New York Times in Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. He has been based in twelve capitals and reported the news from around ninety countries and territories. Cowell is married and has three children. He is now based in Paris. 

Read an Excerpt

Broken homes, broken empire
Alexander Valterovich Litvinenko was born on December 4, 1962, in a hospital in Voronezh, 300 miles south of Moscow, a university town where his father was a medical student specializing in pediatrics. He arrived one month before term. He weighed 2.4 kilograms, around six pounds. His mother, Nina, remembered a difficult birth. She fretted he might not survive. Then a woman in another bed in her ward at the Soviet-era hospital told her that all eight month babies became famous--an adage that noone would deny in Litvinenko's case, though not in the manner his mother would have forecast or preferred. Even so, who could have imagined that a child of the U.S.S.R would secure renown in such a bizarre manner, so far from home?
In 1962, Nikita Krushchev was in power in Moscow and the Soviet empire spanned a half a globe, from central Asia to the Baltic and the Pacific, its satellite states patrolling the line that divided Europe. The Soviets had been the first to put a man in space--Yuri Gargarin--in 1961, a huge propaganda victory over the United States, challenging Americans with the shocking implication that communism, progress and technology were not incompatible. This sprawling, secretive empire was not shy of confronting American power. Litvinenko was born in the year of the Cuban missile crisis that pushed the United States and the Soviet Union to the brink of nuclear war. True, Krushchev had offered a kind of liberalization after the death of Josef Stalin, permitting the publication of the works of Alexander Solzhenitsyn and famously decrying the Stalinist cult of the individual. But Krushchev also led a muscular drive to cement Soviet influence. He approved the crushing of the Hungarian revolt in 1956, the building of the Berlin Wall in 1961. And at home, the state's writ ran unchallenged, its power exercized through the taut sinews of the K.G.B. and other internal forces created to forestall dissent. Soviet troops occupied garrisons across Eastern Europe. Soviet spies tunneled into the Western political establishment. When Alexander Litvinenko was born, the Cold War was decades away from any thaw and the Soviet Union was years from collapse. None of that brought direct comfort to ordinary citizens struggling to meet ends meet, find an apartment, a telephone line, a car, a television set. The economy ran to order, according to the principles of scientific socialism. Save for the elite, and those with scarce American dollars or British pounds to finance themselves, there was no abundance. The output from the collectivized farms failed to keep pace with the growing population. The harvests were often poor. The shelves in the roubles-only food stores were never full, usually empty. Lines formed. In grim concrete apartment houses, ordered up by Krushchev himself to ease a dire shortage of dwellings in post-war Russia, communal heating failed and sputtered. The Russian winter had no mercy.

Litvinenko's life spanned his land's liberation and emasculation--from oppressive superpower to something far less than that, yet something far more than an ordinary nation; a diminished land that dreamed of glory revived. He was a child of history.
"We lived in a small room in a hostel in Voronezh," Nina Belyavskaya, Litvinenko's mother, recalled in an interview, sitting in the same two-bedroom apartment outside Moscow where her son spent some of his early years, while his father moved on to the northern Caucasus and Russia's Far East.

"We went hungry and cold because there was no food in the shops, no meat in Russia at the time. We used to buy bones."

When she spoke in the summer of 2007, Nina Belyavskaya was 67 years old, a frazzled, faded blonde living on the margins of Russian life, remote from the glitzy ostentation of downtown Moscow with its high-end imported cars and smart eateries. She tended a makeshift shrine to her lost son with a photograph and flowers and lived on a pension worth about 150 dollars a month. The early years were not so easy, either.

Imagine a young woman in her early 20s, boiling bones for soup, prising open cans of cheap meat, suckling a child from reluctant breasts. "There was no milk in the shops and I had very little milk. In the factory next to where I worked they used to give workers special milk rations. I'd go there at 4 p.m. as people were leaving with their milk and would ask them to sell me a couple of bottles to feed my baby," she said. "Life was very hard."

In the Soviet way, with the Russian Orthodox Church suppressed, his mother took the infant Litvinenko secretly to a priest for clandestine baptism--a common enough occurrence in those days.1

Through the rose-glow of maternal retrospect, Nina Belyavskaya recalled the early years of motherhood as a valiant, single-parent struggle to make ends meet while tending an ailing but virtuous child.

"Sasha was a very good boy," she said, echoing a familiar maternal refrain. He would come home from kindergarten--the kind of child-care the Soviet system offered to all so that all could work in their designated slots in the command economy--and balance on a stool at the kitchen sink to start washing the dishes she had left unwashed and tell her not to worry, he would "do everything for you." She gave him scarce kopeks to buy ice-cream when he went for a day at the VDNK exhibition complex in northern Moscow. He returned with a cigarette lighter. "I decided to buy you a lighter because you are always saying that by using match-sticks you are poisoning yourself," he told her.

At junior school, he made for her a wood-burning--a pyrograph--depicting Snow White and the Seven Dwarves and she kept it throughout her life. He was a skinny, spindle-shanked boy, too eager to please, begging recognition, offering favors as a coded way of seeking love or, at least, attention. An early photograph of mother and son showed a wistful-looking woman with peroxide blonde hair, wearing a polka-dot dress, with the young Sasha in a white shirt and combed fair hair, peering at the camera with a look that could be reproachful or sulky. Neither of them smiled. For the young Sasha, there was an uncanny resemblance in the set of the mouth and the directness of the gaze to an iconic photograph of the dying Alexander Litvinenko that the world came to know in 2006. Then, as earlier, he sought attention.
"He was gentle and attentive and loving," his mother said, but "we didn't always have much time to spend together."

"Sometimes I'd come home and would do some work at home. Mum, stop working, he'd say: let's spend some time together." The loneliness of the latch-key kid would one day create a yearning for company, for a team, a mentor. Sasha, his mother said, was never designed to be a loner. "He was very sociable," his mother said. When he was a young man and living away from her, "I bought a lovely suit from Finland and when he got back I asked him where it was. He said he gave it to a friend who was going to Germany. He was one of those who would give anything to a friend."

The precise calendar of those early years splintered through the rival memories of those close to him. Litvinenko's genealogy got caught up in a family whose lines bifurcated with divorces and liaisons of the kind that carried over into his own adulthood. Was he, thus, two or four years old when his parents split up? Perhaps it was enough to say that they did split up when he was a toddler, that Nina, his mother, met another man, Vladimir Belyavska, and that this newly-minted couple moved to Frazino, just east of Moscow city limits, when Sasha was nine years old. His mother and stepfather produced a daughter of their own, Svetlana, a half-sister to Alexander Litvinenko, who went on to live in Germany. "Sveta once asked me who I loved more--her or Sasha," Nina Belyavskaya said, remembering a time when Litvinenko was in military training. "I said: Sasha because you are always here with me and he is far away at the academy. Mothers always love their sons more."

By his mother's account, the infant Sasha was sickly, prone to pneumonia and colds, but he grew into an open, gregarious child, shuttled between maternal homes in Voronezh and Frazino and Nalchik, the capital of the Kabardino-Balkar republic in the North Caucasus, where Alexander Litvinenko's grand-parents still lived.
And then, on the other branch of his biological family, there was Walter, his father, who returned to Nalchik, his home-town, in the North Caucasus after graduating in Voronezh, abandoning a failed college marriage to build a second life with three more children--Tatiana, Vladimir and Maxim--and travel far away to Sakhalin Island on his business as a penal colony medical doctor.

In Walter Litvinenko's memory, his young son lived with his grandparents in Nalchik until he was five years old, then spent seven years with his mother before returning to the Caucasus. But the father and son never synchronized their lives. When Sasha returned to Nalchik, his father moved to Sakhalin. And when Walter returned from Sakhalin, Sasha went to the army.

The north Caucasus, 800 miles south-east of Moscow, is known these days as an unstable area, perched uneasily on a faultline of faith and ethnicity. The string of cities that molded so much of Litvinenko's life--places such as Nalchik and Vladikavkaz--were products of the advance of Russian imperialism in the late 18th and 19th century, when tsarist armies built forts and sought with varying degrees of success and failure to subdue regions straddling access to the Caucasus and beyond. In these places, along a fissure of empire, Islam collided with Orthodox Christianity and the Russian advance met fierce resistance for decades. Historians date the Caucasus War as lasting from 1817 to 1864 and argue that many of the modern conflicts that have seized the region, most notably in Chechnya and Dagestan, have their roots in those distant campaigns at the intersection of the same beliefs as molded Alexander Litvinenko, too.

Yet, when his mother sent her son to Nalchik as a child, her reasons had nothing to do with gods or conflict. The fresh air of the Caucasus foothills, 1,600 feet above sea level on the Nalchik River, was known for its restorative powers and its spas.2 "I sent him for two reasons," his mother said. "Firstly it was a healthier place but more importantly because I thought it would be easier for him to get into university there. He wasn't brilliant at school . . . It was hard to get into university then. You had to have an exam but they took students in without an exam if you excelled at sports. In Nalchik there was a very good school for pentathlon. So I decided to send him there."

Were there other reasons she chose not to recall? Possibly. In most broken families, memory is elastic, stretched between denial and half-truth--good training for spies and operatives at ease with ambiguity.

Decades later, with his own son on the cusp of his teens in London, secure in a family that had not divided, it is tempting to imagine Litvinenko thinking back to his own mixed-up childhood, his dislocations and resettlements, glad to be giving his own boy a modicum of security that was not, as it turned out, to endure.
In his early years, his mother said, he was drawn to collections of objects that could be ordered and controlled and catalogued--bright postage stamps and pins and toy soldiers and miniature tanks. She brought recruits for his small armies as gifts when she returned from trips to Moscow, she said, and there is something poignant about these platoons. Litvinenko's many critics said later he was no more than a toy soldier himself, a construct, an artifice created in a world outside reality. But he went on to witness the real wars that gnawed away his faith in Russia's political leaders as much as his belief in the church of his secret baptism. As a child, his miniature heroes fell in table-top battles. As a man, the war games were forgotten: a comrade died in his arms, he would recall for the benefit of interviewers, and others returned from the Chechen fray suicidal with despair, abandoned by the politicians who dispatched them to war. So, maybe, after all, there was no room in a hardened heart for memories of a time when he played with toy soldiers.

If he compared his life with that of his own 12-year-old son, perhaps Litvinenko's thoughts sometimes flipped back on rewind to his own age of pre-teen innocence and the first stirrings of love beyond his family. Alexander Litvinenko, too, was 12 years old when he attended a friend's birthday party in Frazino back in 1974 and met an 11-year-old girl called Natalia, who was to become his first love, his first wife. (He met his second wife at someone else's birthday party, too). The way Natalia described those remote events, Litvinenko had struck up a close friendship with her cousins in Frazino before she ever met him, but he became a regular caller during the summer of 1974 at her family's dacha (her family was better off than his, Natalia said, and his mother thought her quite a catch.)

"He was thin and modest, he did not stand out, but he was good looking. He had big blue eyes and fair hair," Natalia said. "My two cousins were his closest friends. The three of them were always together. He was friendly. In the summer I and my cousins lived at the dacha and Sasha would often come to visit. We'd spend the days running around the fields, swimming in lakes and so on."

How remote those memories seem from Litvinenko's destiny--the sunlit, endless summer days when the twilight never seemed to end, the chill frisson of fresh, clean water on sun-burned skin, the pollen in the air and the games of hide-and-seek and desultory, childish chatter in the heat of the day. It was a time when Soviet military and diplomatic power towards the United States was at its height, the time of Leonid Brezhnev's thaw in the cold war that became known as detente between east and west. It must have seemed as if the world would never change.

"For both, it was our first love," Natalia said. "Once, we sat next to each other during a theater performance and for the first time we sensed this very strong feeling between us, a platonic love between two children which grew with every passing year."

But, in those days as much as later, a dark shadow crossed the sun.
"Vadim, one of my cousins, even then told me that Sasha was not a good friend," she recalled. "He said he was tricky. He could betray you, he told me. I didn't ask why."

Table of Contents

Author's Note ix

Dramatis Personae xi

Prologue 1

1 Broken Homes, Broken Empire 17

2 Poor Man, Rich Man 39

3 Acolytes 66

4 Renegade 81

5 War Stories 96

6 From Russia With Stealth 122

7 Siloviki 146

8 Giled Exiles 190

9 Crown Protection? 217

10 A Rolodex To Die for 235

11 Poison and PR 260

12 Invisible Assassin 292

13 The Polonium Trail 324

14 Hit Men Or Fall Guys? 374

15 Putin's Doppelgänger 392

Epilogue 422

Acknowledgments 425

Notes and Sources 427

Select Bibliography 431

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The Terminal Spy: A True Story of Espionage, Betrayal and Murder 3.1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 10 reviews.
KenCady More than 1 year ago
This is an incredibly boring book, all the more surprising because it purports to be about a "true story of Espionage, Betrayal, and Murder." The author goes into minute detail about Russians in London with an insufferably dry style that gives the reader cause to toss his Ambien prescription. Whereas I had looked forward to a tale of intrigue, the author kept going off on tangents that seemed to have no bearing on the reason he wrote the book. A readable version of the exciting events surrounding the murder of Alexander Litveninko is hopefully forthcoming from someone who can write with some interest.
jocraddock on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Alan Cowell's book is a fascinating, timely and frightening telling of the true story of Alexander Litvinenko and his poisoning by Polonium-210 in 2006. It is well researched, and well written, but almost too tedious with details (I found myself referencing Wikipedia more than once to keep the characters straight). The myriad returns to the day Litvinenko fell ill were also confusing; I would have preferred his story keep that forefront (or even continue with his illness and ultimate death) and then introduce the other characters.All-in-all, an intriguing look at post-USSR Russia, the wonderful qualities brought out by fervent capitalism (ha!), and the continuing influence of certain party members and positions.
iubookgirl on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The Terminal Spy is the story of the life and death of Alexander Litvinenko, a former K.G.B./F.S.B. agent turned Russian exile. Alan Cowell has closely researched the life of Litvinenko and those who surrounded him in Russia and his home in exile, London. This insider's look into Russia since the collapse of the U.S.S.R. is truly mesmerizing at times. While I enjoyed the story and the mystery behind it all, I found the level of detail tedious and unnecessary at times. I frequently skipped pages of detailed finances, etc. I would recommend this book to those with an interest in Russian history or journalistic accounts of our times.
TrishNYC on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The murder of Alexander of Litvinieko was at one time worldwide news and many of us spent hours watching its aftermath. The author covered this story extensively and tries to document the incident in this book. The basic story is that Alexander Litvinenko was poisoned on November 23, 2006 and suffered a very painful death. He openly accused, Vladimir Putin with orchestrating his demise in a note supposedly dictated to his friend Alex Goldfarb and released after his death. Litvinenko was himself once a member of the KGB/FSB and his defection to the West and subsequent discussion of its intimate details left many in his former country displeased with him. He held press conferences, outed confidential information about his former employer and was always in the market to tell his story to anyone (especially the press)who would listen. It is hard to estimate the validity of his claims and how much he really knew. In reading information from other writers, I found that some members of the press did not consider him a credible source as some of his allegations was seen as fantastical and he was known to exaggerate. But regardless of the credibility of his claims, someone found him threatening enough that he was poisoned with Polonium 210. Some have likened the effects of this element in the human body to having a nuclear bomb detonated inside you. My complaint about this book was that the author spent so much time giving the reader tons of details that in my opinion did not add to an understanding of the incident. Sometimes while reading, I felt like he was unable to find out much more information than we all saw on CNN or any other news outlet. This led to him creating the feeling of a thriller on the level of Robert Ludlum's Bourne series. He spent way too much time telling us about the supporting cast to Litvineko's life and murder that sometimes I lost sight of why I was reading the book. In the end all this extra knowledge did not add to the story or get us any closer to unravelling how Polonium 210 ended up in Litvineko's cup and who put it there. The book would have been better served by just covering the murder with some side information thrown in but it is possible that just doing so would not have been enough to write a whole book. As tedious as all the extra histories of the people that Litvinenko knew turned out to be, I have to give the author credit because I am sure that he must have worked very hard to gather all that information. All in all, it was an okay read that had much potential but was weakened by too many unnecessary details.
nutty7688 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Based upon a 2006 actual account of Russia's President Pudin and how a spy, traitor was killed by an old adjective of poisioning. Death by lethal doses of Pollium that was given to the spy's and, traitors in the cold war as a harsh death. A good read if your interested in actual news accounts. Highly recommended, as a who done it mystery of intense investigations in London, Russia, and other Countries.
nbmars on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Alan Cowell takes us into the world of Russian émigré thuggery in ¿Londongrad¿ looking backward from ¿the beginning of the end.¿ The end in question is the death by poisoning in London of Russian defector Alexander Litvinenko on November 23, 2006. Litvinenko was one of those who left for the West after the Soviet Union collapsed and the country was taken over by the Russian mafia or ¿oligarchs.¿ Putin¿s rise to power sent additional ousted oligarchs over the border. Some of these were former members of the K.G.B. and/or the F.S.B., its successor organization. Litvinenko had served in the FSB as an investigator of organized crime. In London Litvinenko held press conferences, outted fellow spies, and consorted with shadowy contacts from Russia in search of new ways to make money. The FSB was not happy about this. Someone offered Litvinenko a cup of tea spiked with Polonium 210 (a supposedly very highly controlled substance) and he died a very painful death.Cowell obviously invested a lot of time and energy into finding out information from very secretive sources. But he is overstating to claim that ¿the death of Litvinenko would come to be seen as a defining moment of the Putin presidency.¿ He threw in too many details we don¿t really need (although I can empathize because it was probably very hard to get them) and inserted way too many melodramatic flourishes into the text (e.g., ¿Were they players or bystanders, in place by accident or by design?¿).It¿s a story worth telling, but maybe as a long magazine article, toning down the drama, and thinning out the details.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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DuctorCE More than 1 year ago
The Terminal Spy is an intrigue with a Russian theme where the unspeakable do horrid things to the unpronounceable. I tend to confuse my .skayas, with my .oviches, and by the time I have sorted those out I have lost the plot. Mr Cowell anticipated my, and perhaps others dilemma, and opens his book with Dramatis Personae. This introduces us to 40 principle characters. I respectfully suggest that the reader studies these three and a bit pages as it will greatly enhance comprehension of the remaining 430. Cowell's work is at once an important and rewarding example of detailed investigative reporting. Important because it reveals how a foreign (I was tempted to say hostile), country carried out a successful nuclear attack on London, Britain's capital city. Rewarding because it reads like a fiction spy thriller. It will come as no surprise to the reader to learn that Alan Cowell is an experienced and accomplished journalist and citizen of the world. He is 'at-home' in London Paris or New York, and has vast experience of the Middle East and Africa. The Terminal Spy is a dissection, in the minutest detail of the evidence pertaining to the calculated murder in broad daylight of Alexander Litvinenko at London on November 1st 2006. It is the manner of this murder and why, that makes this volume a page turner par excellence. No one has been brought before the courts for this crime, but by the end of the book there can be no doubt of the identity of the culprit and his accomplices. The book is very well written. It is never dull - which is quite an achievement when one considers the exposure espionage and intelligence gets these days. There are no loose-ends or innuendoes which in a book like this can be infuriating. The Terminal Spy is an extremely rewarding and enjoyable read, and I thoroughly recommend it.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago