Thursday, November 30, 2006

'Pale Fire and London Fog'

That's the title of Chris Floyd's fascinating truthout piece about the death of Alexander Litvinenko, the ex-KGB guy who died slowly in London of polonium 210 poisoning, over several weeks of steady deterioration under a worldwide media spotlight, after leaving a deathbed message blaming Vladimir Putin for his death.

The title, with its tip of the hat to Nabokov, nicely suggests the surreal strangeness of the case. And it's a relief finally to read something written in a more nuanced manner than the usual tabloid sensationalism. The trouble with the "Putin did it!" story line beloved of lazy media the world around is that it makes no sense. Putin is certainly ruthless enough, no question about it. But had he felt a need to silence an obscure critic and former KGB colleague, why would he have done it in so public a fashion, in a foreign capital, in a manner designed to maximize negative media exposure?

Floyd makes it clear that we'll probably never know exactly what happened, but he reports on some of the mysterious figures who lurk around what he calls "the shadowlands - that murky confluence of crime, violence, money and politics where so much of the real business of the world is conducted." It's a great read, even if, unlike the thriller it otherwise resembles, Floyd's story concludes on a note of uncertainty and ambiguity. The crime remains unsolved, and most likely never will be.
All of this adds up to ... well, nothing much in particular. It's the usual murky ooze you find whenever an incident like the Litvinenko case turns over a rock in the shadowlands: strange connections, mixed motives, bluffs and double-bluffs, half-truths, black ops, lurid tales, chancers, bagmen, spies, tycoons, mercenaries, war, murder, and money. It's clear that almost every single player in the Litvinenko killing could have had access to the sophisticated technical means necessary to deliver Polonium 210 as an edible poison. It's not clear at all that any of them had a compelling reason to do so.

To be sure, Putin is a ruthless operator on behalf of what he perceives as Russia's national interests, which he tends to identify with the power and privilege of his own elitist clique, as do all our world statesmen - none more so than his avowed soulmate, George W. Bush. And like Bush, Putin has proven himself capable of wholesale slaughter and pinpoint "extrajudicial killing" in the service of those interests. Some of his critics have certainly ended up dead. Some of his supporters have too. (And so have some of Berezovsky's critics, such as the American journalist Paul Khlebnikov, whose book, Godfather of the Kremlin, blackened Berezovsky's name around the world far more successfully than Litvinenko's ignored, forgotten tome ever did with Putin. Khlebnikov was gunned down, Godfather-style, in Moscow in 2004.)

But it beggars belief that a savvy operator like Putin would have countenanced a plan to kill a small-fry critic in a such a spectacularly public fashion, in the capital of a foreign country, with a slow-acting radioactive isotope that guaranteed weeks of damaging headlines and international outcry, putting at risk months of delicate negotiations over Russia's expansion into the European energy market and other lucrative deals. Someone who wanted to embarrass Putin might have done it. Someone with motives entirely unconnected to Russian politics might have done it. Rogue elements of this or that faction or agency or government might have done it. But it's clear from all the facts available that the one person who would benefit least from the murder is the one who has been most widely and confidently accused of ordering it: Putin.

And so the question of who killed Alexander Litvinenko remains an impenetrable mystery. But at least it has thrown a flickering light on the borders of the shadowlands, a pale fire in which we can dimly perceive the ugly machinations, the violence and deceit, the crime and corruption that lie beneath the gilded images of the movers and shakers of the world.
This stuff is better than any spy novel. Nobody could make it up.

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