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Reality is darker than James Bond

By Peter Coates - posted Tuesday, 5 December 2006

The death of Alexander Litvinenko on November 23, 2006 has resurrected Cold War visions of evil KGB assassins plotting the end of James Bond through ingenious, high tech and always drawn out means.

While Mr Bond always survives Litvinenko did not. His death has become a major issue in Britain due to: public interest in his lingering demise; initial suspicions that he was poisoned with Thallium; confirmation it was radioactive Polonium-210; and suggestions by British intelligence that it was former Russian agents that may have killed him.

One could listen to Count von Münster, Hanoverian envoy to the Russian Court at St Petersburg, who many years ago described the Tsarist Constitution as “absolutism tempered by assassination”. After a brief democratic experiment Russia appears to be returning to the same bad habits.


Litvinenko succeeded in gaining political asylum in Britain in 2000. He formerly worked on organised crime matters for the Russian Security Service (FSB) and before that the KGB. He specialised in crime groups rather than the traditional Russian intelligence areas of obtaining foreign secrets and crushing domestic opposition.

The UK government has quickly discounted the possibility that the government of Vladimir Putin, President of Russia since 2000, ordered Litvinenko’s death and more diplomatically speculated that “rogue elements” in Russian intelligence may have done the deed.

It may be a coincidence but other figures dealing in information critical of Putin have since also come to grief.

On November 28, 2006, Yegor Gaidar, a Russian economist and former liberal political leader, collapsed in Ireland where he had been presenting a book critical of Putin’s economic policies. Two days later Gaidar's Irish doctors said he was poisoned, however Gaidar was quickly flown to Moscow so removing the possibility of an independent assessment of his illness.

Seperately on December 2, 2006 doctors reported that Mario Scaramella a colleague of Litvinenko also had received large dose of Polonium-210 (smaller than that present in Litvinenko but potentially deadly).

Polonium-210 is a highly radioactive isotope, so much so that minute amounts were used as power sources on satellites and Russian moon rovers. It is produced in deadly quantities in nuclear reactors by a small number of scientific institutes in Russia and several other countries. Safe transportation of Polonium-210 requires expert handling.


This appears to point to the involvement of a well connected, well funded, supply chain for the substance, be that a state body or organised crime.

It is notable that Russian intelligence used thallium poisoning concealing radiation years ago. On April 7, 2005, long before the Litvinenko affair emerged a former Russian intelligence officer Boris Volodarsky is on record as stating:

I'm reminded of the 1955 attempt on Nikolay Khokhlov, a defector from the KGB. He drank a cup of coffee at a public reception in Germany in 1957 and fell ill. In his blood the doctors found traces of thallium, a metallic substance commonly used as rat poison. But the appropriate treatment had little effect and it was not until weeks later when Khokhlov was close to death that imaginative doctors at a US Army hospital in Frankfurt found the hitherto undreamed-of answer. The thallium had been subjected to atomic radiation so that the metal would slowly disintegrate in the system, giving symptoms as common as gastritis as a patient slowly died of radiation poisoning. By that time, the thallium would have disintegrated and left no trace even for an autopsy.

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About the Author

Peter Coates has been writing articles on military, security and international relations issues since 2006. In 2014 he completed a Master’s Degree in International Relations, with a high distinction average. His website is Submarine Matters.

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