But nothing prepares me for our encounter, which instils me with a kind of child-like, tongue-tied shyness.
Once he made the Kremlin tremble. Now he struggles just to be able to move his poisoned limbs beneath the flimsy sheets of his hospital bed. Every new position becomes unbearable within five minutes. Nevertheless, behind the gaunt, pallid figure a light, however dimmed, continues to flicker. “I suppose this is the cost of proving that you are telling the truth,” he says, managing a painful joke at his own expense.
He was referring to the book he wrote, The FSB Blows up Russia. It exposed the involvement of his former security services colleagues in a series of apartment block bombings in Moscow in 1999 — incidents which helped propel Vladimir Putin into the presidency a year later. “I want to survive, just to show them. . . ,” he says, too weak to finish the sentence.
After only five minutes my conversation is over and I struggle to control the tears that now roll down my face.
I have visited my friend half a dozen times this week and his deterioration has been steady and dispiriting. On Sunday night he was able to converse quite normally. On Monday we chatted but he already seemed tired. On Tuesday I had my last conversation with him. By then he was already visibly weaker. On Wednesday he barely moved and it was that night that he suffered a heart attack, lost consciousness and was put on life support.
It was so different from the beautiful sunny day just a month ago, when we met at Westminster Abbey for a memorial service to Anna Politkovskaya, the murdered journalist who had exposed the State’s abuses in Chechnya and paid for her courage with her life.
Sasha left the abbey railing against the regime in Russia which lets people like our mutual friend Anna be murdered. He described his former colleagues as terrorists. “This is part of a clear pattern, an accelerating dynamic. They are eliminating people on a list,” he said. “The State has become a serial murderer.” Then he turned to me and warned me that another killing was likely to happen. We began wondering who it might be.
“Promise me you will not go back to Russia,” he said. “Otherwise you will be next.” As it turned out, the next one on the list was him. The people who order such attacks are capable of anything. Those who obey their orders commit a moral suicide. Some have become generals, rich entrepreneurs and political leaders.
Sasha was attacked with an apparently highly sophisticated poison, sadistically designed to trigger a slow, tortuous and spectacular demise. It had to be organised without the kind of support system in other countries where agents masquerade as policemen, taxi drivers, waiters or cleaners. And Sasha lived in the safety of a strong, stable democracy with tight security and ubiquitous CCTV cameras. That very day he had been made a British citizen. How did it happen here?
More extraordinary was the manner of the attack. Sasha was always aware of danger. He was careful about his movements. He checked everything he consumed. Unlike most Russians, he never drank alcohol.
Back home his former colleagues in the security services have been slow to deny their involvement. If they are shocked at all, it is that the case of one poisoned man is causing such an uproar. For them, Sasha’s torture was a proof of nothing. They are completely impervious to human pain.
In this country, though, there is a precious glimpse of hope. Despite Tony Blair’s cosy relationship with President Putin, the fate of one individual can still capture public attention and at least freedom and democracy still mean something.
In the taxi to the hospital, thedriver, having heard the address and seen my face, asked, “Are you going to see that chap who was poisoned?” A few unflattering words about President Putin followed.
As we pulled up to the hospital, she added: “I’ll pray for that Russian.” There were tears in her eyes.
Timeline of events
Litvinenko meets two Russian men at a London hotel for “cup of tea” — one a former KGB officer, Andrei Lugovoy. The other is known only as Vladimir
Later meets Italian academic Mario Scaramella at a sushi bar in Piccadilly, where he says he receives documents claiming to name Anna Politkovskaya’s killers
Several hours later complains of feeling sick and is admitted to Barnet General Hospital
Gives an interview to the BBC’s Russian Service where he describes being in “very bad shape” following a “serious poisoning”
Transferred to the University College Hospital as condition deteriorates. Placed under armed guard
Reports emerge Litvinenko has been poisoned with thallium. Alex Goldfarb, a friend, says he looks “like a ghost”. Scaramella in hiding in Rome, according a friend
Pictures released of Litivenko in hospital. Scotland Yard say they are treating the case as a suspected “deliberate poisoning” Kremlin dismisses allegations that Russia was involved
Toxicologist John Henry says Litvinenko may have been poisoned with “radioactive thallium”
Scaramella claims Litvinenko saw documents naming him (Litvinenko) as target during their meeting on November 1
Litvinenko placed on life support, reports of his skin turning yellow and family rushing to his bedside
Source: PA, Times archives