1Broken 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."From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from The Terminal Spy by Alan S. Cowell. Copyright © 2008 by Alan S. Cowell. Excerpted by permission of Broadway, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.