“A Very Expensive Poison: The Assassination of Alexander Litvinenko and Putin’s War with the West” by Luke Harding (Vintage Books Original, 2017)


We visited Highgate Cemetery in London last year.  Aside from noting how cleaned up the grounds were, we were attracted to the grave of Alexander Litvinenko, marked with candles and a sign posted by his wife requesting that we not take photos.   So, when this book released, I jumped at the chance to read what I knew would be a disheartening story of espionage gone wrong.

Luke Harding is award-winning foreign correspondent with the Guardian, who has reported from Delhi, Berlin and Moscow and covered wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya.  He is the author of Mafia State: How One Reporter Became an Enemy of the Brutal New Russia, and this book on Litvinenko. 

Litvinenko was well known in the U.K. as are many of the other Russian emigres who have fled either to escape political murder and mayhem and/or to protect their billions.  They are reported on daily in the press.  In the U.S., coverage is less frequent, unless, like Litvinenko, you are poisoned with polonium that contaminated every surface the bumbling assassins encountered on their death mission through London

Litvinenko’s story is of a middle-class Russian military espionage officer who appears to responsibly serve the state.  When he completes his military career, he uses former contacts throughout the world to serve commercial interests.  In that arena, it is easy to run afoul of criminals in the “New Russia”.  He did; he tried to escape to London; Putin put a hit out on him.  Litvinenko was finally murdered in the second attempt.  Bumbling murder assignments seems to be common among the Russian henchmen.  They use poison because it is often undetected.  The heart of Harding’s book is that after many years, the murderers were tried and convicted in U.K. law courts.  By implication, Putin was convicted. 

Harding is no friend of Putin and the “New Russia”.  He tells it as he sees it—Russia is country run by criminals with accountability only to Putin and his cronies.  The mask of statesmanship and amiability is geared to only one thing—restoring Russia to the former USSR borders and putting money into Putin’s pockets.  Things get done when Putin is paid.  Things go away when Putin pays or murder others. 

When I finished reading this book, I found it shading anything about Putin and Russia that was in the news as the work of criminals and liars acting in their own overt and covert self-interest.  I’m not uncomfortable with the opinion.  Looking at any Trump or U.S. contact with the Russians in this light make me realize they are as evil as North Korea, a lot smarter and therefore magnitudes more dangerous.   Communism failed Russia.  What filled the void is an evil criminal state without a moral center, not unlike Russia under Stalin.