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Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Essel Reviews Litvinenko's Posthumous Book, Just Published


Last week the Other Russia blog reported that Mikhail Trepashkin, KGB defector and attorney for the commission that investigated the Moscow apartment bombings who was jailed just before Putin sought his second term and after several of the commission members were assassinated, has revealed that the KGB propositioned him several times to participate in the murder of Alexander Litvinenko. Recently, an important attempt was made to enter some of Litvinenko's writings into the public record with the publication of the book shown above, and columnist Dave Essel has our exclusive review. The volume suffers from the same rough-quality translation that plagues the Novaya Gazeta newspaper's online version, and this speaks volumes about the resources available to the opposition groups -- giving the lie to claims that they are rolling in cash from billionaire Boris Berezovsky. And there is nothing in Litvinenko's text, even in the relatively extreme forum from which his comments are drawn, that could possibly be a basis for the Kremlin to believe he was a threat to Russian security. Yet, he was brutally murdered with Russian-made radioactive poisoning, and his the Kremlin is blocking the extradition and trial of those the British government has discovered participated in the crime.

We take special delight in publishing this review, which nobody in the world can say is a blind tribute to Litvinenko. In fact, we routinely criticize folks who might be seen as being on "our" side of the Russia debate, including even Garry Kasparov (as we did just yesterday). Unlike the Kremlin and its sycophants, we are interested only in truth, not propaganda.

Litvinenko Speaks from the Grave


by Dave Essel

Allegations: Selected Works by Alexander Litvinenko,
translated and edited by Pavel Stroilov, is a collection of – in the main – assorted articles by Litvinenko or interviews with him from a publication/website that I am unfamiliar with: Chechen Press, apparently the website of Chechnya's 'government in exile', plus some transcripts of radio interviews and other items.

It is curious to read a publication containing the words of someone one knows as a hero and martyr. One cannot but have very high expectations, think that one is about to be led to important illuminations, that here at last, from beyond the grave, comes the slapping down that Prostitutin and his ho's so rightly deserve. But this is real life and not a fairy tale.

What struck me most from this book of Litvinenko's words is that here is a reasonably good and honest man, albeit one who initially and for some time served as a cop and worse in Russia. Thus I am led to my first proviso: any person prepared to serve as a cop in Russia is by definition someone with a fairly – shall we say – flexible morality. Litvinenko addresses this himself. In a Chechen Press interview, he says: "So I reached my limit when I was ordered to kill a man." An order to commit extra-judicial murder brought Litvinenko to break with his past, condemn his career, and become righteous.

Everyone prevaricates; few live lives entirely unsullied by compromises or sell-outs. So an order to commit murder for his vile bosses drove Litvinenko to recall and revert to the primal state in which we all start – innate knowledge of what is fair and good.

The articles and interviews in this collection reflect the surprise of a man to whom something new (but always suspected yet repressed) has been revealed. Litvinenko, however, is a plain man, a blunt professional, and no intellectual. Thus his epiphany is in some ways simplistic, though he is for that no less to be praised and admired for it and congratulated.

Unfortunately, this collection is a rocket salvo that misses two targets by striking between them. It has very little or nothing new to tell the informed reader – Litvinenko's testimonies are now part of received knowledge, incorporated in most serious discussions of the subject "Russia".

Thus this very important service has already been rendered. On the other hand, this is not a book to be recommended to someone new to Russia as an introduction to the subject since it is too specialised and its field – Caucasus issues – too narrow (even though these issues are of course paradigmatic of the whole 'Russia problem') to act as a proper overview of recent chapters of the unhappy march from Tsar Autocrat to Commie yoke to Russian naziism.

Furthermore, Litvinenko as a cop and FSBeshnik was responsibly careful of his information. Indeed he says: "In addition, I still do not want to publicize all the evidence in my possession because the masterminds and perpetrators of these monstrous crimes still occupy key positions in Russia. If I disclosed all the evidence and named all the witnesses, the FSB would promptly destroy them."

Of course, Litvinenko is right. He is doing the right thing, but it does make for a less interesting read, although with a person such as Litvinenko this is simply not the point. I have less and less confidence that my country (Britain) will do anything right due to its wimpishness resulting from the current dire mind-rotting affliction of moral relativism but I do hope that Litvinenko's main contribution, a contribution that would have been invaluable, was taken when he offered it – a complete, lengthy and exhaustive debrief to help us, when we find the political will and guts, to fight the evil emanating these days from the swamp that is Moscow.

Litvinenko's public testimony as presented in this collection is of interest, but it is his detailed insider knowledge that he kept under wraps which was invaluable. I cannot really see much use for this collection other than as a marginally useful compendium for journalists and researchers.

* * *

A note on the translation: Allegations is a translation by a Russian into a second language and reads as just what it is. Mr. Stroilov has made a splendid effort but it is impossible for a non-native speaker to avoid infelicities of phrase (translation-ese), awkward renderings, and the occasional hold-up by a translator's false friend. This book contains abundant examples of all these, making it that much more difficult a read. It really could have done with an English editor.

* * *

Here is the introduction to the book, penned by Soviet dissident Vladimir Bukovsky:

I usually try to avoid moralising or the use of ethical labels such as ‘good’ or ‘evil’. And yet, some situations or fates simply cannot be described without that. Truth is always naïve and sure of itself; it takes for granted that it will triumph as soon as it is declared. That is why the forces of truth are usually so poorly organised. The lie, on the contrary, is cynical, shrewd, and splendidly organised. It does not labour under the slightest illusion about its own merits or chances of winning an honest victory; it is therefore ready to use any and every means.

The story of my late friend Alexander Litvinenko’s battle with the KGB is a perfect illustration of that. It started with the KGB ordering him to go and murder people – and Alexander calling a press-conference to tell the public about that order. It continued with the KGB persecuting, jailing and slandering the rebel – and Alexander struggling to publicise the truth about his former bosses as widely as he could. And so it ended with a sophisticated KGB operation to murder the reckless dissident, – and Alexander, on his deathbed, naming and defying the murderer.

So different was the idea of victory for the two sides that the both would be right to say they have won, in their own way. The KGB wanted to see Alexander dead, and so he is. Their faith in murder as the ultimate solution dominated their actions throughout the conflict: they took for treason Alexander’s refusal to murder, so they became desperate to murder Alexander himself. But if they also hoped to silence him, they did the very opposite. Alexander paid a terrible price, but his long efforts to reveal the true nature of the KGB regime have succeeded. At his deathbed, he finally made the world to open eyes to the truth he fought for. And to him, like to any of us, that truth was more precious than personal survival.

Well, cowards shall never understand a martyr, nor liars a man of honour. A very difficult question about Alexander which I am often asked now is “was he naïve?” Yes and no. He was honest – and is not the very idea of honour seen as naïve today? He believed in the good in people – but what hope would be left in the world if not for that belief? His less naïve colleagues have become murderers and millionaires; naïve Alexander has died like a hero. Which of them have really made a mistake? Yes, he was naïve – naïve enough to fight for the truth to the bitter end.

It much amazed me at a time that the bravest dissidents in today’s Russia, Litvinenko and Trepashkin, both came from the KGB. I still do not quite know how to explain this. Yet, this is a fact beyond any doubt, and these people had truly inherited our traditions.

Alexander’s rebellion, like ours some thirty years before, was rather moral than political. I even doubt he had any clear political beliefs before that. He was simply a good professional, a brilliant detective, who did his job honestly – too honestly, one might say. But whenever he investigated any sophisticated criminal network, the traces would inevitably lead him to an office in Lubyanka next to his own. That was more or less a classical Hollywood story of an honest cop fighting corrupt superiors. When these superiors ordered him to commit a murder, his final rebellion was merely a logical conclusion of that conflict.

So Alexander went public, and that step dramatically altered his fate. Perhaps that is why, once he realised the power of a public stance, he remained passionately faithful to it ever since. For the rest of his life, whenever he learned some new facts or had some new ideas, his first instinct was to publicise them immediately. That was how he became an author – and of course, his passionate approach made him a rather unprofessional one. He never learned caution and discretion which are rightly seen as compulsory in journalism. He was simply too straightforward for it – his idea of a strong move against a scoundrel was to call him a scoundrel to his face. Worse still, he could easily make a claim without backing it with sufficient evidence, just because he believed it was true.

In a sense, that was a conflict of two systems of professional ethics. It is a duty of an author to say no more that he can prove; but it is a duty of a secret servant to report everything of slightest significance to his commander. A newly converted and passionate democrat, Alexander took the public as a substitute for his commander-in-chief, while his instincts remained those of a secret servant. Needless to say, this paradox would often put him in embarrassing situations.

Of course, there were enough of more professional authors around him willing to help, to advice, to restrain. To give Alexander his due, he was also quite prepared to listen and learn, and he always was a bright student. I myself have spent hundreds of hours on telephone with Alexander – normally on his initiative – discussing whatever he was writing at that particular moment. And I guess I was not the only one. As I am looking through his articles today, I come to appreciate how very much of my own influence is there. Yet, sometimes he was simply too quick or too stubborn to be restrained, and then he would publish something he should not have. Then, of course, hostile propaganda – which otherwise preferred to ignore Alexander rather than argue with him – would jump on some small particular and promote it to the best of their ability. They have always been good in that dirty tactics of ‘poisoning the wells’, that is, compromising the sources of undesirable information. Probably, this is a major reason why Alexander’s allegations never received as much public attention as they deserved.

One of the suchlike tricks against Alexander was particularly unfair, undeserved and insulting; and it was played only after Alexander’s death. Indeed, too much has been made of the fact of his deathbed conversion to Islam. Russian commentators would even compare him to the notorious suicide bombers, telling the stories of how Alexander probably killed himself just to discredit Putin… In reality, never being a particularly religious man, he converted for a very personal – and noble – reason. Alexander felt very strongly about the unjust war against Chechnya in which he himself had a misfortune to fight. So, after being betrayed by his own country, he forever associated himself with the Chechen freedom-fighters. That national conversion, so to speak, preceded the religious one. The latter, for all I know, simply served Alexander’s desire to be one day re-buried in independent Chechnya according to the Chechen customs.

Be that as it may, his knowledge of contemporary Russia and its secret services was really unique, both because he spent many years as an insider, and because of his exceptional detective talents. Today, with Alexander no longer on my phone line, I have not only lost a good friend – I have also lost much of my vision.

Now his revelations are before you. Although not everything Alexander alleged should be taken for granted, all of that should be taken seriously. His opinions could be as right or wrong as any. What I can vouch for is that none of his words were lies.


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