ANOTHER KGB poisoning? Sounds like the 1950s all over again. Yet here we are, nearly in 2007, with Russia's ex-spy-chief-turned-president running a country where nasty crimes still cast suspicion on the state security forces.
Of course, Moscow's foreign intelligence service emphatically denies that it had anything to do with the hideous poisoning death in London of the former-KGB-spy-turned-dissident Alexander Litvinenko, who died Thursday night. Indeed, a spokesman for the SVR -- the latest in a dizzying series of acronyms for the post-Soviet but still unreformed KGB -- scoffed at the very suggestion. "Litvinenko is not the kind of person for whose sake we would spoil bilateral relations," said Sergei Ivanov, as quoted by Interfax. But the Russian secret service had motive and opportunity for the crime, and Moscow's leadership has not yet earned the benefit of the doubt.
Litvinenko had been a thorn in the Kremlin's side for years. In 1998, he alleged that his supervisor in the secret service had ordered him to kill business tycoon and Kremlin foe Boris A. Berezovsky. He and four other agents later announced what Russians had long suspected: that the KGB successor agency was utterly corrupt, engaging in kidnapping, contract killing and extortion. As is the tradition in Russia, the whistle-blower was jailed. But Litvinenko was eventually cleared, then granted political asylum in Britain in 2001.
There he wrote a book accusing the security services of blowing up Moscow apartment buildings and trying to pin the crimes on Chechen "terrorists" in order to manufacture a case for the second Chechnya war. Just before his poisoning, he was apparently seeking to identify the assassins of journalist Anna Politkovskaya, an evidence-laden critic of President Vladimir V. Putin. Litvinenko believed that she was killed on Putin's order.
The British Health Protection Agency said Litvinenko took in a "major dose" of the radioactive element polonium-210, which ravaged his immune system. In Cold War days, the Soviets tended to contract out the serious stuff to the Bulgarians and East Germans, and poison was one of their favorite methods. (In 1978, one emigre Bulgarian dissident was murdered in London with a poisoned umbrella tip.)
These days, Russians presumably have to do their own dirty work. And in recent years, a veritable rash of poisonings has erupted all over the post-Soviet body politic. Many seem to stem from business disputes, but others are more political, notably the unsolved 2004 dioxin poisoning of Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko.
It is, of course, possible that Putin had no hand in these crimes. There are plenty of dangerous characters in the shadows of Russian public life. He has denied any role, issued condolences, but also strangely maintained that it was "not a violent death." Litvinenko, though, had no doubts. "You may succeed in silencing one man," he wrote Putin from this deathbed, "but the howl of protest from around the world will reverberate." Until the Russian president cleans house, the world is right to wonder if the bad old KGB days are still with us.