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Poisoned ex-spy's widow speaks out

Marina Litvinenko recalls the harrowing days leading up to the former Russian agent's `horrible' death.

June 10, 2007|Kim Murphy | Times Staff Writer

LONDON — It was going to be a special dinner to celebrate the sixth anniversary of their escape from Russia. Marina Litvinenko cooked a special recipe from her mother, chicken and blini. Often, Alexander ate out because he didn't have time for family dinners.

"This time, he said, 'Marina, I will eat with you,' " she said, remembering the night her husband started dying.

A few hours after dinner, he said he felt sick. "I said, 'Why? It was so delicious, so good.' He said, 'I can't keep it down anymore.' And he went to the bathroom and threw up." Alexander -- "Sasha" to his family and friends -- said he would sleep in the study that night. In the morning, he was much worse.

"He said, 'I almost died, I felt like my heart almost stopped,' " she recalled. "And then that next day started the horrible diarrhea -- blood. Horrible."

Already, her husband from his long years as a KGB man seemed to know. "This couldn't be flu," he said. "It looks like chemical poisoning."

What Marina Litvinenko didn't know then was that three weeks later, her husband would become the first known person who doctors say appears to have died of deliberate poisoning by radioactive polonium.

British prosecutors are blaming the poisoning on a fellow former KGB officer who had met him at a hotel bar on the day he fell ill. The incident has damaged relations between Russia and Britain, and become the subject of endless stories chronicling the former agent's campaign to expose purported crime in the Russian government.

Less prominent has been the 45-year-old former dancer who married him, fled Russia in fear with him and finally buried him in a lead-lined coffin thousands of miles from home.

In a series of interviews timed to the release of a book this week written mainly by coauthor and family friend Alex Goldfarb, "Death of a Dissident: The Poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko and the Return of the KGB," Marina Litvinenko chronicles her own bumpy ride in her husband's wake and her attempts to build a normal life for their family in London, despite her husband's occasional foreboding that it would all end badly.

"He is so superreal, he charged me so much, that I just continue running on that energy as if we are still wired to each other," she says in the book. "I don't think it will ever stop."

She was 31 and divorced when someone invited Sasha to her birthday celebration. She had reservations. Who wanted an officer of the Federal Security Service, or FSB, the domestic successor agency of the KGB, at their birthday party?

"They told me he's completely different, he's very funny, he's very easy, joking, and he's not like we can imagine people from this former KGB," she said in an interview last week. "When I met him, yes, it was exactly what they said."

An affection grows

Sasha was married but split up with his wife soon after, and began courting Marina. Already used to being a single woman, tough and independent, she said Sasha made her feel womanly.

"We didn't immediately fall in love. But he would ask things like, do I have enough money, can he buy some fruit for me? It started to feel good, when you're not just [an] independent woman, but you can be soft, and weak, and somebody is just behind you," she said.

"One day we walked in a park. I was quite tired. I had a job as a fitness instructor, and we were sitting on a bench, and he said, 'Marina, are you tired?' I said my feet are just tired. He said, 'I can give you massage.' He took off my socks. You think, 'My feet are not very clean.' But he didn't feel anything about this. It was just -- what can I say?"

They married, had a son, Anatoly, and weathered the first crisis of their marriage when Sasha was briefly imprisoned in 1998 after accusing his FSB superiors of ordering the assassination of billionaire tycoon Boris Berezovsky.

Two years later, when he began to believe his life was in danger in Russia, Sasha one day left Moscow, telling his wife to wait for instructions. The book tells how a man who was a friend of Sasha's told her to buy a new cellphone, call a number, hang up, and wait. The next morning, Sasha phoned.

"Good morning, my darling. Where are you?" he said. Sasha told her to book a vacation to Spain and tell no one where she was going. Once she was in Spain, he entreated her to meet him in Turkey, where Goldfarb was trying to get him political asylum in the U.S.

She flew in with Anatoly, carrying only enough clothes for a day or two, all that was left of their life in Russia. The Americans in Ankara, the Turkish capital, declined to help and, after several harrowing days, the family wound up in Britain, where Sasha joined Berezovsky in his campaign to discredit the government of Russian President Vladimir V. Putin, the man Sasha would identify as his killer in a deathbed statement taken down by Goldfarb.

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