Interview With Marina Litvinenko, Widow of Poisoned Ex-FSB Operative and Putin Critic Alexander Litvinenko

06/15/2015 05:11 pm ET | Updated Jun 12, 2016

Marina Litvinenko is the widow of Russian FSB agent Alexander Litvinenko, who fled Russia for the United Kingdom in 2000. Alexander Litvinenko was murdered by radioactivity poisoning in London in 2006; and since then, Marina Litvinenko has become an activist who has pushed for several inquiries into the events leading to his death. She established the Litvinenko Justice Foundation in 2007, which was funded initially by Boris Berezovsky. Despite numerous setbacks in the judicial process, a public inquiry into her husband's death began on January 27, 2015. Marina Litvinenko agreed to sit down for an interview with me following her speech at the University of Oxford on May 27, 2015. The transcript of that interview is below:

Your husband Alexander Litvinenko, was a staunch critic of the Putin regime, even though he had worked in the KGB during the Soviet era and in the FSB under Yeltsin. Did he openly express dissent or dissatisfaction with the Russian political system prior to Putin's rise to power or did he largely avoid criticizing the abuses of power that occurred under Soviet rule and under Yeltsin?

Marina Litvinenko: First of all, I would like to emphasize that Sasha was not a dissident. When he was in Russia and working for the FSB, he did his job. He was firmly committed to cracking down on organized crime and retained faith in the Russian political system. However, Sasha's perspectives changed a bit once he began to work in the headquarters of the KGB after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. The KGB underwent several name changes during this time before it became FSB. But even throughout this time, he focused on the investigation of crime and did not want to be a dissident who sought to change Russia at the political level.

After 1993 and the 1994 start of the Chechen war, his job became increasingly politicized. First of all, some politicians became very corrupt and linked to organized crime. And investigations could not be finished as politicians blocked fair conclusions, which caused Sasha to be frustrated with his job. But yet he was still not very critical during the Yeltsin period, and he was renowned for being very good at his job.

You mentioned that Litvinenko was not a dissident or open critic of the Russian system prior to Putin's rise to power. What changed his perspective once Vladimir Putin became FSB leader? And does Putin's ascension to the presidency solely explain the timing of his decision to flee Russia?

Marina Litvinenko: In 1998, Vladimir Putin became the head of the FSB. Sasha after one meeting with Putin realized that Putin was taking the FSB back to the repression of the Soviet KGB. Putin wanted the FSB to control everything. Sasha believed that Putin was unwilling to change the FSB and he was convinced that he had been involved in criminal activity in St. Petersburg prior to his rise to power within the FSB. In an attempt to marginalize Litvinenko, he was arrested and accused of abuses of power while working for the FSB, and despite an acquittal, more charges kept coming to him, which made it inevitable that he would have to flee Russia.

But I would like to emphasize that even when Putin took charge, Sasha wanted open discussion but refrained from criticism in a dissident kind of way. He was an innocent person; he did not commit any crimes against the Russian state. When he realized Putin would imprison him and he would not be able to save us, he decided to escape from Russia. He did not try to save himself but he tried to save us. It was only when we arrived safely in England, that he started engaging in open dissent and to criticize the political situation in Russia and urge people he knew within the FSB to fire the corrupt in Russia.

Boris Berezovsky was a crucial patron and ally for your husband. How did Alexander Litvinenko first become connected with Boris Berezovsky?

Marina Litvinenko: Sasha first became connected with Boris Berezovsky in 1994, which was the time of the first assassination attempt against him. Berezovsky's car was bombed and his driver was killed, but Berezovsky survived. Sasha was in the investigation team who tried to find the perpetrators of the crime. Sasha was very good at socializing with people and he was very good to Berezovsky. The FSB took advantage of this connection to try to use Sasha to control Berezovsky. Sasha still met with Berezovsky frequently, and every time, he met, he would provide documentation for the agent-to-agent relationship. Sasha became intrigued by Berezovsky's attempts to promote political change and create a new Russia. When Berezovsky created a new television station, the largest in Russia, it was very interesting for Sasha as well, and this helped consolidate the relationship.

You said that the FSB used Alexander Litvinenko to control Berezovsky. How did Litvinenko manage to maintain his friendship with Berezovsky while still remaining a loyal servant of the FSB? When did Litvinenko's and Berezovsky's political interests start to converge more closely?

Marina Litvinenko: One time Sasha went to Switzerland on a business trip from the FSB, and he received a diplomatic passport. Clearly Berezovsky could not offer him a diplomatic passport, it was because the FSB sent him to Switzerland to be close to Berezovsky and keep surveillance on his actions. What the FSB did not realize was that Sasha's relationship with Berezovsky had blossomed into a friendship. The general manager of Berezovsky's TV channel was murdered. It became a very infamous killing; everybody loved him and he was a very well known TV presenter. The public was shocked and an investigation began that caused the FSB to link Berezovsky immediately to the crime. Evidence was created linking Berezovsky but it looked clearly like a false order, and Sasha protected Berezovsky from these allegations and further assassination attempts, which began again in 1995. Berezovsky was always grateful to Sasha for saving his life; when he prevented security service officers from removing Berezovsky from his office as part of a plan to blame the murder of the radio station host on him. Sasha protected Berezovsky not because he was working for him, his loyalties were still with the FSB, but he acted because he believed the FSB was not doing the right thing. After this, Berezovsky and Sasha's relationship became closer. Berezovsky was a very rich man and he was also in a powerful position politically.

When Sasha became increasingly critical of the criminality within the FSB, he got support from Berezovsky because Berezovsky believed that the developments in Russia were very dangerous. Eventually, as his dissent became more vocal, Berezovsky used the power of his TV channel to support him. When Putin took power, he reversed many of the democratic measures Yeltsin had tried to implement and subverted free expression and the electoral system. Berezovsky and Sasha both opposed these measures strongly, strengthening their connection.

You have spoken previously about Putin and the FSB's attempts to assassinate Boris Berezovsky. Were those assassination attempts decisive in causing Litvinenko to become a scathing critic of the FSB?

Marina Litvinenko: In 1997, when he faced pressure to kill Boris Berezovsky, it became obvious that the FSB had become an organization that killed people, used them, almost like a kind of Mafia. Litvinenko told Berezvosky about the assassination plot and an internal investigation within the FSB was launched, which ended up not being credible. At that time, Sasha felt it would be a good idea to talk openly about the Berezovsky murder attempt, as he believed the FSB was capable of change and not completely under the control of Mafia elements. This was reasonable as the FSB was also led by a coterie of Yeltsin-aligned officials. Some of these leaders wanted the organization to take on a different character from the Soviet KGB.

Boris Berezovsky died in mysterious circumstances in 2013. What was your opinion on his death- murder or suicide?

Marina Litvinenko: I find it difficult to believe that Berezovsky committed suicide. Berezovsky had many enemies, strong views and a long history of assassination attempts against him. The last time I spoke to him before his death, he seemed to be recovering and more positive. I can't tell you for sure, but I have doubts about the official suicide narrative.

Litvinenko compiled a vast array of information that painted the Russian government in a very negative light, including details about the Moscow apartment bombings. How did Litvinenko compile this information once he was exiled to the United Kingdom?

Marina Litvinenko: Sasha had many sources. And eventually, one of his sources, Mikhail Trepashkin, was arrested in Moscow. He had a very strong connection with this source and there was a very strong personal relationship between the two of them. The FSB wanted Sasha to do bad things against Trepashkin. But eventually him and Trepashkin became friends, and Sasha came to England, and started to work on his book. Trepashkin then provided him with links to more information. Sasha was able to leak more and more information now. Sasha did not come up with information in the files from his imagination; it was more difficult for him to get concrete evidence in London than it was in Moscow. But every time, he tried to find real information. His communication skills and former experience allowed him to do what he did.

Alexander Litvinenko worked for or in cooperation with MI6, after he sought refuge to the United Kingdom. How extensive was his connection with MI6 and British intelligence in general?

Marina Litvinenko: When Sasha fled Russia for the UK, he revealed details to the British government about his qualifications and past experience working in the FSB, in particular his work in combatting organized crime in government and to national security. All the details were recorded in the Litvinenko files. In 2002 or 2003, Sasha was contacted by MI6 to use his experience in combatting organized crime and he accepted their request. Sasha helped the MI6 target organized crime in Europe that had linkages to Russia; he was never an agent just a consultant. Sasha also worked for the Spanish security services as well and travelled to Spain to carry out similar kinds of work.

Britain has vacillated between limited rapproachment and hardline opposition to the Putin regime in recent years. How responsive has the Briitsh government been to your initial attempts to find justice for Alexander Litvinenko?

Marina Litvinenko: I think I got a great deal of support from the British government and Tony Blair immediately after his death in 2006. Sasha was a British citizen; I think those who committed the crime underestimated the extent to which Sasha's murder would be viewed as the killing of a British national on British soil. Russia strongly resisted pressure from the British government; before Gordon Brown announced his support for the extradition of Lugovoi, they probably carried out harassment in the British Council and in British Petroleum in Moscow. While I love Russia, I am happy that Brown pushed for the extradition of Lugovoi and refused to meet Putin. I do not equate Russia with Putin. I was disappointed with David Cameron's decision to meet with Putin and engage him diplomatically, but in the initial aftermath of his death, I think Blair and the British government gave our case substantial support.

Finally, why do you think that the perpetrators of the Litvinenko murder used radioactive polonium to kill him? Do you think it was primarily for practical reasons or could it have been utilized for a deterrent effect?

Marina Litvinenko: First of all, radioactive material was only discovered after Sasha died. If we had not found it, we would not know what had happened. He became severely ill after meeting several Russian men in London; and without the discovery of radioactivity, his death would have been totally mysterious. I believe that they used radioactivity and polonium because they thought it would never be discovered. It would be the perfect murder, Sasha would die and it would be an unexplained death. The perpetrators of his murder would blame Boris Berezovsky, who was an enemy of Putin, and someone that Putin had tried to assassinate many times before, even though he was also living in the UK. Many people have said radioactivity was used to frighten people, it was to create a hysteria surrounding nuclear terrorism on the streets of London, but I think it was caused primarily by the perpetrators' desire to cover up the crime.