Marina Litvinenko has seen her husband’s murder played out on screen and stage more than half a dozen times. In 2006 the Russian defector and former KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko died in a north London hospital at the age of 43, weeks after drinking green tea spiked with the radioactive isotope polonium-210 at a hotel in London’s Mayfair. A decade later, an inquest concluded that Vladimir Putin had most likely ordered the assassination.
Since his gruesome death, Alexander Litvinenko has been the subject of fascination. There have been front pages, broadcast news reports and documentaries, each featuring the infamous photo of him, bald and pallid in hospital, as the radiation slowly consumed him. His story has also been repeatedly depicted in plays, television miniseries and even an opera.
The most recent is Peter Morgan’s play Patriots, which opened in the West End of London on 26 May, after premiering at north London’s Almeida Theatre in 2022. It recounts the story of Boris Berezovsky (played by Tom Hollander), the Russian oligarch who fled Moscow in 2000 after Putin came to power, and was found hanged in his Berkshire home in 2013. (An inquiry on whether his death was a suicide proved inconclusive.) Though the colourful and controversial Berezovsky is the main character, Patriots charts the events leading up to Alexander’s murder, and explores the messy political aftermath.
I met Marina Litvinenko at a west London café one recent sunny morning, and asked her how she felt seeing her husband’s death being re-enacted. “It’s not easy,” she said, after placing her order (tea, green). And yet: “I’m just so grateful.” Litvinenko, 61, put pressure on the UK government to hold an inquiry into the murder of her husband, whom she calls Sasha.
Litvinenko first met Morgan – the screenwriter of Frost/Nixon, The Queen and The Crown – in 2016, when he told her he was fascinated by the story of Berezovsky. Later, she discovered that Morgan had written a script that portrayed her life with Alexander in Russia, their flight to the UK to escape Putin’s regime, and her husband’s assassination. “Every time I meet the people who play me and Sasha, it’s something special,” she said. (In Patriots, they are Stefanie Martini and Josef Davies.) “It’s not about how people look – it’s more about feeling.” What feeling do they capture? Litvinenko looked at me. “They know it was a love story.”
Marina met Alexander in 1993 in Moscow at a party for her 31st birthday. She was a dancer and he was an agent with the FSB, the successor to the KGB. He was married, but “it was just like we found each other”, she said. They had a son, Anatoly, in 1994 and – after Alexander divorced – married later that year. “We were always joking that he was my birthday present.”
Alexander’s work became increasingly dangerous. In November 1998 Berezovsky – whom he had provided security for – publicly claimed that high-ranking FSB officials had ordered his assassination after he had fallen out with the increasingly powerful Putin. Alexander and four other FSB officers publicly confirmed Berezovsky’s claim, saying they had been ordered to kill a number of prominent Russian businessmen. Alexander was jailed in Moscow 1999 for nine months on charges of abusing his office with his public statements. On release, Alexander fled with his family to the UK, where they were granted asylum.
They believed they were safe in London. They made friends easily and, from afar, continued to agitate against Putin’s rule. “London became a place for people from Russia who disagreed with Putin’s vision,” Litvinenko said. Alexander became an even more prominent critic of Putin, co-writing a book in 2002, Blowing Up Russia, which described how the FSB used false-flag terror attacks to justify, for instance, the 1999 invasion of Chechnya that helped bring Putin to power. Then, on 1 November 2006, Alexander had a meeting at a hotel in Grosvenor Square, London, with two former KGB agents who claimed they wanted to discuss potential investments by Western firms in Russia. Three weeks later he was dead.
I asked Litvinenko if she holds a particular image of her husband in mind. She considered the question. “I’d say that if it was a painting, it would be a watercolour,” she said, her hand sweeping imaginary brushstrokes in the air. “Because it is very gentle. Even though Sasha was a really strong person, he was very soft.”
She recalls that she once read a newspaper article about a married couple. When the wife was diagnosed with a terminal illness, the couple “decided to take pills so that they would die together”. Litvinenko shared the tale with her husband. “Sasha said, ‘I would do the same, I would not be able to live without you.’” As Litvinenko relayed this story, she paused. It wasn’t hard to guess that she was thinking of the years she’s now lived without him. When Litvinenko spoke again, her eyes were full of tears. “But I told Sasha, ‘I can’t say this to you’ – because we had Anatoly. I always thought of the three of us.”
Anatoly was 12 when his father was murdered. “It is just the two of us now,” she said. Anatoly still lives in London and has tested out various careers: writing, working as a paralegal, learning to code. As a teenager he didn’t “grieve at all” after his father’s death; “he tried to be strong for me,” she said. But they both felt the loss of Alexander’s gentleness. “When I tried to be very tough I would think, ‘But who will be soft for him?’”
When her husband was in prison in Moscow, he sent her a letter everyday – more than 200. She kept them, but worries about rereading them. “I’m glad to have the chance to talk about him because it [feels] like a duty,” she said. And yet: “I’m so afraid to be in the past. I always try to move forward because it keeps you alive.”
At times, duty meets the present moment. Since Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, the Litvinenkos’ stand against Putin seems more warranted than ever. Patriots, which traces the various perversions that patriotism has been subject to there since the collapse of the Soviet Union, helps to understand attitudes to the war within Russia. “We have now, after one and a half years, Russian people who still believe that what Putin is doing is right,” Litvinenko said. “It’s horrible when people believe that killing other people, who have been your neighbours or even members of your family, is being a patriot.”
Litvinenko feels some frustration with the response from the UK. She points to the many flagrant signs since Alexander’s death that Putin’s rule posed a danger beyond Russian borders, from the invasion of Georgia in 2008 to the 2014 annexation of Crimea. And the response to Russia since the war, Litvinenko told me, often seems like a clumsy overcorrection. She has felt a shift in attitudes towards ordinary Russians in the UK: “Back in 2006, we didn’t divide Russians into ‘bad’ and ‘good’. Now, that’s become a discussion: who’s a good Russian and who’s a bad Russian,” she said. “You can’t measure people like that.” She has no idea how Putin can be stopped. Even if someone were to oust the president, Russia wouldn’t emerge unscathed. “The Russian political field now, they all just fight against each other,” she said. “Everyone has started to build their own private armies – there are now at least five or seven. It’s not for Russia; it’s to defend themselves.”
These days, Litvinenko’s life in London is content. “I’m happy, Anatoly is happy.” She teaches a children’s dance class on Sundays. She speaks to the press about the dangers of Putin’s regime. She supports the depictions of Sasha’s murder. It’s not much, she said. And yet: “It’s another crack, right?”
[See also: Are sanctions on Russia working?]
This article appears in the 07 Jun 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Reeves Doctrine