Poisoning Of Russian Joins History Of Spy Intrigue

LONDON, UK -- In the new James Bond movie, "Casino Royale," Agent 007 gives a master class in what to do if you are unexpectedly poisoned by your enemies in a public place (for one thing, when you stagger dramatically from the room, make sure to do it in a suave manner).

Former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko in his hospital bed after he was poisoned.

But while the fictional Bond has an array of useful resources at his disposal - a car filled with potential antidotes that serves as a mobile emergency room; a hotline to trained poison-control experts at MI6 headquarters; and a personal defibrillator that comes in handy during heart attacks - the ordinary real-life poison victim has no such advantages.

Nor is the sequence of events surrounding nonfictional poisoning generally as clear-cut as when Bond, played by Daniel Craig, falls deathly ill within moments of taking the first sip of his spiked martini.

In the case of Alexander Litvinenko, a former Russian spy who died in a London hospital Thursday night, the most confounding questions were also the most basic. Who gave it to him and when? And how did they get this particular poison?

Litvinenko, it emerged, had been given a substance even Bond would not have been prepared for: a highly toxic radioactive isotope, a cup of tea gone nuclear, so to speak.

The substance, polonium 210, "is not the kind of weapon that any kind of amateur could construct," said Andrea Sella, a lecturer in inorganic chemistry at London's University College.

By his and his friends' initial accounts, Litvinenko's illness seemed to have had all the hallmarks of the sort of attack favored, according to exiled critics of the Russian government, by the Russian security services in recent years.

His friends insisted that he had been poisoned on Nov. 1, perhaps during or after two meetings in London - one in a hotel, the other at a restaurant - and that he had been a target because of his vocal opposition to the government of President Vladimir Putin.

Before he became sick, Litvinenko said, he was investigating the death of Anna Politkovskaya, a journalist who was highly critical of Russian policy in Chechnya and who was shot at her apartment building in Moscow on Oct. 7.

Poison, an effective murder weapon for centuries, in recent years has been used as a weapon of choice in the former Soviet bloc. Yuri Shchekochikin, a journalist who wrote about corruption in Russia, fell ill and died in July 2003, for example.

The Russian authorities said he had suffered an allergic reaction; his colleagues said it was poison.

A Russian banker, Ivan Kivelidi, and his secretary died in 1995 after using a telephone apparently dosed with poison.

The current president of Ukraine, Viktor Yushchenko, was poisoned with dioxin in 2004 but survived and took office despite Putin's opposition. Politkovskaya herself became violently sick - poisoned, she insisted - after drinking a cup of tea on a plane while covering the hostage crisis in Beslan in 2004.

Shortly before he died, Litvinenko issued a statement saying he was certain he had been poisoned, and blaming Putin - who promptly dismissed the claim.

The Russians continued to deny responsibility, even as one British Foreign Office official said Moscow's ambassador had been called in and told "the situation was now more serious."

These days, political poisonings seem bizarre throwbacks, plucked from the pages of lurid spy thrillers or from movies like "Notorious." In that 1946 Hitchcock film, Ingrid Bergman, playing a spy infiltrating a group of former Nazis who are regrouping in Brazil after World War II, is slowly poisoned by her husband, played by Claude Rains. (Uranium ore secreted in wine bottles and meant to be used for bombs is a key element of the plot, but even Hollywood did not suggest that it might double as the poison itself.)

But there were real poisonings in the postwar era, too; the last well-known one in London took place in 1978, administered by a variation of the classic poisoned dart.

In that case, the Bulgarian dissident Georgi Markov was jabbed sharply in the thigh by a stranger's umbrella as he waited for a bus on Waterloo Bridge. He died three days later, and a postmortem exam found a pellet with the deadly poison ricin in his leg.

London has in recent years become a refuge for Putin's Russian enemies, from men like Boris Berezovsky, the billionaire businessman, to Litvinenko, a former KGB officer. But even for the suspicious émigrés, as well as for Britons, Litvinenko's death was a shock, given the nature of the toxin that killed him."

Most poisonings in Britain are smaller-scale affairs, removed from the realm of international politics, in both real life and fiction.

Agatha Christie was fond of poison as a way to dispose of her victims. Poisons employed by her murderers include, among others, strychnine, morphine, cyanide, chloral hydrate, prussic acid, arsenic, ricin, poison gas, digitalin, digitoxin and snake venom.

Some of her victims survived, just as Yushchenko has. But none did so as unrealistically as James Bond does in "Casino Royale." After being restored to life by a quick jolt to the heart with his trusty defibrillator, Bond changes his shirt, returns to the casino, and wins the poker game.

No health threat expected

The British authorities do not expect a major threat to public health after the disclosure that a former Russian KGB officer and enemy of the Kremlin had been killed by radiation poisoning in London, The International Herald Tribune reported from London.

The Health Protection Agency, however, urged people who had been in the same places as the victim, Alexander Litvinenko, to contact the authorities for urine tests.

Source: International Herald Tribune

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