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1 November 2006. Alexander Litvinenko is brazenly poisoned in central London. Twenty two days later he dies, killed from the inside. The poison? Polonium; a rare, lethal and highly radioactive substance. His crime? He had made some powerful enemies in Russia. Based on the best part of a decade's reporting, as well as extensive interviews with those closest to the events (in 1 November 2006. Alexander Litvinenko is brazenly poisoned in central London. Twenty two days later he dies, killed from the inside. The poison? Polonium; a rare, lethal and highly radioactive substance. His crime? He had made some powerful enemies in Russia. Based on the best part of a decade's reporting, as well as extensive interviews with those closest to the events (including the murder suspects), and access to trial evidence, Luke Harding's A Very Expensive Poison is the definitive inside story of the life and death of Alexander Litvinenko. Harding traces the journey of the nuclear poison across London, from hotel room to nightclub, assassin to victim; it is a deadly trail that seemingly leads back to the Russian state itself. Harding argues that Litvinenko's assassination marked the beginning of the deterioration of Moscow's relations with the west and a decade of geo-political disruptions--from the war in Ukraine, a civilian plane shot down, at least 7,000 dead, two million people displaced and a Russian president's defiant rejection of a law-based international order. With Russia's covert war in Ukraine and annexation of the Crimea, Europe and the US face a new Cold War, but with fewer certainties. This is a shocking real-life revenge tragedy with corruption and subterfuge at every turn, and walk-on parts from Russian mafia, the KGB, MI6 agents, dedicated British coppers, Russian dissidents. At the heart of this all is an individual and his family torn apart by a ruthless crime.


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1 November 2006. Alexander Litvinenko is brazenly poisoned in central London. Twenty two days later he dies, killed from the inside. The poison? Polonium; a rare, lethal and highly radioactive substance. His crime? He had made some powerful enemies in Russia. Based on the best part of a decade's reporting, as well as extensive interviews with those closest to the events (in 1 November 2006. Alexander Litvinenko is brazenly poisoned in central London. Twenty two days later he dies, killed from the inside. The poison? Polonium; a rare, lethal and highly radioactive substance. His crime? He had made some powerful enemies in Russia. Based on the best part of a decade's reporting, as well as extensive interviews with those closest to the events (including the murder suspects), and access to trial evidence, Luke Harding's A Very Expensive Poison is the definitive inside story of the life and death of Alexander Litvinenko. Harding traces the journey of the nuclear poison across London, from hotel room to nightclub, assassin to victim; it is a deadly trail that seemingly leads back to the Russian state itself. Harding argues that Litvinenko's assassination marked the beginning of the deterioration of Moscow's relations with the west and a decade of geo-political disruptions--from the war in Ukraine, a civilian plane shot down, at least 7,000 dead, two million people displaced and a Russian president's defiant rejection of a law-based international order. With Russia's covert war in Ukraine and annexation of the Crimea, Europe and the US face a new Cold War, but with fewer certainties. This is a shocking real-life revenge tragedy with corruption and subterfuge at every turn, and walk-on parts from Russian mafia, the KGB, MI6 agents, dedicated British coppers, Russian dissidents. At the heart of this all is an individual and his family torn apart by a ruthless crime.

30 review for A Very Expensive Poison: The Definitive Story of the Murder of Litvinenko and Russia's War with the West

  1. 5 out of 5

    Louise

    Alexander Litvinenko solved the crime of his murder as he was dying from poisoning and it took the British government another 10 years to confirm it. Luke Harding takes you through the crime and the issues that surround it. You see how those who fall out of favor with Vladimir Putin are never safe. Those at the top did not plan it well. While they found two unassuming motiveless assassins, Andrei Lugovoi and Dimity Kovton knew little of their tradecraft. The descriptions of how they dressed, atte Alexander Litvinenko solved the crime of his murder as he was dying from poisoning and it took the British government another 10 years to confirm it. Luke Harding takes you through the crime and the issues that surround it. You see how those who fall out of favor with Vladimir Putin are never safe. Those at the top did not plan it well. While they found two unassuming motiveless assassins, Andrei Lugovoi and Dimity Kovton knew little of their tradecraft. The descriptions of how they dressed, attempted to get laid, and sought an accomplice are comical. Did the planners know that polomium 210, while hard to detect in a body, leaves a larger external trail, one that could possibly put thousands at risk? It doesn’t matter that the planners were careless, with the power of the “country” they control and their wealth, consequences are unlikely. They publically awarded the assassins with honors. Litvenenko’s assassination did not occur in a vacuum. There is a description of the Crimea takeover which gives insight as to how the Putin regime works. There is a description of the wealth these oligarchs are protecting, not only in their world-wide properties but also their prominence in the Panama Papers. (For those following Putin and his circle it is interesting that “cellist” features in the “Papers”.) Harding profiles some of Putin’s critics that have wound up dead: Boris Berezosvski (Litvenenko’s former mentor & exile to the UK) Badri Patarkatsishvili (a Berezosvski partner and UK exile), Anna Polikovskaya (a Russian journalist murdered in her Moscow apt. stairwell), Boris Nemtsov (an opposition politician murdered in the open at a would-be Moscow rally) and Mikhail Lesin (a mysterious death in the US). You understand that Harding has had some space considerations since the trail is far from complete. Sergei Magnitsky (and others that perished regarding the Browder claims) gets only mention and other prominent victims are not listed. There are many takeaways. One is awe for the very brave men and women in Russia who pursue reform through the media, politics and the courts. In the US these can be career or commitment pursuits, in Russia they are life and death undertakings. Another is how Russian money acts like a drug on policy makers and politicians in the west. While Trump supporters may look the other way, it is clear that the influence is here in the US. The inability of the Republicans in the House and Senate to secure our voting system makes you wonder how deeply they are hooked on Russian cash. It also makes you hopeful that the Robert Mueller investigation can put some energy behind isolating this threat to democracy. This book is highly recommended for both those who know the issues, but also for those who are starting to inform themselves about how Putin’s Russia operates and its tentacles this book is also a good introduction.

  2. 4 out of 5

    John Anthony

    Spy thrillers will be tame after this. Alexander Litvinenko asked too many awkward questions and found too many difficult answers - difficult and unnecessarily inconvenient that is, to the all powerful Vladimir Putin and his banditti. Not many people merit such an expensive poison as Litvenko got for his trouble, costing millions. What a death, courtesy of a couple of bungling amateurs who brought to mind the comedy duo Laurel and Hardy. All this in the heart of Mayfair which this duo proceeded Spy thrillers will be tame after this. Alexander Litvinenko asked too many awkward questions and found too many difficult answers - difficult and unnecessarily inconvenient that is, to the all powerful Vladimir Putin and his banditti. Not many people merit such an expensive poison as Litvenko got for his trouble, costing millions. What a death, courtesy of a couple of bungling amateurs who brought to mind the comedy duo Laurel and Hardy. All this in the heart of Mayfair which this duo proceeded to irradiate along with their victim. Shades also of Macbeth, Russian style. [I seem to remember Banquo's murderers bungled things somewhat]. Litvinenko's story is of course central but he was far from being a lone victim of state sponsored murder. The methods varied, some more imaginative than others. The one thing they all had in common was nuisance value in varying degrees - to the Russian State/Putin. The current head of state's rise to power, shadowy, middle ranking ex KGB man was not predicted. His style of doing business is compared with the Soviet state system. NB Soviet = system. Putin is the system and the business. Oligarchs come and go in the Putin court – the mighty can become mightier (and richer) and can fall quickly, lose everything, including their lives. Roman Abramovich (owner of Chelsea FC) fits one category, his latterday legal adversary Boris Berezovsky the other. One is dead, the other doing very nicely thank you. The book was published in 2016 and can be read as a commentary on current affairs – Georgia, Ukraine, Syria, NATO, Europe, USA. But back to Litvinenko: The Owen Report into his death largely corroborated the dying man's accusations naming his murderers and the role of VP. Like Litvinenko's corpse the report was toxic material requiring 2 body bags, one for the part released to the public; the classified remainder will probably never be unzipped. It is much too dangerous. Lots more to say but please read it for yourself – the human story, humanity, lack of it, humour, grief.. Recommended to all, particularly to Donald J Trump but perhaps he's already read it and dismissed it as FAKE NEWS? I'd urge his compatriots to read it. (4.5* rounded down for all those Russian names I couldn't carry in my head – a glossary/list of “main players” in the book would have been useful. Similarly a map showing the various cities/ regions of Russia and satellite states referred to in the text).

  3. 5 out of 5

    Susan

    In London, 2006, Alexander Litvinenko was poisoned. To the men who ordered his killing, he was a traitor who held dangerous views about the Russian leaders he had previously worked for. Yet, he was also a husband and a father. A man who was trying to provide for his family, having fled his country and moved to London to start a new life. I will admit that I knew very little about this case. Like many others, I saw the photograph of Litvinenko in hospital as he lay dying. I read his moving stateme In London, 2006, Alexander Litvinenko was poisoned. To the men who ordered his killing, he was a traitor who held dangerous views about the Russian leaders he had previously worked for. Yet, he was also a husband and a father. A man who was trying to provide for his family, having fled his country and moved to London to start a new life. I will admit that I knew very little about this case. Like many others, I saw the photograph of Litvinenko in hospital as he lay dying. I read his moving statement and was impressed at his personal bravery and stoical response to events. In fact, he was far braver than I imagined – using his final days to provide the police with as much evidence of the events that had led him to his terrible, and unusual, death. The author of this book worked for four years in Moscow, before being expelled from the country. During his time in Russia he also came under the scrutiny of the authorities – finding his apartment being broken into several times, for example – and also coincidentally travelling on a plane with a man carrying a lethal amount of polonium… For, in October, 2006, two men from Moscow landed at Gatwick. They were questioned at the airport, but there was no reason to stop them entering the country; other than the intuitive feeling of one man. His intuition, though, was right. The two men, elusive and evasive, were carrying a ‘very expensive poison’ which they intended to use as a hi-tech murder weapon. By far, the most fascinating part of this book is where we follow these two men on various trips to London, with orders to kill a Russian émigré who had fled to Britain six years previously. A critic of Putin, who had worked for the Russian intelligence service and now worked for MI6. These two men left a radioactive trail around London, as they made various bungled attempts to kill the man who considered them as, if not friends, acquaintances. His need to make a living in his new country made Alexander Litvinenko careless. If the authorities had considered his fears of being killed more seriously, possibly he would not have been in the position where he was forced to let his guard down. We must also consider the two men who the author says carried out the poisoning; Andrei Lugovoi and Dimitry Kovtun, who are accused in this book of not only killing a man, but who glibly poured this extremely dangerous substance down various hotel sinks and could possibly have caused a major health disaster (at one point, one of the men even told his young son to shake Litvinenko’s hand, aware that he had just touched the poison). It is a terrible thing to admit to being so gripped by a book about such a terrible event, but this is an important story and I do feel that Alexander Litvineko would have wanted this book written – after all, he was an author and you feel that, had he been lucky enough to survive, he would have not shied away from the subject himself. The events in these pages are often so bizarre they read as more fictional than non-fiction. This though is a real life spy story, where a man who (coincidentally) shopped in my local supermarket and was taken to my local hospital, bringing this story close to home for me personally, as killed. This book takes us through those events, and on through the police investigation and inquiry into what happened. What is certain is that Litvinenko knew what could happen to him, understood what had happened to him and desired justice enough to be totally calm and tell all he knew to the authorities in London – who he trusted. I feel that this book really does tell his story the way he would approve of and that is why it is worth reading.

  4. 4 out of 5

    LindaJ^

    Ripped from the headlines? Yes, but not today's headlines about the poisoning of Sergei Skripal and his daughter in the UK. The poisoning that this book focuses on (although it does explore others) was done in 2006 and the British government did not call Putin out on it, although a 2015 study by a UK judge found that it was probable that Putin was behind the 2006 poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko. It was a messy killing, as the poisoners left quite a radioactive trail behind them. The author tal Ripped from the headlines? Yes, but not today's headlines about the poisoning of Sergei Skripal and his daughter in the UK. The poisoning that this book focuses on (although it does explore others) was done in 2006 and the British government did not call Putin out on it, although a 2015 study by a UK judge found that it was probable that Putin was behind the 2006 poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko. It was a messy killing, as the poisoners left quite a radioactive trail behind them. The author talks about Putin and how he came to be elected the Russian president after Yeltsin and tells the story of the evolution of the Russian secret service after the breakup of the USSR. The reader learns about Litvinenko's career as a member of the Russian secret service, what he did to become that made him escape from Russia and seek asylum in the UK (the US declined to help him). The author was a journalist in Russia in the early years of Putin's governance and he tells how his apartment, like most other foreigners, was bugged and how Russian agents made "visits" when he and his family were not there. The author was expelled from Russia for writing stories unfavorable to Putin and his government. The book appears to be well researched and it certainly is chilling.

  5. 5 out of 5

    James

    This is possibly the first serious book to look at the murder of Alexander Litvinenko, post the publication of the official inquiry. Even prior to that, while there were many books on the subject, more than a few were either conspiracist in nature or had an axe to grind. Luke Harding, an experienced Guardian journalist and the paper’s former Moscow correspondent, has long followed the story. In fact, as his previous book Mafia State makes clear, part of the reason he was banished from Russia was This is possibly the first serious book to look at the murder of Alexander Litvinenko, post the publication of the official inquiry. Even prior to that, while there were many books on the subject, more than a few were either conspiracist in nature or had an axe to grind. Luke Harding, an experienced Guardian journalist and the paper’s former Moscow correspondent, has long followed the story. In fact, as his previous book Mafia State makes clear, part of the reason he was banished from Russia was due to his persistent questioning of the Kremlin’s narrative. A Very Expensive Poison is a book of two halves, or perhaps more accurately, three thirds. The first two thirds of the book focus exclusively on Litvinenko himself, the two main suspects, Andrei Lugovoi and Dmitry Kovtun, and the events leading up to Litvinenko’s poisoning. Harding handles this with precision, examining every detail, every event, to draw a picture of a plot that veered from the deeply sinister, to the comically farcical, and back again. The most striking thing to emerge is just how amateurish it all was. For those used to the cold, clinical, professional KGB hitmen of spy fiction, this will come as a huge surprise. Kovtun in particular comes across as a Walter Mitty-esque clown, the sort of person one would be tempted to dismiss as a fantasist. Indeed, Kovtun confessed to one associate in Hamburg that he was carrying a “very expensive poison” (hence the book’s title) and was going to murder someone in London, only for this friend to assume that he was telling tall tales. But even Lugovoi, on the surface a much more likely hired killer, having served as a Kremlin bodyguard, appears to have been little more than an oaf. This blundering ineptness is never more apparent in the trail of radioactivity they left throughout London (and Hamburg, and the plane they arrived on from Moscow). They literally pored it down sinks, left it on towels; a scattering of toxic breadcrumbs leading police to hotel rooms, cafes, restaurants and night clubs. And if like me you assumed at the time that Alexander Litvinenko’s agonising death was a very public warning to others, you’d be wrong. The plan seems to have been to get him to ingest a lot more of the stuff, to have him die quickly and mysteriously. Instead, thanks to his killer’s incompetence, he was left to tortuously suffer slow organ failure, leaving him enough time to help the police piece together events and point the finger at their bosses in Moscow. There is just one problem in Harding’s account up to this point. If Polonium is so dangerous, why was Litvinenko the only one to get sick? Why not Kovtun and Lugovoi, who while not digesting it, certainly manhandled it? And why not innocent members of the public who came into contact with sites irradiated by the killers? This question is never satisfactorily addressed in the book. There is discussion of Polonium’s properties, it’s incredible toxicity, but nothing to adequately explain this fact. I did in fact ask Luke Harding this very question via twitter and he explained that Polonium is only deadly if ingested, and then even micro-amounts might kill you. While I applaud the author’s willingness to engage with his readers, it would have been much better had Harding explained this in greater depth in the book itself. For while it appears that Lugovoi and Kovtun had no idea of exactly what they were carrying, the knowledge of how polonium might be “safe” under certain circumstances helps to explain one peculiar aspect of the case. Just after successfully poisoning Litvinenko’s tea, Lugovoi called his own infant son over and made them shake hands. Why risk your own infant son unless you knew the poison had to be ingested to work? So while they might well have had no idea it was polonium they were carrying, they might have been advised that the toxin had to be ingested to cause harm and that handling it in and of itself was not likely to lead to adverse effects. The last third of the book I found a lot less satisfying. Harding’s thesis is that the murder of Litvinenko was the first shot, if you will, of covert conflict with the west. Indeed, the subheading of the book is “the definitive story of the murder of Litvinenko and Russia’s War with the West.” In support of this premise, he widens his analysis to include other suspicious deaths of Russian dissidents, Russia’s annexation of the Crimea and the conflict in the Ukraine. While this is valid up to a point, I felt that these are big subjects in and of themselves, and that this section was let down by the necessary brevity he had to treat them with. I also felt Harding overextended himself here. I am no supporter or apologist for Putin, his autocratic rule is obvious enough and Harding achieves nothing if not convincingly laying the murder of Litvinenko and others at his door. But while Russia’s aggression in the Ukraine is beyond doubt, is it really inconceivable that the West wasn’t whiter than white in the conflict? There is an argument to be had that America’s support for NGOs in the region is not as benign as the Washington establishment might have us believe and I don’t feel it unreasonable to question the narrative that Russian fears are completely without foundation. Harding is equally dismissive of Russia’s involvement in Syria, but again, one doesn’t have to be in the Putin fan club to ask why? While it is beyond doubt that Assad is a nasty tyrant and that Russian airstrikes have been aimed at the Free Syrian Army as well as more radical jihadist groups, it is also perfectly reasonable to point out that Russia has shown more leadership than the UK and US combined. Can we really fault the Russian bear for liberating Palmyra from ISIS? In all I found that Harding lost some objectivity in this last section, which is a shame. Putin and the Russian state are bad enough as they are - as Harding amply demonstrates in his forensic analysis of Litvinenko’s murder - without having to overegg the pudding. Indeed, I would argue that it does Putin’s critics a disservice. For the Russian President’s supporters can point to arguments and facts prematurely and hastily discarded as evidence of bias. In conclusion, A Very Expensive Poison is a hugely accomplished work and leaves the reader in little doubt that Putin and his chums are little more than underworld dons who have hijacked an entire state. But the last third of the book skims over huge territory, whilst lacking some objectivity of what came before it. This dilutes the force of Harding’s analysis.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Rowan

    I’ll never look at a cup of tea the same way again. Imagine someone handing you a document classified “top secret”; the anticipation builds as you turn the page. That is this book. James Bond films have nothing on this and one day, much like Harding’s other work, it will no doubt be made into a film. This book reads like the best spy novel you’ve ever read. Or perhaps even the most gripping Bourne film you’ve watched – but it’s a true story. A terrifying, edge-of-your-seat true story. Luke Harding I’ll never look at a cup of tea the same way again. Imagine someone handing you a document classified “top secret”; the anticipation builds as you turn the page. That is this book. James Bond films have nothing on this and one day, much like Harding’s other work, it will no doubt be made into a film. This book reads like the best spy novel you’ve ever read. Or perhaps even the most gripping Bourne film you’ve watched – but it’s a true story. A terrifying, edge-of-your-seat true story. Luke Harding does not waste a single word in the entire book. It’s a fast-paced thriller written in the most engaging way. Harding writes in an easy to understand way – he even incorporates humour; not an easy feat for a book of this type! There’s a lot of complicated relationships, political structures, intelligence talk – yet he makes it all so accessible to the average reader, while also never neglecting detail and information. I remembered seeing intense photos of Litvinenko’s final days when I was a teenager. At first, I thought I was looking at a cancer patient; the fascinating and horrific truth was soon evident though. The detailed description of Litvinenko’s decline and resulting was tough to read, yet handled in a very respectful way. Marina Litvinenko’s courage during such intense circumstances was inspiring to read. It really will be challenging not to think of Litvinenko whenever I order a pot of green tea in future. “A Very Expensive Poison” showcases investigative journalism at its best. So good were Harding’s investigative skills, that it prompted break-ins to his Moscow-based apartment – an eerie and grippingly paranoid part of the book. You can’t help but start looking at your food, drinks, phone reception in different ways while reading this! The Scotland Yard investigation was frustrating to read at times, despite it being interesting as the largest investigation of its kind. Harding’s book also provided the best explanation of the Ukraine situation and how it came to be. Some of the court room battles depicted in the book were a little tedious to read. After all, it’s a slight change of pace going from international spy crimes to court room drama – Harding provided good context for this court cases though, and they always seemed relevant to the book. A couple of random facts that jumped out at me while reading: who knew that international spies meet in London bookshops?! As well as lie detector cheating techniques involving walking a dog on a spring morning or thinking of a sexually arousing scene! Luke Harding’s “A Very Expensive Poison” will stay with you long after reading it.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Randal

    Easily the best reportage I have read in many years. Thorough, clear, engaging. It both tells the story of Andrei Litvinenko and places it into the wider context of the criminal nature of the Russian government and in particular Vladimir Putin. I found much of it chilling, particularly the later chapters on Putin's military invasions in Crimea and eastern Ukraine. This unease is deepened because of the documented links that Trump advisor Paul Manafort has with pro-Putin Russian oligarchs including Easily the best reportage I have read in many years. Thorough, clear, engaging. It both tells the story of Andrei Litvinenko and places it into the wider context of the criminal nature of the Russian government and in particular Vladimir Putin. I found much of it chilling, particularly the later chapters on Putin's military invasions in Crimea and eastern Ukraine. This unease is deepened because of the documented links that Trump advisor Paul Manafort has with pro-Putin Russian oligarchs including Viktor Yanukovich, the Putin puppet who was briefly president of Ukraine. Given the Kremlin's public glee at the U.S. election results, it makes me wonder just how close Trump's and Putin's camps are ... and this book lays out just how scary Putin and his closest advisors are. Highly, highly recommended.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Christine

    If you watched the adoration of Putin last year by a certain orange tinged president, this book will make it even worse. This does not mean to say that the other world leaders come off much better, but if you needed reason beside election influence and the Crimea to blackball Russia, this book presents it. And I am not even talking about the murder of Litvinenko. Seriously a good book.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Whitney

    Super accessible explainer on the polonium tea poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko and how that particularly memorable assassination fits into all the other high-profile killings of Putin's enemies since. Gives great context; highly recced for those without much (or any) background knowledge along with those who are already familiar but want more details. Super accessible explainer on the polonium tea poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko and how that particularly memorable assassination fits into all the other high-profile killings of Putin's enemies since. Gives great context; highly recced for those without much (or any) background knowledge along with those who are already familiar but want more details.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Brendan Monroe

    At the G7 summit yesterday, President Trump fulminated about Russia’s expulsion from the group of nations, formerly known as the G8. “Where is Russia?” He blathered, in characteristically moronic fashion. "You know, whether you like it or not, and it may not be politically correct, we have a world to run and in the G7, which used to be the G8, they threw Russia out. They should let Russia come back in because we should have Russia at the negotiating table.” Is Trump just laughably ignorant about At the G7 summit yesterday, President Trump fulminated about Russia’s expulsion from the group of nations, formerly known as the G8. “Where is Russia?” He blathered, in characteristically moronic fashion. "You know, whether you like it or not, and it may not be politically correct, we have a world to run and in the G7, which used to be the G8, they threw Russia out. They should let Russia come back in because we should have Russia at the negotiating table.” Is Trump just laughably ignorant about the malignant intentions of Russia under it’s thug-like President, Vladimir Putin, or does the FSB indeed have some kind of leverage over Trump? Laughable as almost everything about Trump is, for one reason or another the man who would be king appears to increasingly be under the sway of that cold, calculating tyrant in the east. Whatever Putin has — or doesn't have — on Trump, the idea of Russia as some sort of friend to the U.S. and other western democracies is unbelievably dangerous. The U.S. has underestimated Russia’s intentions before, and that failure led to the more than 40-year standoff we now know as the Cold War. “A Very Expensive Poison: The Definitive Story of the Murder of Litvinenko and Russia's War with the West” is a remarkably detailed account of the events leading up to the murder of Alexander Litvinenko, a Russian dissident and Putin critic. It’s a gripping tale that is, at moments, surprisingly funny in its account of the absurdity of the Russian effort to dispatch Litvinenko. Take Andrei Lugovoi and Dmitry Kovtun, the two assassins tasked with poisoning Litvinenko. Both are so cartoonish in their stereotypical-Russian villainy that Boris Badenov and Natasha Fatale from “Rocky and Bullwinkle” pale in comparison. Lugovoi and Kovtun are such insanely transparent dolts — going so far as to dress the part of Russian gangsters — that a woman who encounters both men in the London hotel where they're at one point staying jokingly asks whether they work for the KGB. As both men repeatedly bungle the operation, it becomes clear that two villages somewhere in Siberia have lost their idiots. The first attempt to poison Litvinenko involved a meeting that went like this, according to Harding. "The meeting began in typically English style, with talk of the sunny weather. Then Lugovoi steered the conversation round to tea. He suggested they all drink some, joking that the English had cups of tea all the time. Lugovoi was weirdly persistent. “Don’t you want any [tea], won’t you have any?”' Moral: be wary of Russian men offering you tea, be very wary. When Litvinenko declines to drink the tea the first time the two men attempt to poison him, another trip to Moscow is made to get more poison. A London High Court ruled in 2016 that the two men would likely have been unable to acquire this very expensive, very rare poison (twice at that) had the operation not been directly ordered by Putin. A later incident sees Lugovoi flush the remainder of the polonium down the sink of his hotel bathroom. He mops up the remainder of the poison with a hand towel from the hotel. Harding writes that "the towel was the single most radioactive object recovered by Scotland Yard during its decade-long inquiry into Litvinenko’s murder. Probably the most radioactive towel in history." Holy shit! “A Very Expensive Poison” ends up covering a great deal more than the poisoning of Litvinenko. Harding covers the assassinations of other Putin critics, such as Boris Nemtsov, thus revealing the extent of the crime and corruption in Russia under its criminal President, Vladimir Putin. This is indeed the stuff of spy thrillers, but unlike James Bond, there are no good guys here. There are victims like Litvinenko, Nemtsov, and all the others that Putin and his cronies have ordered killed. There are villains like Putin and the comically absurd duo of Lugovoi and Kovtun. And then there are western politicians, like former British PM David Cameron and current PM Theresa May, who merely shrugged their shoulders when Putin was essentially convicted in a London High Court of ordering the murders of his enemies — nevermind if those enemies happened to be British citizens. All these politicians trot out the same tired lines about needing to engage with Russia on important geopolitical relations, like defeating ISIS in Syria. Harding exposes this as the absurdity it is as well, since defeating ISIS was never high on Russia’s list of priorities, nor was it the reason for Russia first entering the country back in 2015. Russian action in Syria has always been about keeping the government of Putin-ally Bashar al-Ashad from crumbling. Those sanctions that the world has placed on Russia are woefully inadequate half-measures, but there have been calls for even those sanctions to be reversed, most recently by Italy’s newly elected populist government. Putin has cultivated many friends among Europe’s far-right and far-left parties, and the recent success of these parties across Europe has no doubt brought some warmth to his icy heart. In the U.S., love for Putin isn’t just harbored on the fringes — it’s gone mainstream in the Republican Party. The Party that never missed a chance to align itself with Lincoln now belongs heart and soul to Trump. And since it appears that Trump belongs to Putin, that’s no laughing matter.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Keen

    4.5 Stars! “This was polonium, a rare and highly radioactive substance. It is probably the most toxic substance known to man when swallowed or inhaled-more than 100 billion times more deadly than hydrogen cyanide.” 1 November, 2006 in an upper class hotel in central London is where Alexander Litvinenko was when he was poisoned by Dmitri Kovtun and Andrei Lugovoi. It was later discovered that Litvinenko had an incredible 26.5 micrograms of polonium-210 in his bloodstream. Less than 1 microgram woul 4.5 Stars! “This was polonium, a rare and highly radioactive substance. It is probably the most toxic substance known to man when swallowed or inhaled-more than 100 billion times more deadly than hydrogen cyanide.” 1 November, 2006 in an upper class hotel in central London is where Alexander Litvinenko was when he was poisoned by Dmitri Kovtun and Andrei Lugovoi. It was later discovered that Litvinenko had an incredible 26.5 micrograms of polonium-210 in his bloodstream. Less than 1 microgram would have been enough to kill him. I enjoy reading about contemporary Russia, particularly political, biographical, journalistic and travelogue accounts. Anna Politkovskaya and Svetlana Alexievich stand out for the quality of their work, and for my money Harding is up there alongside them. A combination of readability, great research and first-hand experience make his work an absolute pleasure to read. “Do you feel yourself safe, secure in Britain? Come on! Remember Trotsky.” So said one former colleague to Litvinenko on the phone from Moscow. Litvinenko had two ex-pat mentors during his time in London, Vladimir Bukovsky and Boris Berezovsky (later found dead in 2013 at his home in suspicious circumstances). The latter spent around $130,000 of his own money to smuggle Litvinenko out of Russia and into the UK. He also initially paid his friend a salary of $6'000 a month. It was reduced in 2003 and then again in 2006 as Litvinenko became more financially independent, aided in part by his intelligence work for Britain and Spain and his work as a journalist. The descriptions of the many traces of radiation are as fascinating as they are terrifying, illustrating that this was a clownish operation carried out by dangerously incompetent yet ruthless men, who had no understanding or appreciation for what they were responsible for. As well as the teapot, plates, cutlery, the table and chairs, polonium was discovered on an ice cream scoop, a chopping board, drinks bottles and two airplanes. Though by far the biggest traces were in the hotel rooms the killers stayed at, with high traces being found in around the sink and the bathroom towels. It is terrifying to look at how easily this assassination could have resulted in a major public health crisis, after all significant wars have been caused from less aggressive actions. Of course not dissuaded by being incriminated the Russians would go onto boldly repeat the poisoning of defected Russians on British soil, and that instance did result in innocent British citizens being poisoned due to the incompetence. These men were incompetent, it took no less than three attempts to poison their target, but when all is said and done a bungling, incompetent assassin is still an assassin. Harding goes onto give us a broader context, touching upon the history of many of the nuclear and biological facilities tucked anonymously away in the closed cities of the former USSR. Places like Mayak (Lighthouse), near Chelyabinsk, which suffered an explosion in 1957. The disaster was consequently denied and covered up by the Soviets and it took them 30 years to admit to it. As the population wasn’t informed at the time they continued to act as normal, an estimated half a million people were poisoned. Children swam in toxic rivers, farmers fed it to their animals, and it wasn’t long before cancers became rife from the widespread radiation, effecting future generations too. Polonium was discovered by Marie and Pierre Curie in 1898. Named after their homeland, Poland. It was used by the major nuclear states, (US, UK, USSR and France) as a trigger for nuclear weapons but soon fell out of favour and by the 70s it was almost obsolete. China allegedly abandoned it in the 90s, meaning that the only country still producing it was the Russian Federation at a facility called Avangard in Sarov, which exported limited amounts, confirming at the time it was delivering 0.8 grams to the US every month. In the aftermath of Litvinenko’s murder we learn of the Russians’ successful bid to block, hinder and trouble Scotland Yard’s criminal investigation. They only got limited and brief access to the suspects, the Russians cancelling, rescheduling and cancelling interviews again, as well as employing various other tactics to frustrate and waste the time of the investigation team. From the 118 questions submitted to Russian prosecutors, the suspect Kovtun answered 18. Later on Harding goes into some of the many other suspicious deaths that have occurred concerning Russian ex-pats, the likes of Boris Berezovsky and Alexander Perepilichnny, as well as the many more murdered on Russian soil. He goes into the dark machinations of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2014, where thousands died, and at least 102 civilians were murdered for protesting at the Euromaidan. Elsewhere he touches on the Conservative government’s policy of favouring lucrative trade deals over human rights issues. In fact it took for the downing of Malaysian Airlines MH17 above Ukraine for the Conservative government to eventually change their mind and decide to have a public inquiry into the killing of Litvinenko. This book reminds me of some other fine contemporary pieces of journalism on Putin’s Russia, the likes of Robert Moore’s exceptional “A Time to Die” and Karen Dawisha’s controversial “Putin’s Kleptocracy” which English publishers were too scared to publish. Like those authors and those books, Harding digs deep and likes to get his hands dirty, he draws in all the facts and evidence, pulls them together and produces a clear, informed picture of what is going on. These are all books that seek to present some semblance of truth, justice and clarity on matters made deliberately opaque and convoluted.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Barbara (The Bibliophage)

    So much more than a tense murder investigation. This book details Putin’s rise to power, and the beginnings of his hatred of the West. There are Russian spies, radioactive materials, conquests, grudges, downed airliners, and a trail of money. And every bit of it happened in real life. Very readable, but also scary! Harding makes the complicated aspects feel understandable, however illogical. Full review on my book blog TheBibliophage.com. So much more than a tense murder investigation. This book details Putin’s rise to power, and the beginnings of his hatred of the West. There are Russian spies, radioactive materials, conquests, grudges, downed airliners, and a trail of money. And every bit of it happened in real life. Very readable, but also scary! Harding makes the complicated aspects feel understandable, however illogical. Full review on my book blog TheBibliophage.com.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Denise

    That Russian dissidents, supposed traitors, and pretty much anyone too critical of Putin and his regime stand a not inconsiderable chance of being murdered, whether on Russian soil or abroad, is by now a chilling but wellknown fact. Few such cases, however, become quite as infamous and publicised around the world as the slow and agonising death of Alexander Litvinenko in London 2006 after two almost comically inept yet ultimately successful Russian assassins poisoned his tea with polonium. Hardi That Russian dissidents, supposed traitors, and pretty much anyone too critical of Putin and his regime stand a not inconsiderable chance of being murdered, whether on Russian soil or abroad, is by now a chilling but wellknown fact. Few such cases, however, become quite as infamous and publicised around the world as the slow and agonising death of Alexander Litvinenko in London 2006 after two almost comically inept yet ultimately successful Russian assassins poisoned his tea with polonium. Harding's account retraces every step the killers took, and recounts Litvinenkno's life and death as well as the investigation into it and the finally rendered official verdict almost a decade later.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Billy

    Details about what one expected on the man poisoned by Polonium and related details on other curious deaths. Much of the tactical playbook seems to have been borrowed recently here, though not the murderous ones. It also amazes me how easily and quickly we forget. Like the title of the other book, the less you know, the better you sleep. I would like to be back in my comfortable bubble.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Nancy

    Finished: 20.06.2018 Genre: non-fiction (true crime) Rating: B Conclusion: There seems to be a trend …but who is the one giving the orders to kill? Review Finished: 20.06.2018 Genre: non-fiction (true crime) Rating: B Conclusion: There seems to be a trend …but who is the one giving the orders to kill? Review

  16. 5 out of 5

    Kim

    This book was published last summer, well before the Trump/Clinton debates and October surprises with their Russian issues and Putin references. It traces the death of Alexander Litvinenko in 2006 and highlights the kleptocratic mess that has become post-Soviet Russia. Along the way the reader gets insights into subjects as diverse as the discovery of polonium, Soviet intelligence services, Ukraine politics, and Russian vacation destinations. It all fits together in a very interesting piece of i This book was published last summer, well before the Trump/Clinton debates and October surprises with their Russian issues and Putin references. It traces the death of Alexander Litvinenko in 2006 and highlights the kleptocratic mess that has become post-Soviet Russia. Along the way the reader gets insights into subjects as diverse as the discovery of polonium, Soviet intelligence services, Ukraine politics, and Russian vacation destinations. It all fits together in a very interesting piece of investigative journalism. Many may at least be familiar with pictures of Litvinenko laying in a hospital bed after being poisoned in 2006 and taking 22 days to die. The murder weapon was polonium, an element so radioactive that the two Russians assigned the murder could be traced through London to what seats they’d used in clubs and airlines down to which hand towels they used in hotel bathrooms. Some artifacts were so hot that they are now in protective storage for public safety. Litvinenko was in intelligence, a pro-democracy good guy who tried to warn a newly promoted Putin about growing corruption within the intelligence service. He was ignored, harassed, arrested, and finally forced to seek asylum in Britain. He was finally murdered after an earlier attempt using a weapon that could only be produced by a government-sized entity. Harding does a great job of tracing the crime, even detailing people’s steps recorded on security cameras. He also describes his own experiences and harassment while in Russia. Harding also, as seen in the book’s subtitle, documents this as just one act in a continuing push by Putin to make Russia as dominant on the world stage as the USSR while still treating the country as a piggy bank. It’s a compelling read with excellent reporting and a broad perspective. Fun for crime readers and political junkies alike.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Christy Tuohey

    There are probably few non-fiction books out there that are more timely to read than this one. In light of Russian interference in the United States 2016 election, and current news reports of Kremlin critics being gunned down in broad daylight, suffering unexpected heart attacks or mysteriously falling from high-rise balconies, this is an important read. Journalist Luke Harding, who previously worked in The Guardian's Moscow bureau, meticulously recounts the events leading up to and unfolding af There are probably few non-fiction books out there that are more timely to read than this one. In light of Russian interference in the United States 2016 election, and current news reports of Kremlin critics being gunned down in broad daylight, suffering unexpected heart attacks or mysteriously falling from high-rise balconies, this is an important read. Journalist Luke Harding, who previously worked in The Guardian's Moscow bureau, meticulously recounts the events leading up to and unfolding after the 2006 poisoning of Russian ex-pat Alexander Litvenenko. The former Russian Security Service (FSB) and KGB officer fled with his wife and son to the UK after receiving death threats for his anti-Kremlin revelations and writings. His assassins smuggled a rare radioactive substance into Great Britain and slipped it into Litvenenko's tea, causing his death by acute radiation syndrome. British doctors and scientists were stymied in their attempts to diagnose Litvenenko's condition, especially because the polonium was not immediately detectable with Geiger counters or other conventional radioactivity measurements. This is a very detailed account of one man being hunted down outside of his home country because the truths he was telling about Russia being part-autocracy, part-organized crime operation were considered dangerous by people in the highest levels of government. It is very detailed, very carefully researched. Well worth your time to see the curtain pulled back on one of the world's most vindictive governments.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Pat

    I remember following news of Litvinenko's poisoning when it occurred in 2006. It was haunting and fascinating then and is no less so 11 years later, particularly in light of all that has happenened since in Putin's Russia. The book was exhaustive and mostly fast-paced, reading more like a novel at times than non-fiction. Harding did a good job of capturing the people and events leading up to Nov. 1, 2006. I felt he got a little bogged down when he ventured into the Panama Papers, Crimea, etc., b I remember following news of Litvinenko's poisoning when it occurred in 2006. It was haunting and fascinating then and is no less so 11 years later, particularly in light of all that has happenened since in Putin's Russia. The book was exhaustive and mostly fast-paced, reading more like a novel at times than non-fiction. Harding did a good job of capturing the people and events leading up to Nov. 1, 2006. I felt he got a little bogged down when he ventured into the Panama Papers, Crimea, etc., but I see where all of that was necessary for his thesis. Interesting read that is timely in 2017. Source website is fascinating, too.

  19. 4 out of 5

    Elizabeth Theiss

    A compulsively readable account of the assassination of Alexander Litvinenko, a Russian who immigrated to London in fear of his life. Oddly, the incompetent assassins left a trail of radioactivity of deadly polonium from Russia to London that made it easy to track their precise movements and pinpoint the teapot and time at which the poisoning occurred. The most chilling character in the book is Vladimir Putin who almost certainly ordered the assassination to avoid Litvinenko's publication of a b A compulsively readable account of the assassination of Alexander Litvinenko, a Russian who immigrated to London in fear of his life. Oddly, the incompetent assassins left a trail of radioactivity of deadly polonium from Russia to London that made it easy to track their precise movements and pinpoint the teapot and time at which the poisoning occurred. The most chilling character in the book is Vladimir Putin who almost certainly ordered the assassination to avoid Litvinenko's publication of a book tracing linkages among Russian mafia, ruling oligarchs and Putin.

  20. 4 out of 5

    Angelica Pogson

    For anyone who wants to learn more about Putin and the Russian state this is a must.

  21. 4 out of 5

    Jimmy

    Sometimes facts of history can be more fascinating than any work of fiction. This is an example of where current events mimics a spy suspense novel of the Cold War era except it is all too real including the fatal consequences. The author Luke Harding is a British journalist who worked for The Guardian and have spent several years as a foreign correspondent in Russia. He has written quite a bit about modern Russia including several books on the topic. I first read his book on Wikileaks which was Sometimes facts of history can be more fascinating than any work of fiction. This is an example of where current events mimics a spy suspense novel of the Cold War era except it is all too real including the fatal consequences. The author Luke Harding is a British journalist who worked for The Guardian and have spent several years as a foreign correspondent in Russia. He has written quite a bit about modern Russia including several books on the topic. I first read his book on Wikileaks which was also intriguing. This book’s subject matter is even more intriguing than the first. In this present volume Harding presents to the readers one of the most thorough look at Russia’s operation to poison one of its former dissident name Alexander Litvinenko. Alexander Litvinenko’s poisoning by Russian operatives in London in 2006 provoked an international incident that received front page news though much information wasn’t available then as it is now. The story reads like a Tom Clancy thriller. But the book also presents the facts of a bumbling Russian operation as well, where the two killers sent by the Russian failed the first time to eliminate Litvinenko and how they left radioactive prints everywhere they went and had to be sent back by Russia to finish what they failed to do the first time. The book makes a persuasive argument that this operation was no rogue intelligence services’ mission for the agency’s making an important decision to assassinate a dissident under the president’s radar would not be tolerated. The book also pointed out that for this murderous operation to take place it involves multiple government agencies especially with the murderers obtaining a highly radioactive and rare nuclear poison to knock off Litvinenko. The author’s research was very thorough and is based heavily on also the incredible investigation by the British government and the author’s interviews. These interviews included Litvinenko’s own interviews with Scotland Yard’s investigators in which he presented his evidences as a dying witness to his own murder. Harding also gives us the background of who Alexander Litvinenko was and also the larger context of the political climate in Russia in which his poisoning would not make sense. The book also presented the author’s personal experience with Putin’s Russia in which Harding was intimidated by Russian intelligence services and also being unjustly kicked out of Russia for his journalistic coverage of a corrupt Russian government. The book also talked about Russia after Litvinenko’s death such as Russia’s military incursion into Georgia and Ukraine and Russia’s other Russian missions to poison others such as the Ukrainian president. This is a frightening picture of modern Russia where the president, intelligence apparatus and organized crimes are working together in sync and at times indistinguishable. Overall a fascinating book that’s worth reading.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Chelsea

    This story is BONKERS and it's also true. WTF? Putin is nasty, which we already knew. I mean, I knew he had people killed for disagreeing with him and his regime, but I was unaware of the exact extent of it. A lot of the early events here (including Litvinenko's poisoning) happened when I was still in high school in the Rust Belt, and so was not exactly conversational material. Some of the more recent things I was aware of. But GEEZE. I do with that there had been a little bit more about what hap This story is BONKERS and it's also true. WTF? Putin is nasty, which we already knew. I mean, I knew he had people killed for disagreeing with him and his regime, but I was unaware of the exact extent of it. A lot of the early events here (including Litvinenko's poisoning) happened when I was still in high school in the Rust Belt, and so was not exactly conversational material. Some of the more recent things I was aware of. But GEEZE. I do with that there had been a little bit more about what happened in the wake of the polonium poisoning. Did anyone else get sick? Harding mentions he flew on the same plane as one of the assassins (though not at the same time) and his family didn't get sick, but the teapot used for the poisoning was just washed and used again! AN EXTREMELY RADIOACTIVE TEAPOT. Did it hurt anyone else??? What about the hotel room that was so contaminated that the people who examined it asked to be removed? I feel like these were things that Harding could have touched on, at least in passing, but no dice.

  23. 4 out of 5

    Vaughn

    Audio - The basic events of this story were already known to me, namely, Russian dissident is murdered in London by a radioactive poison and the Russian state is implicated. The author filled in much more detail and laid out the evidence making the compelling case that the Russian involvement went all the way to the top. I won't say much more except that this demonstrates the mafia thugocracy that Vladimir Putin leads. What a shame that he meets such a tepid response - even acceptance by our cur Audio - The basic events of this story were already known to me, namely, Russian dissident is murdered in London by a radioactive poison and the Russian state is implicated. The author filled in much more detail and laid out the evidence making the compelling case that the Russian involvement went all the way to the top. I won't say much more except that this demonstrates the mafia thugocracy that Vladimir Putin leads. What a shame that he meets such a tepid response - even acceptance by our current US President. Sad!

  24. 5 out of 5

    Shane

    This book reads like a thriller, it was hard to put down. It has shades of Fleming, with plenty of intrigue and a fast-moving plot, coupled with the mystery and ambiguity of a Le Carré novel. But it's also more than a good read, it's also an exposé on the current state of affairs with the Russian government, and how it conducts itself internationally. At times, it is alarming and scathing. I have a huge amount of respect for investigative journalism, and Luke Harding is one of the best there is. This book reads like a thriller, it was hard to put down. It has shades of Fleming, with plenty of intrigue and a fast-moving plot, coupled with the mystery and ambiguity of a Le Carré novel. But it's also more than a good read, it's also an exposé on the current state of affairs with the Russian government, and how it conducts itself internationally. At times, it is alarming and scathing. I have a huge amount of respect for investigative journalism, and Luke Harding is one of the best there is. My only complaint is that at times, the author's bias against Putin (he was, himself, on the receiving end of hostility from the Russian government) is clear and perhaps a little unnecessary. I would have liked to have seen a more objective approach to the Litvinenko affair. Having said that though, if you decide to read this book, just keep in mind that you don't hear much of the Russian side of things - and when you do, it's coupled with judgement - but that you will learn a lot about politics, and the background of the murder of Litvinenko. Highly recommended, it doesn't disappoint!

  25. 5 out of 5

    Susan Wilkins

    Listening to the fascinating talk by Luke Harding and Litvinenko's widow at Charleston Festival made this an even more intriguing and compelling read. Listening to the fascinating talk by Luke Harding and Litvinenko's widow at Charleston Festival made this an even more intriguing and compelling read.

  26. 5 out of 5

    Dave

    Review originally posted at Book of Bogan. Russia is something of an enigma to most people in the west, and our perceptions of the country, its politicians, and history are definitely coloured by what we see in the media. Luke Harding's book seeks to lift some of the veil which surrounds the country in his book 'A very expensive poison' which describes the poisoning of a man named Alexander Litvinenko, allegedly or apparently by agents working on behalf of the Russian government. I remember the e Review originally posted at Book of Bogan. Russia is something of an enigma to most people in the west, and our perceptions of the country, its politicians, and history are definitely coloured by what we see in the media. Luke Harding's book seeks to lift some of the veil which surrounds the country in his book 'A very expensive poison' which describes the poisoning of a man named Alexander Litvinenko, allegedly or apparently by agents working on behalf of the Russian government. I remember the events surrounding the poisoning, and while at the time there was a lot of noise made about who was responsible for it, nothing ever seemed to come of it, at least in my country. The author takes us right into the world of intrigue and violence which is going on - often in plain sight - and tells a deeply personal story of what happened, and uncovers the actors who were behind the events, at least to a point. Harding is an experienced reporter, who writes in a clear and very readable style, and you get the sense of his presence there on the front lines. I suppose if a false flag job, or secret mission is pulled off successfully, there is always going to be some element of doubt remaining about the true puppetmasters. The author makes his views fairly clear, and also knows the limits on the information available to him. I really enjoyed this book, although the story itself is a deeply tragic one, and it provided some satisfying answers about a political assassination which happened not in some strange country, but right in the heart of London. In the current environment, with a significant amount of interest in Russia and its influence in the world, this is a very relevant and cogent piece that should be of interest to anyone wanting to know more.  An intriguing spy thriller worthy of any fiction master... except that it is a true story.

  27. 5 out of 5

    Landon

    What a story! This book had me hanging on every word. Pretty darn good for nonfiction.

  28. 4 out of 5

    Natalie

    Informative, important and at points mind-blowing in its revelations.

  29. 4 out of 5

    Ricky Carrigan

    This book reads like something out of an old spy novel, except Putin's brutal suppression of any dissent is very real. There is no free press in Russia, which is now a modern day mafia state. From radioactive tea to ricin tipped umbrellas, and everything in between, the KGB (now called FSB) is alive and well. This book reads like something out of an old spy novel, except Putin's brutal suppression of any dissent is very real. There is no free press in Russia, which is now a modern day mafia state. From radioactive tea to ricin tipped umbrellas, and everything in between, the KGB (now called FSB) is alive and well.

  30. 5 out of 5

    Tim

    Harding retells the assassination of Litvinenko in a fast-paced exciting way. He brings out the findings of the inquest and adds a human perspective and the insight into the Putin regime. Amazing read!

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