The Russian Roulette

The fatal poisoning of an outspoken former KGB agent adds to the chill of Vladimir Putin's Russia

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The former spy lay dying in a London hospital--of what he didn't know. (It wasn't until after his death that Scotland Yard realized that the rare compound killing Alexander Litvinenko, 43, had left traces of radioactivity nearly everywhere he had been on Nov. 1.) But Litvinenko wanted the world to know who killed him, not how it was done or where. In a statement released after he died last week, the fierce critic of Russia's government directly addressed the man he said was responsible for his death: "You may succeed in silencing one man, but the howl of protest from around the world will reverberate, Mr. Putin, in your ears for the rest of your life."

Whoever did kill Litvinenko wasn't an amateur. British authorities announced last Friday that he had ingested a radioactive toxin, polonium 210, and that police had found traces of it in three locations: a sushi bar where Litvinenko had eaten lunch, a hotel he had visited on the same day and his home. Polonium 210 is so rare and volatile that the assassin would have needed access to a high-security nuclear laboratory to obtain it. Moscow denies that it had anything to do with the death. At a meeting with European officials in Helsinki, Vladimir Putin called the death a tragedy but also questioned the authenticity of Litvinenko's deathbed accusation and stated bluntly, "There is no issue to discuss."

Whether or not anyone in the Kremlin had targeted Litvinenko, his death, coming just weeks after the murder of investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya in her Moscow apartment block, has sent a subzero chill over Russia's already frosty civil society. Human-rights campaigners and other Putin critics see the killing as the latest blow to democracy and free speech, part of a steady erosion of civil liberties. Russian democracy was chaotically vibrant just a decade ago, after the collapse of communism in 1991. But these days it is looking fragile. New legislation annuls independent candidates for the Duma (parliament's lower house), and no political party can exist without the Kremlin's approval. Regional governors and members of the upper house of parliament are no longer elected but appointed. Most key national media are in the hands of state or state-controlled corporations, and Russian activists live in fear of the consequences when they openly criticize Putin. "There may no longer be shortages of groceries and long lines at every street corner," says Ludmilla Alexeyeva, the doyen of human-rights activists in Moscow, "but Russia today is still a place where human rights and freedom are in short supply."

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