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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Litvinenko, for one, was unafraid to speak out. A former lieutenant colonel in the Russian federal security service (FSB), the successor agency to the KGB, Litvinenko gained notoriety in the 1990s for claiming to have refused a Kremlin order to assassinate the Russian oligarch Boris Berezovsky. He had long accused Putin of backtracking on democracy and, in a 2001 book he co-wrote, went so far as to allege that Russian security services organized apartment-block bombings in 1999 that stoked support for a resurgence of the war in Chechnya. He had most recently made public statements tying the Kremlin to the murder of Politkovskaya. Litvinenko was reportedly meeting contacts in London in the hope of gaining information on the case when he was poisoned. "The bastards got me, but they won't get everybody," he told his friend Andrei Nekrasov shortly before his death.

The Litvinenko case revived memories of perhaps the most notorious assassination carried out during the cold war, the 1978 murder in London of Georgi Markov, a Bulgarian dissident who was working for the BBC. He was killed with a ricin-tipped umbrella while waiting for a bus, in a case that has never been solved. Just like the Markov murder, the death of Litvinenko has already given rise to a flurry of conspiracy theories, including speculation among defenders of the government that the poisoning was arranged by Russian émigrés or Western intelligence agencies to discredit Moscow. But for many Russian élites, the whole macabre spectacle has heightened anxieties about the Putin government's backsliding into communist-era intrigue and repression. "People who question the policies of our government are increasingly targeted. People who work for human rights are increasingly under attack," says Alexeyeva. "And even people who support this work are potentially in danger of being singled out by the government. So are we in Russia? Are we back in the U.S.S.R.?" It's becoming harder to tell the difference.

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