Alexander Litvinenko didn't mince words. On Oct. 19, at a public meeting in London, he introduced himself as a former Russian kgb officer, and proceeded to accuse President Vladimir Putin of sanctioning the murder two weeks earlier of a crusading Russian journalist, Anna Politkovskaya. Litvinenko, who fell out with his erstwhile employers after claiming they had ordered him to assassinate Boris Berezovsky, an oligarch and high Russian official of the Yeltsin years, now exiled, had met Politkovskaya on several occasions. At one of their last meetings, he said, she had told him about threats she'd been receiving. "She asked, 'Do you think they can kill me?'" Litvinenko told a rapt audience at the Frontline Club, a British organization that promotes independent journalism. "I told her quite frankly: Yes, they can." Litvinenko ended with his accusation. "I know that a journalist of her stature could not be touched without sanction from the Russian President himself," he said. "Anna was a political opponent, and this is why she was killed."
It was a moment of high drama, but it paled beside what happened next. Last Thursday, Litvinenko himself died in a London hospital, after having ingested a "major dose" of the radioactive toxin polonium-210 that destroyed his immune system, according to Britain's Health Protection Agency. Scotland Yard said that traces of polonium-210 which is so rare and volatile that producing quantities large enough to kill requires access to a high-security nuclear laboratory were found at a sushi restaurant called Itsu in Piccadilly where Litvinenko had eaten lunch on the day he got sick. Traces of the isotope were also found at his north London home and at the Millennium Hotel in Grosvenor Square, which he had also visited.
Exactly how or why the dose was administered, and by whom, remains a mystery. 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 as in that Markov case, the death of Litvinenko has already given rise to a flurry of conspiracy theories, including speculation among defenders of Putin's government that the poisoning had been arranged by Russian exiles or Western intelligence agencies to discredit Moscow.
But Litvinenko when he was alive and his friends had little doubt about who's to blame. In a message dictated two days before his death and read out by his friend Alexander Goldfarb to the press, Litvinenko, 43, said: "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."