Alexander Litvinenko was buried as he had lived, in a storm. There was rain, hail and a tornado near Highgate Cemetery in north London on the day his lead-lined coffin was lowered into a plot a few yards from that of another dissident who had sought refuge in Britain, Karl Marx. Before the burial, there was a memorial service at a mosque. Several close friends said Litvinenko had converted to Islam a few days before he died, in a kind of atonement for atrocities Russia (and perhaps Litvinenko himself) had committed in Chechnya, although another doubted any conversion had taken place. Litvinenko's widow Marina had requested a nondenominational service at the graveside, but an imam interrupted the proceedings to perform Islamic rites. Litvinenko, a former Moscow anticorruption detective turned furious critic of the Russian government, had a talent for controversy.
The dead man in the Highgate Cemetery started feeling ill on Nov. 1. The London doctors who attended Litvinenko's bedside quickly suspected that some kind of radioactive agent was causing his decline. His hair was falling out, his athlete's body was shriveling, his bone marrow was failing, just as if he had been one of the firemen called to the burning reactor at Chernobyl. But gamma spectrometers found nothing unusual in his blood or urine. As doctors ruled out a slew of increasingly obscure toxins and bugs, the patient's condition worsened. In desperation, the police sent his urine to Britain's Atomic Weapons Establishment, which has equipment beyond the reach of any hospital. There, experts discovered Litvinenko's urine was teeming with radiation--not the gamma rays they had been looking for, which are the usual culprits in radiation poisoning because they can penetrate steel and concrete, but alpha particles, which can be blocked by a single sheet of paper or a layer of human skin. If they get into your bloodstream, though, alpha particles will destroy everything they touch. The Chernobyl occurs inside. This is not a nice way to die.
It was Litvinenko's fate. On Nov. 23, a few hours after the scientists isolated what was causing his body to disintegrate, he succumbed. His was not the quiet, inexplicable demise that a poisoner usually seeks. Instead, those alpha particles, which were shown to come from the rare isotope polonium 210, opened a box of mysteries that have grabbed the world's attention for weeks and turned a gruesome death into the center of a global manhunt and a potential row between Russia and the rest of the world.
The victim had no doubt where the search for his killer would lead: on his deathbed, he said his death had been ordered by Vladimir Putin, the President of Russia. Russian officials have denied that as a malicious provocation. Not surprisingly, Britain is being punctilious about amassing sufficient evidence before it points a finger in any direction. But if some shadowy figures close to the Kremlin turn out to be responsible for Litvinenko's death, it would be the most astonishing indictment of just how ruthless the modern Russian state can be.