A Very Expensive Poison by Luke Harding

By Luke Harding

1 November 2006. Alexander Litvinenko is overtly poisoned in crucial London. Twenty days later he dies, killed from the interior. The poison? Polonium; an extraordinary, deadly and hugely radioactive substance. His crime? He had made a few strong enemies in Russia.

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The port was a major trans-shipment facility for Colombian drugs, which arrived here before continuing their lucrative journey to Western Europe. According to Litvinenko, Ivanov helped Kumarin wipe out the competition. In return, he got a share of the seaport’s business. The Tambovskaya group structured its criminal activities via a series of subsidiaries and daughter companies; Ivanov set up firms of his own, ‘Block’ and ‘Basis’. It was the early 1990s. Another KGB spy helped Ivanov. This was Vladimir Putin.

Virtually all the graduates from the KGB institute got jobs afterwards in the first directorate and were sent to foreign ‘residencies’, as the KGB termed its covert offices abroad. For reasons which are mysterious, Putin didn’t make the grade, Shvets believed. ‘Putin belonged to the 1 per cent of losers. He was sent back to St Petersburg,’ he said later. Others say Putin went back to his home city and was given the task of recruiting foreigners on Soviet soil. In 1984, Putin did eventually get a foreign assignment.

After graduation, Shvets spent two years at the Yuri Andropov Red Banner Intelligence Institute. The KGB training school was based in a pleasant forest in Yurlovo, not far from Moscow. There, he said, he was taught the secrets of the trade. He learned from legendary spymasters who had worked with the Cold War’s most famous western defectors – the Rosenbergs, who stole the US’s atomic secrets, and the upper-class Cambridge spy ring, Kim Philby, Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean. Shvets also did a two-month training stint with a Spetsnaz or special forces unit.

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