Poisoned by Polonium: The Litvinenko File (Bunt. Delo Litvinenko/Rebellion: The Litvinenko Case, 2007)

Director: Andrei Nekrasov


By Marilyn Ferdinand

In 2006, the world was shocked when a former member of the KGB and its successor after the fall of Communism—the FSB—named Alexander “Sasha “Litvinenko died in a London hosptial, a victim of poisoning from exposure to the radioactive compound polonium 210. His slow and agonizing decline and death were captured in a media circus, particularly in Britain, where he had sought political asylum several years before after going public with information that the FSB ordered contract murders and was corrupt.

Andrei Nekrasov, a Russian filmmaker torn by grief at the fate that had befallen his friend Sasha, set out to investigate the possible reasons for his murder. His journey took him through Russia, Germany, France, and England, where he met people who knew Sasha, worked with him, loved him, and hated him. What he assembled from archival and original footage is a wide-ranging, rambling scar of a movie—a cry of despair and outrage from its maker. Watching Poisoned by Polonium is an exhausting, confusing, sometimes mesmerizing experience in which Nekrasov piles up facts, events, and ideas without really making sense of them.


During the first part of the film, Nekrasov spends an inordinate amount of time on himself—literally. The camera rarely leaves his face as he absorbs what is happening to his friend and reflects on on-camera interviews he conducted with Sasha, presumably for another project, in which Litvinenko railed against what he saw as the nexus of corruption in Russia—Vladimir Putin. In pursuit of the truth, Nekrasov probes the history of late Soviet Russia and events up to the present.

For much of the scene setting, Nekrasov discusses the bombing of apartment blocks in Moscow in 1999, called by the government acts of terror by rebels from Chechnya that eventually precipitated war. In a technique Nekrasov uses frequently in the film, normal life in Chechnya is shown, only to be contrasted with the devastation of war. This rather unnecessary emphasis that war is hell is followed by another frequently used technique—changing locations before a new establishing shot pulls the viewer out of the previous one, thus thoroughly confusing Nekrasov’s point. He seems to want to say that the Chechens are the poor unfortunates by showing their bombed-out homes and war dead, but before we know it, he’s showing Russian war dead and grieving Russian mothers. Of course, this was reality, but then he moves directly to Russians saying that the Chechens deserved it for bombing the apartments and on to conspiracy theories that the FSB planted the bombs themselves to secure Putin’s rise to power. As someone with hardly a nodding acquaintance with current events in Russia, the timelines and particulars of these events were not familiar to me. Nekrasov does little to enlighten me.

What he does do is show how Litvinenko became notorious in Russia for outing the FSB’s corruption and murder schemes. Litvinenko contended that an FSB internal affairs agent Mikhail Trepashkin was framed by other FSB agents for weapons possession because he revealed evidence that the FSB was involved in corruption and may have been involved in the apartment bombings. He was found not guilty but immediately rearrested for revealing state secrets. Nekrasov is told that the judge who dismissed the charges was removed from his Poisoned%20Gusak.jpgposition and replaced by one “bought” to serve the FSB and government interests. Litvinenko himself said the FSB tried to buy his participation on their hit squad, but that he refused. He released videos taken through a hidden camera that show his boss Alexander Gusak and others talking about murdering certain individuals. Gusak is interviewed by Nekrasov about the hit squads and Litvinenko, whom Gusak mentored. Gusak now thinks of Litvinenko as a prick.


Another interview subject for Nekrasov is Anna Politkovskaya, a Russian journalist who, at the time of the interview, had just published an article about the rape of Chechen women by Russian soldiers. Nekrasov is shown going all over Moscow trying to find a copy of the journal that published her article—nobody is selling it. Abruptly, we move forward in time to Politkovskaya’s own murder in her Moscow apartment building. Obviously, criticism is taken very seriously in the new Russia.


The film is no marvel of cinematography or editing. Whoever was filming Nekrasov didn’t seem to know how to hold a camera or what to film. While I’ve read charges that Nekrasov appears self-indulgent in this film because he’s in so many of its frames, I’m inclined to think that he had so little usable footage to work with that he had to make do.

More importantly, do all these events and inferences add up to a plot at the highest levels to silence Litvinenko? Nekrasov seeks the advice of French philosopher André Glucksmann, who notes that Russians, subjected for centuries to czarist rule, have a slave mentality—they want a strongman to pull the strings. I admit that I have sometimes thought this myself, but if Putin was a strongman, he’s really not much different from George W. Bush, who was elected by the supposedly most democratic nation in the world. Russian lawlessness during the transition to democracy seems to have progressed much as one would expect in a country where basic deprivations still existed. As prosperity has slowly risen, social order has gained a foothold.


Nonetheless, Nekrasov’s impassioned document, returning belatedly to Litvinenko’s murder and his grieving wife Marina, left me wondering if perhaps there wasn’t something to his theories. I’m usually the first person to pooh-pooh a conspiracy theory espoused by the more-suspicious hubby. This time, the hubby pooh-poohed Litvinenko.

I decided to contact David Southwell, an author of books on organized crime as well as the recently published Conspiracy Files. I became a fan of his now-defunct blog English Dreaming, English Rain, where he and I became slightly acquainted. David mentioned the death of Litvinenko on his blog, and I wanted his opinion of the documentary and its allegations. Here’s what he said:

While I could not call Alex a close friend, we had talked, and he had provided useful contacts when I was writing about Russian organized crime. However, what a lot of people seem to have forgotten about him since his death was that he was a conspiracy theorist. His bogeyman was Putin, but often behaved in the same way as those whose see Freemasons or the Mafia behind every event from the death of JFK to the name change of Kentucky Fried Chicken to KFC. At times, Alex on Putin was like Abbie Hoffman on Nixon circa 1970.

What I found disappointing about Rebellion is that it was short on context. Putin’s rise to power did not need the bombings; there was little exploration of how much of a failed state Russia already was or how normal this type of false flag conspiracy is. Often, the best you can do is find evidence of a conspiracy, but showing one existed will rarely tell you who was responsible for it. Rebellion failed to provide the tools for its audience to judge which allegations had genuine—and therefore frightening—substance and which, like the claims Alex so often made in person about Putin being a paedophile, were free from the burden of demonstrable facts.

Using the blunt scalpel on common sense and as much of an investigation as I could muster, I concluded last year that Alex was murdered not by agents sent by Putin, but by his friends. Irony indeed that he may have died in a false flag murder to provide a martyr, his strange, lingering death broadcast globally.

Although I am steeped in conspiracy research, I believe that probably only 5% would qualify as genuine conspiracies and even then, determining those responsible is exceptionally difficult. Plausible deniability often means that someone such as Putin would have little direct knowledge of any false flag operation being conducted in his name.

Nekrasov’s problem is that he takes that one conspiracy (the death of Alex) means proof of another. While I think there is good proof that the apartment bombings were a conspiracy, the death of Alex does not provide proof that they were the direct work of Putin. Nekrasov also seems so blinded by anger and grief, that the ‘investigation’ into the death of Alex is terribly lopsided. The film reminded me of a father whose son has been killed in a hit-and-run spewing out allegations, some of which may be likely and true (the bastard must have been drunk) but over which no evidence is presented. Some allegations that come from rage, frustration, and pain and say more about Nekrasov and the world view of those anti-Putin than they do about reality.

I have recently turned down writing a book on Russian crime because of the possibility of writing both safely and accurately is limited. The subject fascinates and is worthy of study, but I feared I would only end up producing another partisan, emotional mess like Nekrasov.

I’m sure you’ll agree with me that David’s thoughts are illuminating, and I thank him for allowing me to quote them here. As a Chicagoan, I’m more than familiar with corruption and violence among those charged with protecting citizens; just today, John Kass wrote in the Chicago Tribune: “Chicago politics have historically been important in the selection of police commanders and top brass. Just a few years ago, even the Chicago mob had a big say in who worked where in the top echelons of the department.” But I think I’d have to agree with David—when it comes to someone you know or something you care about, it’s hard not to end up with an emotional mess. If you can deal with that, Poisoned by Polonium has some solid information for the neophyte to the way Russia works today.

  • Fox spoke:
    16th/07/2008 to 1:56 pm

    Hey Marilyn-
    I’m glad to see there is a documentary out about this. Although, it seems to suffer from the typical trap doors that plague non-fiction cinema, I like that a filmmaker went for an exploration of this story in a country where fact finders can be rubbed out or arrested (personally, I think Politkovskaya was murdered for her anti-Putin stories).
    I do have a question about something you said though:
    “I admit that I have sometimes thought this myself, but if Putin was a strongman, he’s really not much different from George W. Bush, who was elected by the supposedly most democratic nation in the world.”
    I’m no Bush apologist, but I would defend him as being a better man than Putin. To me, Putin is a top rate thug that doesn’t get painted as such b/c the Russian press is so controlled by the government. I find ourselves to be lucky when we get stories of oppression in Russia (and China) b/c it so tightly guarded.
    But maybe I’m misinterpreting you…

  • Marilyn spoke:
    16th/07/2008 to 2:09 pm

    Well, I think Bush is a thug. The way he keeps trying to parlay his power into a Chicago-style “friends and family” enrichment plan seems very thuggish to me. Just so you know, Fox, I’m a fiscal conservative and moderate to liberal on social issues. I don’t have a kneejerk reaction to all things Republican/conservative.
    As for Putin, I really don’t know enough about him to know what to think about his governance.

  • Fox spoke:
    16th/07/2008 to 2:46 pm

    I pretty much share your political stance, and I didn’t mean to imply that you were a knee-jerk reactionary (b/c from previous posts I can tell that you’re not), I just kinda shudder to think that Bush (or any American politician for that matter) would be compared to Putin. It’s more my disgust for Putin than any defense or sympathy for Bush.
    I agree with you on the smarminess of the “friends and family enrichment”, no doubt. From Scott McClellan (gee, that sure backfired…) to Harriet Miers and other special interests groups. We could have a full blog about our thoughts about this administration (and the futures one). It is nice to discuss it with you though, b/c it seems to be avoided a lot on movie blogs.
    Again, I like that you bring up varied topics on here.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    16th/07/2008 to 3:24 pm

    It’s hard for me to see how Putin could be worse than a president who shreds any part of the Constitution that gets in his way, who spends all our taxes and many lives on his war profiteer friends and adventuring, who lies to get his way, who gets lawyers to shred the Geneva Convention, and god knows what else. If you can give me so for instances, I’d have a better handle on your views.
    Always, always variety – the spice of life.

  • Fox spoke:
    16th/07/2008 to 4:21 pm

    Well, I would start by saying that no matter what the Bush administration has or hasn’t done in their 8 years, Americans still have 100 times the social freedoms that Russians do. I would imagine that the citizens of Russia wish they had a Constitution such as ours to even have shredded in the first place.
    As for specifics on what parts of the Constitution that Bush shredded, well, we’d probably need another post, but I can’t not get into it at this point….
    I imagine you are refrerring to FISA (which brings up rights under the 4th ammendment) and then right of Habeus Corpus which has been mentioned in the cases of Gitmo detainees.
    First, on FISA. I lean libertarian on this one. I agree that there has been no convincing reason given by the Bush Admin. as to why they didn’t obtain warrants before intercepting calls. They could have easily done so. I think they are inept and negligent when it comes to this. At the same time – and to my knowledge – there has been no counterproof of any “domestic surveillance” occuring on regular American citizens. The surveillance was done on international phone calls suspected of being made to parties with terrorist connections.
    On habeus corpus. I saw friends and family flip out when when the Military Commissions Act was passed. While it was justified to be concerned, people thought Bush had the authority to arrest and detain indefinitely any citizen that was dissenting or protesting against the United States government. This just isn’t true. The law clearly states the difference between an Ulawful Alien Enemy Combatant and a Lawful Enemy Combatant.
    As for the Geneva Conventions. I am appalled by Abu Ghraib and any torture and humiliation that was practiced at Gitmo. However – and I understand being called a hypocrit about this b/c it’s happened before – I do support waterboarding. In the three times it has been used, useful information was obtained. There hasn’t been a case where waterboarding was shown to be used for simply sadistic non-information gathering ways.
    As far as spending all our taxes, that’s on Congress’s head (a Pelosi/Reid led Congress) as much as it is on Bush’s, though I would agree that Bush is responsible for the trillions of dollars going to Iraq, and, as you mentioned, the deaths and strain on our military. Personally, I agree with Obama that we should have our eyes set on Pakistan instead. I’ve always admried him for taking that stance in the face of the Bush Admin. saying he was taunting one of our “allies”.
    All of those issues of penetrated freedoms listed above simply don’t exist to even be penetrated in Russia, and that would be my #1 reason why I think it’s unfair to compare a Bush to a Putin. I’m not a Bush guy. I just think comparing the two would be like comparing, say, Tony Blair to Kim Jong-Il. Yes, North Koreans and Russian soldiers may not being dying in a just or unjust war in Iraq, but citizens of those countries live under constant tyranny.
    I guess I could quickly sum up Putin as a thug by saying he has supported – either through himself, his admin., his successor in Medvedev, or his UN ambassador – some of the worst regimes in the world in Zimbabwe, Iran, North Korea, Sudan, Venezuela etc. That’s how I would draw a distinction between thug (Putin) and incompetent dunce (Bush).

  • Marilyn spoke:
    16th/07/2008 to 4:54 pm

    I guess that after viewing Errol Morris’ Standard Operating Procedure, I’d have to say that we just don’t know if waterboarding was used for reasons other than interrogation. I’m against torture of any kind, even if it should happen to get results. In general, interrogators can’t be sure the info they get under such conditions is reliable and don’t use the method. If you don’t care about the results–if you just want to get someone to confess, for example–torture works just fine.
    Bush is going to China, a nation he has blessed with Most Favored Nation status. This is not a human-rights-friendly nation, and it is supporting the government in Sudan. He doesn’t seem interested in condemning or condoning other nations’ conduct, for that matter. It’s all about money.
    Russia has been liberalized since Communism, and the U.S. has been deliberalized in many ways. We’re soon to meet in the middle. That’s why I don’t think of Putin as that much worse; at least he threw the oligarchs out of the country when they threatened to take over the economy. We’re more in thrall to our oligarchs than ever.

  • Fox spoke:
    16th/07/2008 to 5:22 pm

    I’m with you on China. However, I read an interesting argument that said it would be economically disadvantageous for us (ie Bush) to not show up for the Olympics since China has us by the balls in so many ways when it comes to trade. Interesting take, but I’m not sure I agree with it.
    Bush also just took North Korea of the terror list which I found to be more than a little dubious.

  • HarryTuttle spoke:
    16th/07/2008 to 5:27 pm

    I was equally appalled by this mess of a documentary, and the shameless self-indulgence of its filmmaker (even filming himself next to comatose Litvinenko to show on camera he was there when he died…)
    The suspected murderer interviewed and offering a cup of tea, after explaining about the radioactive effect of Polonium was in poor taste.
    This said, I wouldn’t dismiss the conspiracy theory just because someone made a bad case of it. Litvinenko killed by his friends? That theory is even less credible!
    Politkovskaya was murdered after being threatened for covering the Chechen war. And only the powers-that-be could pull off an international murder with Polonium! It’s not an accident. Governmental agencies have a hard time planning these things (cf. The Bourne Identity, 😉 hehe) so when it is successful, it can only be top professionals. And who in Russia would go to such lengths to get rid of Litvinenko?
    Oligarkh (2002/Pavel Lungin) was a cool fiction about a mafia thug who rises to power after making a lot of dirty money under Gorbatchev, then is (literally) backstabbed by the corrupted government.
    Did you see it?

  • Marilyn spoke:
    16th/07/2008 to 6:56 pm

    Hi, Harry. No, I didn’t see the Lungin film, but it sounds very interesting.
    I can’t say much about this in deference to David’s prohibition on me sharing certain parts of his e-mail, but there are others with the means to poison with polonium and motivation to do so.

  • HarryTuttle spoke:
    17th/07/2008 to 8:48 am

    Well it doesn’t happen everyday does it? It was the first time ever I heard about a radioactive-related murder. There are easier ways to get rid of someone, even a trained spy…

  • Marilyn spoke:
    17th/07/2008 to 9:01 am

    I never heard about it before, but I do think that if it was a false flag operation by a “friend,” using polonium 210 would be a great way to suggest a government hit. Still, nobody has completed a thorough investigation, so we may never know who did it.

  • Jonathan Lapper spoke:
    17th/07/2008 to 10:23 am

    Hello Knee-Jerk Reactionaries and Bush Apologists ;). It seems these days I come to every discussion late.
    First, the documentary sounds like a mess and Harry’s further descriptions of the death bed scene make me feel sick. But that’s it for me and the movie because…
    Fox, please tell me this was a typo: ” I do support waterboarding.” As for the three times, it has been documented since (even by crazy off his ass
    Christopher Hitchens
    ) that useful information was not obtained and even if it was I do not want my country or any country I respect getting any information by torturing another human being. Torture is a morally filthy act and I don’t want my country pressing towels against someone’s face while they begin the process of drowning them. That is VILE! That is beneath contempt! It is certainly beneath the values of a liberal democratic republic.
    What this thuggish (yes, I’m with Marilyn on that) administration keeps falling back on is the same thing any torture regime falls back on: The ticking time bomb baloney. No one under testimony yet has been able to identify a “ticking time bomb” moment in the history of torture anywhere EVER!. And beyond that point, if our intelligence apparatus is so pathetic and bumbling that we don’t find out about a major attack until three minutes before it happens then torturing a terrorist who might be able to tell us where and when isn’t going to do much good at that point, especially since the terrorist, knowing the attack was imminent would be even more inclined to give false information until the attack went through. Which is why the ticking time bomb scenario fails so miserably on all counts. And then of course there’s the fact that the most useful information we have received has come from intelligence infiltration, not torture.
    If you read the interview with Darius Rejali that I linked above you’ll find that every torture regime imagines they are doing it for the good of the country. Very few people think they’re evil (Osama bin Laden believes he ridding the world of evil by his acts). They believe what they are doing is right and just. But when what you are doing involves physically harming someone, inflicting psychological damage on them and running the risk of killing them (which has happened – read here) then it is not right or just. It is revolting. It is despicable. And for a country founded on the values of the enlightenment, it is unforgivable.

  • Fox spoke:
    17th/07/2008 to 3:55 pm

    I will rethink my position on waterboarding if indeed it wasn’t useful in unveiling information. (I haven’t clicked on your link yet.) I will fully admit that I haven’t followed up on the story since I read about it in the Washington Post.
    This was an excerpt from the article, with the link below:
    “Zayn Abidin Muhammed Hussein abu Zubaida, the first high-ranking al-Qaeda member captured after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, broke in less than a minute after he was subjected to the technique and began providing interrogators with information that led to the disruption of several planned attacks, said John Kiriakou, who served as a CIA interrogator in Pakistan.” (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/12/10/AR2007121002091.html?hpid=topnews)
    But one of the main reasons I was for it was b/c it was used only three times in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. I think that is understandable considering the confusion.
    I’ve always agreed that torture is vile, and – as Marilyn said – not reliable since the subjects are detainees under duress and will say anything to avoid more, I’ve just kept an asterix next to waterboarding.
    Still, I would argue that there is a vast difference between torturing someone like Khalid Sheik Mohammed or Abu Zubaydah, men who are despicable mother fuc*ers any way you look at it, versus Omar al-Bashir torturing a woman b/c she belonged to the wrong tribe or did something unchaste.
    p.s. Lay off Hitchens!! 🙂

  • Jonathan Lapper spoke:
    17th/07/2008 to 5:47 pm

    Fox – Hitch actually talks about that interrogation in his article, which is a good piece and like you he differentiates between what militaries and governments do and what religious fanatics do but just because religious fanatics are crazier and kill and behead towards horrible ends does not mean it is then okay to start torturing people ourselves. But I can see better where you’re coming from now so I have decided against banning your I.P. from my site. 😉

  • Fox spoke:
    18th/07/2008 to 3:55 pm

    Jonathan –
    Oh, I totally agree. By differentiating I wouldn’t mean to excuse it – I don’t know if Hitch would either.
    still… if you ever get a chance to waterboard Sacha Baron Cohen, GIVE ME A CALL!!!
    Thanks to Marilyn for putting up with us. 🙂

  • Daniel spoke:
    21st/07/2008 to 2:44 pm

    So this was another of the HBO docs? Too bad it wasn’t better, though I suppose it was made by a first time filmmaker. Sometimes these stories seem so simple on the surface but then get muddled up with the details.
    David Southwell’s thoughts really are interesting; perhaps he should have been interviewed for the film.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    21st/07/2008 to 3:24 pm

    Daniel, this isn’t an HBO doc (I saw it at a theatre), nor is Nekrasov a first-time director.

  • Daniel spoke:
    21st/07/2008 to 4:52 pm

    Whoopsie daisies. My brain circuits got switched. It took me a little while but now I realize I saw the title for Poisoned by Polonium over and over not when I was looking at the HBO docs, but when it was playing at the film festival here in April. I knew I’d heard of it from somewhere, and now, come to think of it, the person I talked to who saw it had the same impression as you.
    Regarding Nekrasov, well I guess I lazily missed the words “Russian filmmaker” and went straight to “friend…set out to investigate the possible reasons for his murder.”
    In either case it doesn’t sound like he did the story justice.
    I wonder how/if this would play in Russia?

  • Marilyn spoke:
    21st/07/2008 to 5:00 pm

    If it is shown, it’s likely that most people would dismiss it. Putin was very popular, and everyone probably has an opinion about Chechnya, the apartment bombings, Litvinenko, etc etc.

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