“The idea of poisoning — radioactive or otherwise — is not new to Russian intelligence. According to former Russian intelligence officer Boris Volodarsky, now a historian and one-time associate of Litvinenko, the Russians have a history of substance assassination going back nearly a century. It was Lenin who ordered the establishment of their first laboratory, known simply as the ‘Special Room’, for developing new lethal toxins.

“‘There is also a long succession of poisonings by Russian intelligence services in different countries, starting in the early 1920s,’ he says.

“At its height, says Volodarsky, the Soviet Union had the largest biological warfare program in the world. Sources have claimed there were 40,000 individuals, including 9,000 scientists, working at 47 different facilities. More than 1,000 of these experts specialized in the development and application of deadly compounds. They used lethal gasses, skin contact poisons that were smeared on door handles and nerve toxins said to be untraceable. The idea, at all times, was to make death seem natural — or, at the very least, to confuse doctors and investigators. ‘It’s never designed to demonstrate anything, only to kill the victim, quietly and unobtrusively,’ Volodarsky writes in ‘The KGB’s Poison Factory’. ‘This was an unbreakable principle.’”

At Matter, Will Storr tells the story of a Russian dissident who was murdered with radioactive poison. Read more about poison.


Pictured: The grave of Russian dissident Alexander Litvinenko

Photo: Wikmedia Commons

We need your help to get to 5,000 Longreads Members.

Join Longreads now and help us keep going.