Luke Harding takes us back to London of 2006 with his fascinating review of the death of Alexander Litvinenko via A Very Expensive Poison. The book covers about ten years of not just murder investigation but Russian internal and international politics.

Harding’s bona fides are genuine. He’s been an investigative journalist for some time, including a stint for The Guardian in Russia from 2007-2011. In Poison he tells of his own expulsion from Russia for politically critical articles, while focusing mainly on the Litvinenko story.

Alexander Litvinenko started out as a Russian spy. But after the rise of Vladimir Putin, he defected to London and began to work as an asset for both Britain’s MI-6 and the Spanish intelligence service. Understandably, his work and mere presence in the West rattled cages in Russia.

Harding lays out all the details of Litvinenko’s life, including his untimely death from a radioactive poison called polonium-210. But that only gets us about 40% through the book. The rest of this intense story includes the murder investigation and the court case brought by Litvinenko’s widow.

More importantly, it details the changes in Russia under Vladimir Putin. He is unflinching in his description of Putin as a Mafia don, and Russia as a state sponsoring organized crime. Harding also explains the events that propelled Putin to power. Then he moves on to Putin’s deteriorating relationship with both his neighbors in Ukraine and Crimea and the West as a whole.

The death of Alexander Litvinenko was the turning point for Russia. “It was an act of nuclear terrorism on the streets of a major city, which put the lives of numerous other members of the public at risk,” Ben Emmerson, the lawyer representing the Litvinenko family, said in his opening statements. “The trail of polonium traces leads not just from London to Moscow but directly to the door of Vladimir Putin.”

“This wasn’t about one murder; rather about a government that had succumbed to a terrible criminal cancer.” Therefore, the killing was also about money. “He [Litvinenko] threatened the revenue streams of some very important people.”

My conclusions:

Harding gracefully pivots between the murder case and the international aspect. He covers the story in both broad strokes and fine detail. Listening to the audiobook I sometimes had to rewind, so as not to miss a point. The complication of the reporting makes for dense amounts of information. But it couldn’t be more relevant to today’s world, if you want to learn about Putin and Russia.

The narration by Nicholas Guy Smith was top-notch and right on target. That’s not easy with a book of this nature.

I’m moving on to more books on this topic, so look for additional Russia-related reviews soon!