by Edward Wilkinson Latham

Globe and Mail

Review Section

The fatal poisoning of ex-KGB officer and Russian dissident Alexander Litvinenko in London last November, which has triggered an expansive international investigation by British police, is perhaps one of the most mysterious and perplexing crimes of the post-Cold War era. It is a gripping story of shadowy ex-spies, Kremlin conspiracies and a gruesome death by a rare radioactive material, set in two of Europe's greatest cities -- London and Moscow.

No wonder rival Hollywood film studios are battling it out to be the first to dramatize the spy's life. Shortly after Litvinenko died from the effects of polonium-210 radiation poisoning on Nov. 23, Warner Bros. and actor Johnny Depp took no time in buying the film rights to a forthcoming book by New York Times London bureau chief Alan Cowell entitled Sasha's Story: The Life and Death of a Russian Spy .

Cowell, who has reported extensively on the British intelligence services, is writing about how Litvinenko, the former secret agent for Russia's FSB (the successor to the Soviet Union's infamous KGB), became disenchanted with the Kremlin and turned into one of the country's most outspoken critics. Litvinenko subsequently fled Russia for Britain, became a British citizen, and used his old spy networks and the press to publish a protracted list of articles attacking Putin's government. While suffering his painful and curious demise at the hands of unknown assassins, Litvinenko converted to Islam as a mark of solidarity with the Chechen people, who he felt were brutally oppressed by the Russians.

Cowell is not surprised at the interest swarming around his book, even before its completion. "A British citizen was poisoned in a fairly ghastly way in the centre of London," he told the BBC. "It's a very dramatic and compelling story. Litvinenko was a complex person. Playing him will be a challenge for any actor. This guy is not a cardboard cutout of a KGB heavy."

Also hard on the heels of the intrigue is director Michael Mann and Sony's Columbia Pictures, who agreed to pay $1.5-million for an alternative script based solely on a proposal and a sample chapter of Death of a Dissident , a book being co-written by Litvinenko's widow, Marina, and Alex Goldfarb (his press spokesman during his illness). The book, to be published by Simon & Schuster in May, describes Litvinenko's career from KGB insider to outcast as he gets caught between the powerful forces of post-Communist Russia and the new wave of Wild West capitalism that came on the heels of glasnost . It is rumoured to contain first-hand information, never before published, from Marina Litvinenko and Goldfarb. The screenplay itself would be written, directed and produced by Michael Mann (director of Heat , Collateral and Miami Vice ). As if two film pitches were not enough, Braun Entertainment Group, a company based in Beverly Hills, Calif., issued a statement recently that it had bought an option on the film rights for a third potential movie project based on Litvinenko's own book, Blowing Up Russia: Terror from Within . The former security agent's book was published in 2004 with financial support from self-exiled tycoon Boris Berezovsky. Litvinenko exposed a plot against Berezovsky in 1998 and was subsequently arrested on charges of abusing his office, and sentenced to nine months in a remand centre before being acquitted.

It is after this ordeal that Litvinenko wrote his book, in which he said that it was agents of the Russian intelligence service (FSB), and not Chechen separatists, who carried out the apartment block bombings in 1999, which killed more than 300 people. The attacks helped swing public opinion behind Russia's second war in the breakaway Chechen republic, which began with a huge Russian military offensive later that year. Although Braun Entertainment Group has not produced anything so politically charged before (more well known for movies such as Freedom Road , starring Muhammad Ali and Kris Kristofferson), this may be the most interesting and confrontational script of the lot. An updated 2007 edition is out in Britain by publishing house Gibson Square.

Interest in Russia hasn't been this popular since the Cold War, when countless books and Hollywood films mimicked the political climate and fuelled the public's growing fascination with espionage. The children of Alexander Litvinenko, however, are not at all pleased with any plans to turn their father's life and death into a Hollywood blockbuster. Litvinenko's son and daughter from his first marriage (Alexander, 22 and Sonya, 15) are both angry about the "commercialization" of their father's memory.

"Any Hollywood film about my father will just trivialize his story and turn it into entertainment," said Alexander Jr. to reporters recently. "I find it extraordinary that no one has asked us our opinion about this. We are his children after all. We too have rights." Litvinenko's first family says they have been forgotten. "No one bothered to tell us he had been poisoned," said an emotional Sonya as she spoke to journalists. "I heard about it from the news, I tried calling him but couldn't get through. I heard my Dad had died from the TV." Sonya is at school and Alexander works in a car dealership for $500 a month. Both live in a Soviet-era apartment block in the north of Moscow where they share a three-bedroom flat with their grandparents and their mother.

Litvinenko walked out of the family home after falling in love with Maria, who became his second wife. His first wife Natalia, 43, was eight years old when she met Litvinenko who was her brother’s best friend. “It was our first love,” she recalled. She was only 18 and Litvinenko 19 when they married against her parents wishes. In 1986, aged 24, he was recruited by the KGB, a prestigious career move in Soviet times. “Sasha has always dreamt of joining the KGB,” said Natalia. “He saw himself as a true patriot and we were all very proud. He was very ambitious and it was not long before his career took off. He loved it.”

Speaking last week from his heavily guarded home on a private estate in England, Litvinenko’s old friend Boris Berezovsky, told reporters that he had recently been alerted to a new plot to kill him as well as Akhmed Zakayev, the Foreign Minister of the Chechen government-in-exile who lived next door to Mr. Litvinenko in London and considered him ‘a brother’. Berezovsky said he learnt about the London plan from a tip-off last month by the Russian intelligence service (FSB). “I got my information from my friend who is based in Israel. He telephoned to inform he had information from Moscow that the FSB plan a special plot to organize how to kill us, me and Zakayev. He told me it was serious.”

Litvinenko’s first family rejects his western image of a champion of democracy who sought to expose the evils of the FSB before his death in November. “One’s first motherland is one’s family,” said Natalia. “Sasha betrayed his family, then the FSB, then his country, then his religion. But this does not change the fact that his death is a terrible tragedy and we love him deeply.”

On the 23rd of January, it was announced that the murder of Litvinenko had been solved, identifying a teapot at London's Millennium Hotel on Sloan Street with an off-the-charts reading for polonium-210, the radioactive material used in the killing. Senior officials were quoted as saying that investigators had concluded the murder bore the hallmarks of "a state-sponsored assassination orchestrated by Russian security services." On the same day, London-based newspaper The Guardian reported that the British government was preparing an extradition request asking that Andrei Lugovoi, ex-KGB officer now millionaire, to be returned to the UK to stand trial for the murder. Litvinenko met Andrei Lugovoi at the same hotel on November 1st, the day he fell ill.

There is counter-suggestion that important essentials have been overlooked by investigators and the media, such as the story which supposedly prompted Litvinenko's assassination in the first place, namely the case of Anna Politkovskaya, the investigative journalist who was shot dead in the elevator of her apartment building on 7th October 2006. Glenmore Trenear-Harvey is well know in the intelligence community and regularly provides comment for all mainstream media outlets on the subject. He met Mr Litvinenko several times and says the media attention and focus on the Kremlin is "lazy" and bares the hallmarks of a John Le Carré novel. Instead he points to links between renegade former KGB officers and the Russian mafia. "We have to put this in a historical context," he said. "Litvinenko's last job within the FSB was heading up the anti-corruption unit and he discovered a lot of corruption there and made a lot of enemies within the KGB. My own belief, and this is speculation, is that it's not inconceivable that Anna Politkovskaya in her search for murderers within the Russian bank system discovered the contract killers were former KGB people. She was killed and if Litvinenko indeed was privy to her investigations then it could well be that they will emerge as his killers."

The Cold War used to be one of publishing’s hottest topics and, in turn, spawned some of Hollywood’s best-known thrillers of the last fifty years but the countries of the old Soviet Union had been downgraded to B-status in recent years with all the fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. It seems one man’s death has turned the tides. A fourth book about the Litvinenko affair entitled Polonium is currently being written by Wall Street Journal journalist Steve LeVine (once reporting partner to the late Daniel Pearl in Pakistan) and to be published by Random House. The book examines the Litvinenko chronicle from the polonium poisoning in London to the investigation currently underway throughout Europe, referencing a shadowy underworld of Putin's Russia. The film rights to that book are still up for grabs.

Special to the Globe & Mail