Litvinenko's isn't the only unusual assassination in Russian history; for a look at some others who have fallen victim to unorthodox weapons, launch the slideshow here
It began as a standard admission. When he arrived in the critical-care unit at University College Hospital (UCH) in central London last November 17, the patient in Room 9 was weak but alert. For just over two weeks he had been suffering from severe dehydration and vomiting. Comforted by a clutch of family and friends, he struggled to beat back an illness that was remorselessly attacking all his major organs. Physicians methodically disqualified the usual suspects-no food poisoning, no gastrointestinal infection. Then the patient's white-blood-cell count dropped to practically nothing and his hair began to fall out. He showed all the symptoms of acute radiation syndrome, but no radiation had been detected. "The Geiger-counter readings were negative," recalls Geoff Bellingan, the clinical director of the department of critical care at UCH. "There was no clarity on the diagnosis."
While the doctors struggled to identify his condition, the patient in Room 9-Alexander Litvinenko, a vocal opponent of Russian president Vladimir Putin and an ex-officer in Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB), the successor to the KGB-had already reached his own conclusions. He was sure that he had been poisoned, and that the Kremlin had ordered his assassination.
What started as an ordinary ER case quickly blossomed into something larger: British researchers began to worry that this lone case might signify a health threat to the rest of the country. Litvinenko accused the Kremlin of seeking not only to kill him, but to systematically wipe out its critics. And in the end, one man's murder became a glimpse into the future of assassination, a new world where high-tech hit men have access to terrible weapons.
Death of a Dissident
During the late 1990s, Alexander Litvinenko was assigned to the FSB's organized-crime unit. His job was to combat corruption in the aftermath of the country's chaotic transition to a free-market economy. But he became disillusioned with the security agency, and in 1998, he held a strange press conference at which he and several other disgruntled officers (some of whom wore ski masks to hide their identity) accused their bosses of seeking to line their own pockets and "settle accounts with undesirable persons." In 2000, after falling out with Putin, Litvinenko fled Russia for London, the destination of choice for Russia's restive dissidents and disaffected oligarchs, where he continued to antagonize his former colleagues.
Litvinenko claimed in a book, for instance, that the FSB was responsible for a series of apartment bombings in Russia in 1999. (The attacks were officially blamed on Chechen separatists, and Putin had used the incident to help justify a fresh invasion of Chechnya in that same year.) He investigated the 2006 murder of journalist and Putin critic Anna Politkovskaya. In February of this year, Alexander Gusak, Litvinenko's old commanding officer at the FSB, accused him of having revealed to British authorities the identities of Russian agents. "I was brought up on Soviet law," Gusak told the BBC's Newsnight television program. "That provides for the death penalty for treason. I think if in Soviet times he had come back to the USSR, [Litvinenko] would have been sentenced to death." A new law, adopted by the Russian parliament last year, authorizes the elimination outside Russia of individuals the Kremlin accuses of terrorism or extremism. Litvinenko openly worried that his life was in danger. He was right.