Author, Book review, Macmillan, Martin Sixsmith, Non-fiction, Publisher, Setting, true crime

‘The Litvinenko File: The True Story of a Death Foretold’ by Martin Sixsmith


Non-fiction – hardcover; MacMillan; 320 pages; 2007.

Anyone who was living in London in November 2006 will know that the hot topic of conversation — in the pubs, at work, on the news and in the papers — was the poisoning of Alexander “Sasha” Litvinenko.

Mr Litvinenko, a former member of the KGB and its successor the FSB, was granted political asylum (with his wife and child) in the UK in 2000. An outspoken critic of the Russian Government, he fell ill on November 1, 2006 and died three weeks later. Doctors could not say what caused his death, but it later emerged he had been poisoned by radioactive material known as polonium-210.

This book by the BBC’s former Moscow correspondent, Martin Sixsmith, explores Litvinenko’s murder and looks at who might gain the most from his death. During the course of his research Sixsmith discovered that Litvinenko had made many enemies. “What I found out about Litvinenko’s past,” he writes, “both astounded me and threw up so many potential reasons for his murder that I ended my research more surprised he survived as long as he did than that he eventually fell victim to the assassins who sought him out in London.”

He structures the book into six parts, beginning with Litvinenko’s funeral (he was buried in Highgate Cemetery) and how the poisoning might have occurred (was it at the Millennium Hotel or the Itsu sushi bar?), before exploring Litvinenko’s former life in Russia and his subsequent falling out with the man who was to become president, Vladimir Putin. It then comes full circle, and looks at the Scotland Yard investigation, tracing the polonium trail and unearthing the many suspects who might be to blame for his death.

What emerges is a fascinating portrait of a flawed man living in a dark world of shady characters. While many in his situation might have chosen to lay low, Litvinenko did the opposite, seeing it as his duty to speak out against those he saw as corrupt or dangerous. Ultimately, this was his undoing.

But Litvinenko’s death was no ordinary death. Sixsmith describes it as the “world’s first act of international nuclear terrorism”. It caused a major public health scare with a trail of radioactive contamination spreading across London (and two British Airways planes) and sparked a major diplomatic crisis between the UK and Russia. (Relations are still strained, especially now that Scotland Yard will never be able to charge the chief suspect Andrei Lugovoi who became a deputy in Russia’s new parliament earlier this week, earning him immunity from prosecution.)

As much as I was fascinated by the poisoning of a Russian exile in such a dramatic and public way, I had half expected The Litvinenko File to be a relatively dull book, weighed down by too many facts and complicated Russian history I’d struggle to understand. But Sixsmith knows how to write a narrative in an exciting way, ending each chapter with a cliff hanger so that you feel you really must keep reading to find out what happens next.

And his theory about who is responsible for the death — and why they carried it out — is a totally believable one. But if you want to find out whodunnit, then stop reading this review and get your hands on a copy of the book instead…

3 thoughts on “‘The Litvinenko File: The True Story of a Death Foretold’ by Martin Sixsmith”

  1. In brief, this is a piece of british propaganda. Book does just recite all the statements and claims (mostly contradictory) from british press.
    Contanis not much of valuable information. No real documents, no full Litvinenko autopsy report, no full map of contaminated locations… none much worth reading.
    Mostly obsoleted now (as we know, what there were much more places, where polonium was found).


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