Long conditioned by a plethora of books, films and TV shows, the traditional image of the spy – cold, ruthless, and efficient, takes a battering from Luke Harding in this Edinburgh International Book Festival event. In his latest book the former Guardian Moscow correspondent, delves into the mystery of Alexander Litvinenko’s murder in 2006, by members of the Russian secret service, the FSB.
Litvinenko’s death from Polonium poisoning, could have come straight out of a cheap spy thriller, truth being stranger than fiction, but instead of James Bond like efficiency, we see bungling assassinations, bumbling bureaucrats, and farce writ large on the streets of London, a tragedy that would be comedic were it not for the deadly substance carried by the assassins, silently being transported across the capital.
In Putin’s Polonium plot, Harding blows the lid on this collection of misfits and David Brent like types. We have the usual suspects: the Russian security services, MI6, Scotland Yard, David Cameron, and of course, the shadowy figure of one Vladimir Putin lurking in the background…
After years of cover up, denials, cover ups, more denials, and the truth being yanked out like a deformed wisdom tooth, painfully and messily, a public enquiry revealed what most people already knew.
Harding does an admirable job of getting to the bottom of this, finding himself ejected from Moscow, and making the point that Putin’s wrath should be directed towards the incompetent assassins, more Jason Donovan than Jason Bourne, but delightful as it was, there was a sense of familiar ground being treaded here.
As befits a media personality, Harding’s delivery was polished and pitch perfect, but the collection of stock anecdotes and familiar political tropes, were familiar to anybody who takes an interest in this issue, or reads Harding’s newspaper column, or watches his participation on the many Russian political debates on Youtube.
The West’s geo-political battle with Russia is obviously an ongoing concern, and Harding’s book is a timely reminder of how deadly and farcical this ‘new Cold War’ can be at times, especially if innocent members of the British public are potentially at risk of being caught in the crossfire, the two assassins carried a quantity of polonium that could have wiped out half of Britain!
Entertaining, moderately insightful, but somewhat familiar – rather much like the strained relations between the West and Russia.