PROPPED up by hospital pillows as he slowly succumbed to radioactive poison, Alexander Litvinenko insisted to beloved wife Marina that his photograph should be taken.
The stark image of a hairless and hollowed-eyed dying man who had named his own murderer was splashed on newspaper front pages worldwide.
Now former Doctor Who David Tennant has vividly recreated the harrowing picture as he takes on the role of Alexander — affectionately known as Sasha to his wife — in a gripping new four-part TV drama.
Speaking via Zoom beneath the blue and yellow flag of Ukraine, widow Marina, 60, told me: “When the decision was taken to take that picture, Sasha’s health had rapidly worsened.
“He had lost his hair, he’d lost weight. But I still believed he would survive and that one day he would be released from hospital and he’d look at this photo.
“But Sasha said he wanted to show the world what had happened to him so they would know just how dangerous these people are.”
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Alexander had no doubt who was behind his murder — two former KGB assassins sent by Russia’s blood-soaked despot Vladimir Putin.
In a powerful scene from the drama, actor David, 51, as Alexander is seen telling detectives from his deathbed: “I need to report a murder . . . mine”
Emotion in her pale blue eyes, Marina tells me: “It happened. Sasha made a statement in which he reported his own murder to the police.”
‘He was a young soul’
The series — on new streaming service ITVX from Thursday — is part love story, part murder hunt which follows Scotland Yard detectives on the evidence trail to prove who killed Alexander in 2006.
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During his final, pain-wracked days as Alexander lay in hospital, Marina says her former KGB officer husband implored her “not to be silent”.
A ballroom dancer knowing nothing of espionage, she embarked on a 16-year crusade for truth and justice.
She says: “David Tennant’s involvement means more of the young generation will watch and make the link with what is now happening in Ukraine.”
The actor met Marina, and she revealed: “I didn’t instruct him, I just told him my story. I told him we were an ordinary family, just happy to escape from Putin’s brutal regime. What happened to us was an unbelievable tragedy.”
The mum is played in the drama by Margarita Levieva, 42, who Marina also met.
The Russian-born actress admits she was “scared” to take on the role because she knows what Putin is “capable of”.
Marina says the famous photo doesn’t upset her but that she has a “different picture” of her husband in her mind.
She adds: “If people saw how he looked the day before he was poisoned, a handsome and good-looking guy, they would be even more shocked.”
Moscow-born Marina tells how she met Alexander in 1993, when he was working for the FSB — successor of the KGB — investigating organised crime. She was 31 and he was 30.
“Sasha was a very handsome, very shy man,” she recalls. “He was a really young soul, cheerful, easy-going. I found him extremely dedicated to his job.
“Sasha fought organised crime and how it works with the security services and Putin himself.”
The couple had a son, Anatoly, and a cherished life together. Then Alexander courageously spoke out against his FSB masters, saying he and other officers had been ordered to kill prominent politicians and business leaders.
The family fled Russia and claimed asylum in Britain. Alexander loved his new home, putting up the St George’s flag outside his house when England played in the World Cup.
Marina remembered: “Sasha liked to joke and said, ‘Marina, we are very safe because we’re on an island. We’re in a kingdom, we’re under the protection of the Queen — it’s like a fairytale’.
“But when he was being more serious, he said, ‘They’re not going to do anything in Britain’.”
Alexander was a paid “consultant” for MI6 and continued to speak out about Putin’s abuses and his circle’s links to organised crime.
Then, on the sixth anniversary of the Litvinenkos arrival in Britain, Alexander met two Russians at the Millennium Hotel in London’s Mayfair, and drank a cup of tea.
Waiting at home, Marina had prepared a special dinner of chicken and pancakes in a herb sauce.
Alexander returned at 7pm, they had the meal and went to bed.
Shortly after 11pm her husband was violently sick. He began to foam at the mouth and vomit every 25 minutes.
A healthy former pentathlete who enjoyed running, he knew from his KGB training that something was very wrong.
Marina remembered: “Almost immediately Sasha realised he had been poisoned. I tried to treat it as food poisoning on that first day.
“On the second day it became worse and he couldn’t stop vomiting, so we called an ambulance.”
On November 17 he was transferred to the University College Hospital, in central London, and placed under armed police guard.
Metropolitan Police Detective Inspector Brent Hyatt — played by Neil Maskell in the drama — questioned Alexander on three occasions as he lay dying.
Alexander, vomiting blood and pieces of his disintegrating stomach, said: “I am proud to be able to say that I am a British citizen.
‘The bastards got me’
“Yes, they did try to kill me and possibly I may die, but I will die as a free person and my wife and son are free people.”
Marina was sure her husband would pull through, saying: “He talked to our son Anatoly about coming home.
“When we finally discovered he’d been poisoned it was a relief. We thought there might be an antidote — we believed he would survive.
“We talked about how he would recover and be able to run again. We talked about the future.”
But the dose of polonium-210 that Alexander drank in the spiked cup of tea was estimated to be twice as strong as those at the epicentre of the Chernobyl nuclear power station disaster had received.
It took those victims two weeks to die a slow, agonising death.
Alexander clung to life for an astonishing 23 days before dying, aged 43, on November 23, 2006.
“Sasha was unbelievably strong,” Marina says. “The murderers wanted him to die sooner.
“Then people would never know about the polonium, would never know who was behind the crime.
“It would be just another unexplained death in London.”
The day after Alexander’s death, a thin-lipped Putin sneered: “Mr Litvinenko is, unfortunately, not Lazarus.”
Death didn’t silence Alexander — thanks to Marina and her husband’s many friends.
One associate, Andrei Nekrasov, revealed that just hours before he fell unconscious, Alexander told him: “The bastards got me but they won’t get everybody.”
A year after his murder, I confronted Andrei Lugovoi, one of the men named as his killer.
I cornered the ex KGB bodyguard near his office in Moscow’s Radisson Slavyanskaya Hotel and asked him if he killed Alexander.
Shielded by his bodyguard, he wailed, “I want to go to the toilet”, then fled.
Lugovoi, 56, has always maintained his innocence, claiming he was framed by MI6. His accomplice, Dmitry Kovtun, died from Covid this year.
Today Alexander’s murder — described by the family’s lawyer as “nuclear terrorism” — is regarded as a stark warning of Putin’s bloodthirsty geopolitical intentions which the world failed to heed.
Marina said: “Just before he died, Sasha wrote an article saying that Putin was a monster who, if he wasn’t stopped, would start a war in which millions could die. He was right.”
Marina was in Ukraine visiting friends when the invasion began. She believes Putin has made “a fatal mistake” and that the Ukrainians will “never give up”.
Her son Anatoly, 28, who works in IT in Britain, even received mobilisation papers at a Moscow flat where the family used to live.
“They didn’t want to know where he was when he was supposed to be getting an education,” Marina says.
“Now they want him to fight for the motherland. Life wasn’t easy for Anatoly, not only because I was a single mum, but because he was a teenager and traumatised by what happened to his parents.”
Marina took her wedding ring off three years after her husband died.
She believes he wouldn’t have wanted her to carry on grieving. She had a relationship with a man who died of cancer in 2018.
“I’ve not remarried,” she says. “But anyone who is with me must accept that Sasha is never ‘ex’. He is always there.”
Her ambition is to see Putin tried for war crimes and the murder of her husband.
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This brave woman with a mighty heart added: “Although Alexander isn’t alive, I’ve always tried to keep his story alive.
“After the invasion of Ukraine it’s more important than ever.”
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