Traitors in Vladimir Putin's Russia

By Steven Rosenberg
BBC News, Moscow

Media caption,
Andrei Lugovoi, a suspect in the murder of Mr Litvinenko, now has his own TV show as Steve Rosenberg reports

In a Moscow café, Andrei Lugovoi talks to me about a subject close to his heart: betrayal.

The man British police view as prime suspect in the killing of former Russian agent Alexander Litvinenko is making his TV debut, as host of a documentary series called Traitors. It's about Soviet citizens who betrayed the motherland.

"This programme isn't about politics or propaganda," Mr Lugovoi says.

"It's about the essence of treachery. It's about why eight Soviet citizens with a good upbringing, brilliant education and wonderful careers decided to work for a foreign state and do enormous damage to our country."

The TV trailer for Traitors is very James Bond. To dramatic music, Mr Lugovoi is shown destroying wads of cash in a fire, uncovering secret spy codes in a dusty book and firing a gun. The presenter himself is referred to as the "living legend wanted by British intelligence".

He denies poisoning Alexander Litvinenko in a London sushi bar in 2006, although he believes Mr Litvinenko was a "traitor".

"Based on the statements of Litvinenko's own wife," Mr Lugovoi says, "he was working for the British secret service."

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Alexander Litvinenko was poisoned by radioactive polonium-210 in November 2006

His TV series is about traitors of the past. But it has a contemporary ring to it.

"Treachery is a topical subject, and not just for Russia," Mr Lugovoi explains. "For Britain and America too. You've had your fair share of traitors working for the USSR and Russia. As long as there is confrontation between our countries there will always be traitors."

Russia's president seems to think so.

Last month, in a live TV broadcast from a political youth camp, Vladimir Putin warned that some people in Russia were prepared to "fully betray the country's national interests". He compared them to the Bolsheviks, who had exploited Russia's weakness in World War One to carry out revolution back home.


The state-controlled media has picked up the theme and has been warning of a "fifth column" threatening Russia from the inside.

Russian TV channel NTV broadcast a two-part film recently called Friends of the Junta. The documentaries denounced a string of Russian politicians, pop stars and social activists for supporting the Ukrainian government. They were portrayed as traitors.

Image source, AP
Image caption,
President Putin has condemned people who betray Russia's national interests

"It's the same pattern that was in Stalin's Russia and Hitler's Germany," believes Moscow history teacher Tamara Eidelman. "It's a tragic way. Because if you start looking for scapegoats, you don't look for real answers, you don't look for real ways out of the crisis."

Ms Eidelman has publicly criticised Russia's intervention in Ukraine. NTV included her in its Friends of the Junta film.

"It's much easier to rule when you have enemies and everybody can unite against these enemies," she says. "And you can always explain that prices are rising and shops are getting empty and so many terrible things happen because of these enemies. We've seen it in history many times."

Tamara Eidelman concedes that Vladimir Putin's Russia is not Stalin's Russia - where so-called "enemies of the people" were sent to the Gulag or straight to the firing squad.

And yet Russia's current search for scapegoats is reminiscent of the past.

With Russia under increasing pressure from sanctions and increasingly isolated from the West, the authorities are raising the spectre of traitors, turncoats and internal enemies to ensure that it's not the Kremlin that Russians blame for their country's problems.