THE RADIOACTIVE poisoning death of former KGB spy Alexander Litvinenko is mushrooming into a tale of intrigue that is mesmerizing and confusing in equal measures. But the cloak-and-dagger theatrics threaten to obscure an urgent danger at the story's heart -- journalists in President Vladimir V. Putin's Russia are increasingly being attacked and killed.
The latest Litvinenko news is the stuff of a John Le Carre novel: Two Russian businessmen, one of them a former KGB colonel, and an Italian investigator -- all of whom who met with Litvinenko just before he fell ill -- have also suffered poisoning from polonium-210.
Traces of the material were also found in employees of the London bar where Litvinenko and the Russians met and on aircraft that flew between Moscow and London. Meanwhile, former Russian Prime Minister Yegor T. Gaidar fell severely ill in Dublin and also claims to have been poisoned, though not with polonium and, he insists, not by the Kremlin.
We may never find out whodunit or who ordered it done, but we know what Litvinenko was investigating at the time of his death: the killing of decorated Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya, who had been exposing alleged Russian misdeeds in Chechnya.
Were the killings of Politkovskaya and Litvinenko isolated incidents, the Kremlin's protests that it suffers most from the bad international publicity would be more worthy of sympathy. But Politkovskaya was at least the 21st Russian journalist to be killed since Putin was elected in 2000, according to Reporters Without Borders. Two others have disappeared and are presumed dead, and there have been 320 assaults.
This would be alarming in any country, but it comes during a period in which the Russian government has nationalized private TV stations that had been critical of the regime, backed the takeover of independent media by political allies, arrested media executives or forced them into exile and repeatedly brought criminal charges against journalists. The human rights group Freedom House ranks Russia as simply "not free" when it comes to the media.
The result has been de facto impunity for those who would enforce public silence -- be they corrupt government officials, sleazy businessmen, gangsters or any others who fear exposure or debate. That some news outlets have accepted payment to print or withhold sensitive information in the anarchic post-Soviet marketplace certainly complicates the picture.
But the pattern of censorship, intimidation and deadly violence against the Kremlin's fiercest critics makes it increasingly difficult to give Putin the benefit of the doubt.
Politkovskaya, one of the bravest reporters of her generation, was gunned down Oct. 7 in what many suspect was a contract killing. She is the third journalist from her newspaper, Novaya Gazeta -- one of the last Russian publications that dares do investigative reporting -- to die.
Last month, two other Novaya Gazeta reporters received death threats; one was investigating Politkovskaya's slaying. While the newspaper's staff risks their lives to shed light on the inner workings of Putin's Russia, the West has a moral obligation to insist that the Russian government protect them.