The widow of Alexander Litvinenko, the former Russian spy who was killed in London, has spoken of her ordeal as she watched him die in agony from radioactive poisoning.

In an emotional interview with The Sunday Times, Marina Litvinenko described how her husband had always told her that he and his family would be “very safe” after defecting from Moscow to Britain. Marina, 44, said his last words to her before he slipped into a coma were, “Marina, I love you so much.”

She said she had decided to speak out after becoming angry at “completely untrue” reports suggesting her husband was a man of dubious character. She said he had been an honest man, a crime fighter rather than a spy.

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He was, she said, a “lovely dad, a very caring person and a very special man” who would be deeply missed.

Speaking through tears in halting English, she said: “I don’t feel good and, of course, I don’t know when I [will] start to feel good after whathappened.”

She said that her husband — known to his family and friends as “Sasha” — was “a very caring person about us” and had always tried to look after her and their 12-year-old son Anatoly: “He tried to protect me, he just triedto protect me.

“Sasha told me we were very safe, I’m very safe . . . I think he felt nobody could kill him.”

She said that throughout the three weeks that her husband was in hospital after being poisoned with a massive dose of polonium-210, she watched his condition deteriorate but never gave up believing he would recover: “I didn’t lose my hope. He was very fit for his age. He didn’t smoke, he didn’t drink.”

But she could see him slipping away day by day: “He was a very handsome man. But each day for him was like 10 years, he became older in how he looked.”

Marina said she had tried to hide her feelings and fears from him. It was not until the end that she finally accepted that he would die last month.

“Suddenly I saw he was tired, too tired to fight. Before that, he’d beena strong fighter. This time I saw he’d almost given up. I wasn’t sure if I should go home. I said, ‘Are you okay? Shall I go home?’

“Then he said the first full sentence he’d said all day: ‘Marina, I love you so much’. I said, ‘Thank you’.”

She said that he used to tell her every day that he loved her.

Marina said that they had so enjoyed the freedom of living in Britain that they had fallen into a false sense of security. In Britain her husband, an emotional man, she said, had felt able to speak freely about his passions.

“Life here in England fooled us. After six years we were differentpeople from who we were in Russia,” she said.

“Of course he had enemies but not [enemies] to kill him in this horrible way. Sasha never felt that he was a first target.

“Everybody tries to write about Sasha like he was an ex-spy, butit’s completely untrue. He never was a spy.”

It was only when her husband was close to death that Marina finallyrealised the enormity of what had happened. “Finally I can see that he was a target,” she said.

Police believe that Litvinenko, a vehement critic of the regime of Vladimir Putin, president of Russia, was poisoned when he met two or three Russian businessmen in the bar of the Millennium hotel in Mayfair, central London, on November 1. They suspect he was targeted by a Russian “hit squad” that flew to London in October.

Last week it emerged that seven other people at the Millennium hotel were contaminated with polonium, although at far lower levels than Litvinenko. The Health Protection Agency is trying to trace a further 200 people who visited the bar that day so that they can be tested.

Marina was reluctant to enter the diplomatic row that has ensued from the murder of her husband, who has been denounced by the Russians asa fantasist who had a grudge against Putin.

Asked to comment on Tony Blair’s promise that relations with Russia would not interfere with the police investigation, she said: “I don’t like to say words like pathetic . . . But Sasha said personal life was very important in England. It’s not very important in Russia.

“In Russia it doesn’t matter how many people are killed. I’d like to believe [the] life [of] only one person can still be very important in England.”

She declined to say whether she thought the Russian authorities or Putin were behind her husband’s killing. But she added that her husband’s public claims about his former employers at the FSB had alienated them.

“Sasha never had enemies in his life but because he was a former FSB officer and knew, just like me, that you never can escape from the FSB and he was starting to speak openly about crime . . . I can’t say [it was] he was starting to speak openly about crime . . .

“I can’t say [it was] these people but I’m absolutely sure they didn’t forgive him for what he did.”

November 1, the day he was poisoned, was a special day for both of them: the sixth anniversary of their escape from Russia, where Litvinenko had fallen foul of his political masters after coming to believe that corruption permeated the FSB security service and the upper levels of government.

They had made a new life in north London where Sasha — and, by extension, Marina and Anatoly — felt safe. “Sasha told me, ‘In Russia people can do what they like. In England it’s rules, it’s law’.”

At first Marina felt lost in London, but as Anatoly began to make friends at school and she began to learn English, she settled down. The best thing was that Sasha, who had become an obsessive workaholic as he investigated corruption in Russia, began to relax.

“When I met him in Russia I could see he had potential,” she says. “In England he became more of a man, more of a person. He spoke to Vladimir Bukovsky [another dissident] every night. That was his university.

“In Russia it was all about his job. He’d be busy for two, three days at a time. He’d forget to eat and drink. It was difficult to cope. We couldn’t plan anything. Although he’d be so happy when he’d finished, when he’d caught somebody. He was full of life. He was 32 years old and he had a high-level job. Everybody was predicting that he would be the youngest general in the FSB.”

His downfall, she believes, was a result of being too honest: “It was the last two years before we left Russia that he was really unhappy. He was trying to investigate crime at a high level but he was frustrated.

“[In Britain] he wrote articles, he spoke out, but he felt nobody would kill him for it. He felt safe here. He never told me exactly what he was doing, but he had his business and I had mine: I was in control of the family, my son, my home. He tried to protect me.”

On the anniversary of their escape they always had a celebratory supper. Marina was planning to cook a chicken dish. But first Sasha had meetings in town and Marina went shopping to buy a birthday present for a friend’s son.

“It was very normal. Sasha came home and changed his clothes, watched some internet news. He said he had to be up early the next day as he was busy.”

That night, Sasha complained of feeling sick. Marina could not understand it; she had eaten the same food. Sasha began to suspect immediately that he had been poisoned.

“I said, ‘Sasha, I can’t believe it’. I tried to calm everything down. He was so fit. He didn’t drink or smoke. It was a joke. people would say, ‘You’re Russian? And you don’t drink?’ He could run 10km — fast.

“But he knew this wasn’t normal. I have never seen anyone vomit like that. He’d studied such things at the military academy and he knew the symptoms.”

Two days later he was admitted to hospital and staff at first believed he had caught a bug; but he persuaded them that he had been poisoned and the race began to unravel the mystery of what had happened to him.

The poison had a dramatic effect on his body. His hair fell out and it became too painful to him to swallow.

She did not give up, convinced that he would recover. “I never gave up hope,” she says. “It was not until the very last day that I thought I would lose him.”

Litvinenko also believed he would survive, especially when the doctors told them that they believed he had been poisoned with thallium. “We were so happy. We thought, there’s an antidote, he’ll recover. He said to me, ‘I’ll take the antidote, no matter how painful it is’.”

Despite their optimism, Sasha’s condition continued to worsen. “I tried to hide my feelings,” she says. “I would hold his hand and massage his feet. He said, ‘I’ll do it for you every day when I get home’. He talked about running again.”

Marina’s great concern was how to help her son: “We never kept Anatoly apart from what was happening to Sasha. He knew when we escaped from Russia that his life was not normal for a child.

“He was always very interested in what Sasha was doing. Sasha would take him to meet people. He is old enough to read the newspapers, he knew everything that was happening to his dad.

“It’s so hard. I’ve said to him, ‘Anatoly, are you okay, how do you feel?’ He said to me, ‘Six years ago I already lost my life in Russia and now it’s happening again’.”

Every day Sasha’s condition worsened. The doctors realised that they were looking for more than thallium but they were running out of time.

“On the Wednesday [November 22] he was weaker. He couldn’t speak,” said Marina. “We cancelled all visitors. During the day he was sleeping. He could hardly speak, just asked me to stay. His dad came and at 8 o’clock, I wanted to go home as Anatoly was there.

“Suddenly I saw he was tired, too tired to fight. Before that, he’d been a strong fighter. This time I saw he’d almost given up. I wasn’t sure if I should go home. I said, ‘Are you okay’ Shall I go home?’

“Then he said the first full sentence he’d said all day: ‘Marina, I love you so much’. I said, ‘Thank you’,” she smiled, “because he told me that every day. I said, ‘Okay, can I go now?’ His eyes closed. He was a little upset again but he didn’t open his eyes.”

She set off for home, not knowing that those were the last words he would ever speak to her. At midnight the hospital called to say he was in a bad way. His heart had stopped and they had revived him but he was on life support.

“I couldn’t speak,” she said. “He couldn’t see me. Suddenly I started to feel I could lose him. It was so sharp. I knew I shouldn’t think about that and when I left him on the Thursday I thought, it’ll be okay.

“Anatoly asked me, ‘Is it okay with daddy?’ And I said, ‘Anatoly, shall I speak to you as an adult or as a child?’ I spoke to him as an adult. I said Sasha was on a life support machine: would he like to see him?”

They agreed that they would go to the hospital together on Friday. But later that night, the telephone rang again, saying Sasha’s condition was critical. “Anatoly said, ‘I’ll go with you’. It was the last time he saw his father alive.”

Since then she has been overwhelmed with grief. “I don’t know when I will feel good again,” she said. “Everyone says Sasha was a spy but he was never a spy. He was special person, a very caring man who was a lovely dad to our son and a good son to his father.

“Life with him wasn’t easy. Six years ago I lost my country, I lost the life I had before. Now it’s just a huge feeling of losing my husband. What’s important to me is to try to find out who killed him and why.”

Marina Litvinenko met her husband, Alexander, at a birthday party to celebrate her 31st birthday. Friends who knew Alexander “Sasha” Litvinenko thought the tall, blond FSB officer would appeal to her — and they were right. “It was so romantic. I always used to tell him he was my birthday present,” she said.

“We were so happy. He’d say to me, ‘Marina, why didn’t I meet you sooner?’ and I’d tell him ‘Don’t worry, Sasha. We’ll have a long and happy life together’.”

It was not to be.

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