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The Salisbury Poisonings, and how our dreams of apocalyse have changed

June 19, 2020

Last night I watched the final episode of The Salisbury Poisonings. Great drama, well acted, compelling story.

What amazes me is that whoever came up with the plan to assassinate Sergei Skripal, the retired Russian double agent living quietly in a small British city, was so stupid. Not only risking their country’s reputation by using a nerve agent that was easily traced back to Russia, but using people who bungled the job in such a way as to endanger the entire population of Salisbury.

Why, you wonder, use such a bizarre method of poisoning? You might also ask why polonium was used on Alexander Litvinenko. If the motive was to strike fear into Russia’s perceived enemies, surely a real-life equivalent of Killing Eve‘s Villanelle, who uses robust but more conventional ways of killing, would be able to do the job without leaving a trail of WMD components in their wake.

Are we all a little more afraid of Vladimir Putin as a result of these attacks? Possibly, but even if we don’t feel personally threatened, we surely buy in with greater enthusiasm to the narrative that this is a worthy successor to Stalin, a soulless murderer and the last person you could trust in any political partnership with the old enemies of the Soviet Union from which he sprang.

You would also be able to use as evidence Putin’s interference in the last US presidential election, which may have been instrumental in foisting Donald Trump on the world. And perhaps you might have read Bill Browder’s book Red Notice, which describes how Putin and his cronies took control of Russia’s corporate giants, or you might be aware of the country’s doped-up athletes, its weapons testing on innocents in Syria in support of Bashar al-Assad and it’s indifference to the lives of citizens of Grozny, which Putin’s forces pulverised in his war against the Chechens.

But the Salisbury attack shows that he clearly presides over some pretty incompetent spies. Aside from the clumsiness of the assassins, the fact that Bellingcat, an independent blogging collective, was able to unmask the real identities of the two prime suspects by accessing public documents suggests that Putin’s gang are far from the efficient operators of the Cold War, or from Stalin’s pre-war assassins.

I do have one quibble with the programme. It reflected the government narrative that the event was a chemical weapons attack on a British city. It wasn’t. It was an attack on two individuals with unexpected and probably unintended “collateral damage”. There’s a difference. If the intention was to cause widespread death in Salisbury, that would most likely have been considered an act of war.

It would be more accurate to say that the Salisbury poisonings were a state-sponsored terrorist attack. And terrifying it was, for the victims, the local authorities and the people of Salisbury. It was grimly fascinating to watch Tracy Daszkiewicz, the public health director, going about her work, as she tried to quantify the risks. Who had come into contact with the substance? Where had they been? What had they touched? And had the nerve agent entered the water supply?

The biggest mystery of all, which the programme didn’t answer, was that if, as claimed, Novichok is fifty times more lethal than any other man-made substance, why, out of the five people known to have come into contact with it, did only one person die?

If an answer is known, it’s perhaps too complicated to be explained in a programme that focused less on the technicalities and more on the effect of the attack on the lives of those involved.

Although it uses similar narrative techniques to keep us interested, The Salisbury Poisonings is in no sense a disaster movie. Whereas disaster movies draw us into the lives of the protagonists as a prelude to some CGI-enhanced set-piece catastrophe, all we saw in Salisbury was a few people getting nastily sick. We hardly even saw the Skripals, who were the intended targets. Not exactly the Night of the Living Dead, thank goodness.

It was also striking how unshocking it was, to me at least, to see ambulances, military vehicles and people in hazmat suits milling around the quiet streets. The programme was probably made last year, long before the advent of COVID-19. Little did the makers know that the scenes they were shooting were ones that in the following year would become everyday occurrences.

The significance of both events – poisoning and pandemic, one of limited impact and the other universal – is that whereas my generation still wakes up in a sweat during dreams of a nuclear war, with fiery infernos sweeping away everything we hold dear, perhaps for those who still have most of their lives ahead of them, this is how we imagine we die.

Not through fire storms, tsunamis or by being swallowed up by the earth. But through something we can’t see, taste or smell. Something released deliberately or accidentally, that carries us off while leaving all that we created to quietly rot away.

I’m not sure which is the scarier dream, but I do know how I would rather die.

From → Books, Film, History, Politics, UK

2 Comments
  1. Andrew Robinson permalink

    I share your sentiments. I’m guessing Putin wasn’t in charge of the fine detail, just gave the idea of the plan the faintest of nods….

    While “The Salisbury Poisonings” is still fresh in your mind, may I suggest finishing the Armageddon triptych with “Sitting in Limbo” (real, but surreal…) https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/p08g29ff/sitting-in-limbo
    and “Years and Years” (surreal, but dystopian…) https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episodes/m000539g/years-and-years
    to really scare the merde out of you, locked-in forever, as you and yours are, apart from compassionate leave for compliant behaviour, on the “Big Island”.

    “Ze plane, ze plane!” – almost “Fantasy Island” in real but the Hammer House of Horror version.

    Not really “lol” either….

    • Thanks Andrew. Haven’t heard of Armageddon, but someone else has recommended Year and Years. Must check them out. Happy times!

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