Who Killed Boris Nemtsov?
The Kremlin has loomed over Russia like a colossus, author of and witness to most of the defining moments in that country’s history. From the Presidential Palace in the Kremlin, you can see the Bolshoi Moskvoretzky Bridge where Russia’s most recent calamity occurred – the murder on February 27 of Boris Nemtsov. Opposition to the Putin regime is fractured and weak, but Nemtsov stood out, forceful and articulate, a former deputy prime minister under Boris Yeltsin, one of the few opposition figures with the pedigree to aspire to be president. At issue is whether, this time, the occupant of the Presidential Palace was author or witness.
Political killings have been a hallmark of Russian politics for a long time, from the assassination of czars and pretenders to the throne to the murder of old Bolsheviks who opposed Lenin or Stalin. They included Sergei Kirov, head of the Communist Party in Leningrad, shot in his office at party headquarters in 1924, and Leon Trotsky, co-founder of the Soviet Union, axed to death in exile in Mexico in 1940. In the Soviet era, the preferred method for disposing of opponents eventually shifted from outright murder to show trials, whose effect of course was no different. The last major political figure murdered was Lavrenti Beria, the most sadistic of Stalin’s security chiefs, executed after Stalin’s own death in 1953 by successors who feared Beria aspired to supreme power. Beria was given a one-day trial, then shot the same day.
It was to the credit of Stalin’s successors that, for the next forty years, they successfully devised non-violent means of settling their political differences – even under the stress of the collapse of the Soviet Union itself. Losers were pensioned off, not killed. Things changed, however, once the Communist Party lost its monopoly on power and Russian politics became a ruthless and disorganized contest among dozens of parties, factions and interests – less reminiscent of Russia in the 1920s than of Germany in the 1930s.
The parallels aren’t exact, but the methods Vladimir Putin employed to seize and hold power were not so different from Adolf Hitler’s. As Adam Bullock wrote, it was Hitler “who made the original discovery of how to combine the revolutionary threat from below with the tactics of legality” to disarm his opposition and concentrate power in his own hands. Like Hitler, Putin achieved power through “legal” means, but his political opponents have all been thrown into prison, exiled or killed – and some 130 investigative journalists murdered.
Whether the responsibility for all this lies with Putin himself, the cabal who support him, home-grown fascist movements, or simply the anarchy of the times may not be known for a long time. But everything so far learned about the Nemtsov killing suggests Putin was neither a disinterested party nor an innocent bystander. Consider:
- Nemtsov was a marked man, the recipient of numerous mostly anonymous death threats, frequently denounced for his “traitorous” activities, and about to release a report he had prepared on Russian military assistance to pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine – assistance the Putin regime denies providing.
- According to his friends, Nemtsov was often shadowed by the secret police. So it would have been extraordinary for them not to have been tracking him just days before an anti-regime demonstration was to be held which Nemtsov had helped organize.
- Nemtsov’s movements were certainly known to those who killed him. It is unclear whether the six shots fired at him came from someone who followed him on foot and then jumped into a car to escape, or came directly from the car itself. What is clear is that there was professionalism and planning behind the assassination.
- The young woman walking with Nemtsov across the bridge at the time, Anna Duritskaya, was not hurt. But she was immediately placed under house arrest “for her own safety”, held incommunicado for a day, then allowed to tell an online news channel that she hadn’t seen the face of the assailant and couldn’t remember the car’s make or licence plate. Less than 72 hours after the killing, she was on a plane home to Kiev.
- Within hours of the murder, a cleaning crew was photographed hosing down the crime scene – disposing of all the evidence investigators would look at.
- Almost immediately, according to news reports, police raided Nemtsov’s apartment and confiscated papers and computers.
- Security cameras on the bridge have been variously reported as not working, blocked by a passing snowplow, and clear enough to identify two Chechens who have been arrested. When they talk of “rounding up the usual suspects” in Moscow, they always seem to be Chechens.
If Nemtsov’s murder wasn’t the work of the security “organs”, one wonders what they would have done differently had they been responsible.