Yuri Kadobnov / AFP / Getty Images

Nemtsov murder stirs fears of violent nationalism in Putin’s Russia

Dozens of theories have emerged to explain the highest-profile assassination of a Kremlin critic in the post-Soviet era

The assassination of Boris Nemtsov had already spawned dozens of conspiracy theories by the time the former deputy prime minister was laid to rest on Tuesday. As thousands gathered for his public memorial in Moscow, everyone from President Vladimir Putin to the CIA and Chechen rebels had been implicated in rumors circulating over pro-Kremlin airwaves or in opposition circles. “In lawless Russia, any theory can seem plausible,” said Nina Khrushcheva, a Russia expert at the New School in New York.

Nemtsov — a retired politician and one of the last opposition leaders left in the country — was walking with his girlfriend, Anna Duritskaya, across a bridge in the shadow of St. Basil’s Cathedral shortly before midnight on Friday when an unknown assailant emerged from a stairwell behind them and shot him at least four times in the back, according to Duritskaya’s account. The attacker then jumped into a white car and was driven away, said the 23-year-old, who escaped unscathed.

Nemtsov's murder was the latest and arguably highest-profile in a string of assassinations of Kremlin critics during Vladimir Putin's 15 years in power. Sensing a pattern, Nemtsov’s allies, including opposition leader Alexei Navalny, saw no other explanation than that Putin or the Russian security services (FSB) either ordered or sanctioned the hit on Nemtsov — who in recent days had delivered biting criticism of the president's meddling in Ukraine and his handling of the Russian economic crisis. In comments that some have dubbed eerily prophetic, Nemtsov told the Financial Times last week that Putin was a “totally amoral human being,” and “more dangerous than the Soviets.” On Friday, just hours before he died, Nemtsov announced that he was preparing to release “documentary” proof that Russian soldiers were fighting with Ukraine’s pro-Russian rebels (Putin has vehemently denied sending any regular forces or weapons to Ukraine).

Nemtsov’s body at the scene of the crime, with St. Basil’s Cathedral in the background.

Writing in The Guardian, journalist Luke Harding said the scene of the crime — just over 500 yards from the Kremlin itself — was particularly incriminating. “An opponent of Putin lying dead in the street, under the walls of Russian power, and next to the country’s most famous landmark … It seems extraordinary that a former deputy prime minister could be murdered here, outside the Russian equivalent of the White House or the Houses of Parliament, with the shooter apparently able to drive off.”

For his part, Putin was quick to decry the murder as a “provocation,” suggesting that the perpetrator was seeking to sow discontent within the country. As rallies of nearly 70,000 Nemtsov supporters poured into Russian streets over the weekend, unusual for the authoritarian country, Russian state media and police investigating the matter have offered alternate theories: Muslim attackers, acting in response to Nemtsov’s support for irreverent French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo; fellow opposition members attempting to defame the Kremlin; even a jealous ex-lover. Few Putin critics take those theories seriously.

Still, many Moscow watchers are not convinced the Kremlin was directly involved. Despite his regular diatribes against the Putin regime, the 55-year-old Nemtsov was by some accounts a fading star in Russian opposition circles. He had been tolerated for so many decades — used as a punching bag, even — that it hardly seemed logical a savvy Kremlin higher-up would create an international scandal just to silence him.

“He was in a lot of ways a figure from the past who was struggling to stay relevant,” said Jeff Mankoff, a Russia expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “He had a reputation for not really having a common touch, for being part of this liberal cosmopolitan elite that’s always had trouble connecting with the Russian population more broadly.”

“It’s all very speculative, but in operational terms, I don’t think it makes sense for the head of state to have been involved in something like this,” said Mankoff, who noted that it was too early to rule anything out.

Regardless, Putin has found himself in hot water over the murder. Amid a standoff with the West over Ukraine, the assassination of one of Russia’s remaining liberal voices has been condemned in Europe as yet another example of Russia's disregard for freedom and rights. The killing “likely eradicated any remaining fragment of trust the West had in the Russian regime after Ukraine,” wrote Alexey Malashenko for the Carnegie Moscow Center blog.

A popular theory is that freelance Russian nationalists killed Nemtsov, acting on their own initiative to silence someone they considered a pro-Western “traitor.” But even in that case, most commentators in the West argue that Putin would be held indirectly responsible. The Russian leader has stirred nationalist sentiment over the invasion of Ukraine, offering a narrative of restoring Russia to grandeur while facing down Western imperialism. Brazenly annexing the historically Russian Crimean Peninsula was his capstone achievement. In doing so, however, critics say he has helped create a permissive or even lawless environment, where patriotic nationalists might be inclined to take matters into their own hands.

“Any FSB flunky or even a Ukrainian rebel might think this is what the boss wants,” said the New School's Khrushcheva. “There's this sense that anyone who’s not with us is against us, which I don't think was quite as rampant before Russia was at war for survival of its great national identity.”

In other ways, the Nemtsov killing has already begun to resemble the aftermath of past such assassinations, especially that of human rights activist and journalist Anna Politkovskaya, who was shot dead in her apartment building in 2006. Five men were ultimately convicted of her murder, but it was never clear who ordered it, with Putin downplaying any possible motive by calling the slain journalist "merely famous in the West."

Comparisons to that case do not bode well for the downtrodden Russian opposition, which analysts say today carries more weight outside the country than within it. Many hoped Politkovskaya's death would galvanize anti-Putin sentiment, but that simply didn’t happen. Given the heightened climate of fear in Russia at present, many doubt Nemtsov’s death will play out any differently.

On the contrary, the incident has opened fresh fears that hostility toward dissidents in Russia, long marked by arrest or exile for those deemed troublesome, could give way into something far more dangerous. On Friday night, "we witnessed a new iteration of Russian authoritarianism, one which is increasingly shifting from a pragmatic dictatorship toward an ideology-driven dictatorship of self-preservation,” wrote Alexander Baunov, editor-in-chief of the Carnegie Moscow Center blog. “Regardless of who the shooter was and whose orders he was carrying out, a country where a critic of the regime is forced to fear being killed on the street rather than being arrested at a political rally is an entirely different country altogether.”

On Wednesday, Putin called for an end to such political killings, reiterating that he would personally oversee the investigation. But even for those inclined to believe him, there was talk that the atmosphere Putin has helped create had already spiraled out of his control. "If there is a gun in the room, it is certain to go off," wrote Andrei Kolesnikov, also of the Carnegie Moscow Center. "If the authorities actively incite public opinion against the fifth column (a label used in state media for critics like Nemtsov), there will be people whose aggressive words will translate into aggressive actions."

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