Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov’s assassination on Feb. 27 close to Red Square raises the question of whether the Kremlin was behind it.
Nemtsov, one of the boy wonders of 1990s Russia, became a deputy prime minister at the age of 38 and had been widely considered the man to replace Boris Yeltsin as president — a job ultimately given to Vladimir Putin. Though one of the most trusted politicians in Russian opinion polls, Nemtsov was considered too flamboyant after the flamboyant Yeltsin. Though Russian Orthodox, Nemtsov had the additional liability of a Jewish mother.
He was fiercely critical of Putin from the start. Nemtsov railed at him over his handling of the 2002 Nordost Theater takeover by Chechen rebels, the 2004 Beslan school massacre and corruption. Nemtsov cited $30 billion he claims was looted during the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics. When Putin finalized border agreements with China in 2004, Nemtsov accused him of making “major territorial concessions” and even of being a “Chinese agent of influence.” Understatement was never a Russian strong suit.
While the main opposition leader, Alexei Navalny essentially supports the annexation of Crimea, Nemtsov would have none of that. Crimea was Ukraine’s. What’s more, he had proof that Russian troops were fighting in Ukraine and was writing about it in a new book. In the meantime, he was helping organize a mass demonstration for March 1. The event turned into a memorial march for him.
In the unrelenting harshness of his tone, Nemtsov was like the journalist Anna Politkovskaya, who was gunned down in 2006. Another interesting similarity is the scorn that the government poured on his life’s work before his corpse was even cold: Putin called her “extremely insignificant for political life in Russia”; after Nemtsov’s death, Putin’s official representative said Nemtsov “presented no political threat to the current leadership.”
If Politkovskaya and Nemtsov were so unimportant, why were they murdered? It’s because people like them could be influential out of proportion to the number of books they sold or votes they received. The history of the 20th century has shown that small groups led by strong personalities can suddenly shift from the margins to the centers of power, as Lenin and Hitler did. That was also why Joseph Stalin had Leon Trotsky killed in Mexico.
The sense in Russia is that Nemtsov’s posthumous fate will be similar to Politkovskaya’s. Five men, including a former lieutenant colonel in the police, have been convicted of her murder, but who ordered the hit remains a mystery. Though Nemtsov’s investigation is under the personal control of the head of the police — a common declaration in such a high-profile death — it will likely bear no more fruit than Politkovskaya’s case.
The combination of international sanctions and the fall in oil prices and the value of the ruble have weakened Putin and his circle’s grasp on power. There is nothing Putin’s loyalists can do to reduce the effects of the sanctions and the halving of Russia’s oil income, but domestically at least, they can strengthen his position by removing one of his chief enemies. They all remember Putin’s pale, cold fury when he had to ride to his 2012 inauguration through eerily empty streets, the day after the biggest demonstration ever seen in Moscow. And here was Nemtsov organizing another one.
So Putin didn’t have to ask, Who will rid me of this meddlesome politician? No direct orders from Putin were necessary for this, no winks or imperceptible nods. Before being poisoned with polonium in London in 2006, former KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko explained how such assassinations are conceived and carried out now. In Soviet times, the KGB was tightly controlled by the party’s Central Committee. Nothing as important as a killing was possible without direct party approval and control. Today it’s the opposite. There’s no party, no central committee to which the security services must kowtow and report. It’s all much more relaxed, informal, even humdrum. Vladimir Bukovsky, in “The Heirs of Lavrenty Beria,” a book on Moscow’s secret police, writes that Litvinenko recounted how deals are made in the lunchroom. He said, “I’m having a little soup and a guy from another section walks over and says, ‘Sasha, you got any criminal connections?’ And this guy works in the organized crime department. ‘I do,’ I say. ‘Listen,’ he says, ‘there’s this guy I’m sick of. Get rid of him for me.’”
In Fyodor Dostoevsky’s novel “The Brothers Karamazov,” the half-wit half-brother Smerdyakov, sensing his brothers’ hostility and murderous intent, carries out their secret wish and kills their father. There is a sort of Smerdyakov effect at work in Putin’s Russia. Divining the leader’s unspoken desires, the Smerdyakovs of the security services have no trouble finding criminal types to do the dirty work and, if necessary, take the fall.
In that sense, by stoking nationalist hatred and calling the opposition traitors, Putin created a hostile atmosphere that was felt and discharged by some midlevel Smerdyakovs in the security services. Putin didn’t order the hit, because he didn’t have to. It could all be settled by a couple of guys over a bowl of soup.
If this scenario is accurate, it gives Putin a chance to correct the situation and look good. He can find and sacrifice the midlevel people who likely ordered the hit. Otherwise he will look callous, complicit or, even worse for him, not in control.