The Feb. 27 murder of Boris Nemtsov just outside the walls of the Kremlin marked the beginning of a war of words that continues to rage in Russian media.
Nemtsov, a veteran of the opposition movements that Vladimir Putin once described as a “disparate bunch of ‘national traitors,’” had recently faded from public view. But his murder — ostensibly by Islamic radicals from Chechnya — has brought his name back from obscurity and revealed growing tensions within Russia and between state-run and independent media.
State-owned media outlets, operating in English and Russian, increasingly rely on dezinformatsiya (disinformation) — the old Soviet practice of feeding intentionally misleading information to international media. Putin-era disinformation, instead of promoting a cohesive cover story, deals in multiple, often contradictory, narratives. The goal is to exhaust the audience until it despairs of ever finding the truth.
“In Soviet times the concept of truth was important,” longtime Kremlin insider Gleb Pavlovsky told The Interpreter. “Even if they were lying, they took care to prove what they were doing was the ‘truth.’ Now no one even tries proving the ‘truth.’ You can just say anything. Create realities.”
The state-sponsored disinformation campaign that followed Nemtsov’s murder focused on two main themes: Nemtsov was not a viable threat to Putin’s hegemony, and the Kremlin had nothing to do with his death.
Hours after the shooting, Putin’s press secretary Dmitry Peskov announced, “With all due respect to the memory of Boris Nemtsov, in political terms he did not pose any threat to the current Russian leadership or Vladimir Putin … Boris Nemtsov was just a little bit more than an average citizen.” Dmitry Kiselyov, the head of state-directed news agency Rossiya Segodnya, dismissed Nemtsov as a muzhik (roughly translated as “male peasant”) who posed little threat to an elected president with an approval rating of 86 percent.
Still, Nemtsov’s ostensible averageness didn’t stop Putin — and later his investigative committee — from calling his murder “extremely provocative.” Since the arrest of five Chechens in Moscow, the official story has become more consistent, but early on, the state media entertained a host of outlandish and contradictory theories. Depending on where you got your news, his killing was blamed on the Central Intelligence Agency, extreme Russian nationalists, disgruntled business partners, Ukrainian espionage and his complicated love life.
These theories were flimsy hypotheticals, at best. But there is one theory that state media have been quick to dismiss as utterly absurd: involvement by the Kremlin. RT host Peter Lavelle laughed at the possibility, dismissing the case for Putin’s involvement as no more than “he said, she said, maybe. Innuendo. There’s nothing to grab on to whatsoever.”
The independent media, on the other hand, have been full of praise for Nemtsov as well as speculation about Putin’s hand in his death. As news of the murder broke, Echo of Moscow — Russia’s oldest and most-respected independent radio station — flooded its website with headlines such as “He amazed me with his inner freedom,” “Hero of our Russia,” “He also died in this war,” “This is war,” “We woke up in a different Russia” and “Nemtsov vs. Putin.” Even Dmitry Medvedev, Putin’s right-hand man and the current prime minister, contributed a blog post lamenting the loss for Russian society.
Novaya Gazeta, an independent newspaper respected for its investigative reporting, put Nemtsov on its cover alongside an ominous quote from one of his last interviews: “I know, they could kill me.”
Although the independent media was united in its respect and grief for Nemtsov, opinions diverge about Putin’s involvement. Some, pointing to the suspiciously malfunctioning CCTV cameras and Nemtsov’s lack of antagonism toward Islam, have accused the president of ordering the killing directly. Others accused him of fomenting an atmosphere that encourages such crimes, and a third group doubts that the president had any motive to want Nemtsov dead.
The question of Putin’s involvement is obviously pressing. But in a country where journalists are fired for insensitive tweets and networks are shut down for running controversial online polls, accusing the president of murder is a dangerous proposition.
There is a fear that even if Putin is not responsible, this brutal murder will inaugurate an authoritarian turn. Perhaps this will be a product of direct government interference, through renewed crackdowns on what remains of the dissident movements.
It could also be accomplished indirectly. Peter Pomerantsev, the author of “Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible,” told us in an email, “If I were Putin, I would be utterly comfortable with people spreading the story that I did it — [it] spreads fear … After the [2011 Bolotnaya] protests, all they have been doing is trying to return fear to society. Even if he didn’t do it, he might well want to leave the uneasy sense he did.” Regardless of whether there is further violence, this fear could have a chilling effect on the opposition and independent press.
Another worrisome possibility is that Putin has lost control of the propaganda machine he has been building for the past decade and a half. Ksenia Sobchak, a well-connected opposition journalist, wrote, “There is no Putin giving an order to murder. But there is a Putin who built a hellish Terminator and lost control of it.” An example of this dangerous chaos may be Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, Putin’s erstwhile strongman in Chechnya. Zaur Dadayev, one of the men arrested for his alleged role in Nemtsov’s murder, has ties to Kadyrov. After the arrests, Kadyrov took to Instagram to pledge his support for Dadayev, saying, “I firmly believe that he’s sincerely devoted to Russia, and was ready to give his life for the Motherland.”
So far, there is little evidence of a severe chilling effect. The independent press continues in large part to blame Putin directly or indirectly, and a march that Nemtsov planned before his death went ahead, albeit as a memorial march. After his release from prison on March 6, opposition activist Alexei Navalny told The Guardian, “There will be no letup in our efforts. We will give up nothing.”
Still, Nemtsov’s murder is unlikely to be a rallying call for the opposition. Their momentary unity is already fraying, and on state television, the murder is presented as a tragic accident soon to be forgotten. Among Russia’s liberal dissidents, Nemtsov’s memory may serve only to silence those who might otherwise carry on his work.