Nina L. Khrushcheva writes: One by one, Putin’s critics have been eliminated. In 2006, the journalist Anna Politkovskaya was gunned down in an elevator, and Alexander Litvinenko, a former KGB agent who had been critical of Putin, died of polonium poison while in exile in London. In 2009, Sergei Magnitsky, a lawyer campaigning against corruption, died in prison after being denied medical care for life-threatening conditions. The same year, another lawyer, Stanislav Markelov, a champion of human rights, was shot following a news conference.
The murder last week of Boris Nemtsov, a leading opposition politician and a former deputy prime minister under Boris Yeltsin, should come as no surprise. But it should come as a shock – and as a wake-up call for those Russians who until now have tolerated a culture of lawlessness and impunity, unseen since the darkest days of Stalin’s personal rule in the Soviet Union.
Before his death, Nemtsov was said to be working on a report titled “Putin and the War,” providing proof of Russia’s involvement in the conflict in eastern Ukraine. He was scheduled to lead a protest against the war two days after his murder. Some have wondered if Putin was afraid of what Nemtsov had uncovered, and thus ordered the assassination.
That is unlikely, at least in terms of someone receiving a direct order from Putin. Simply put, orchestrating Nemtsov’s murder was not worth the trouble; after all, the Kremlin’s propaganda machine would have had little problem twisting Nemtsov’s report to Putin’s benefit.
Indeed, even Nemtsov’s brazen murder is unlikely to hurt Putin politically. His popularity now stands at 86%. For many Russians, Nemtsov’s opposition to the war in Ukraine made him a traitor, whose death was justified – indeed, almost demanded – by national necessity.
Putin has announced that he will personally oversee the investigation into the assassination. But those leading the effort have already indicated its likely conclusion: Nemtsov’s murder was an attempt to destabilize Russia. We can be all but certain that some culprit or another will be “found,” and that his crime will be part of a conspiracy by the CIA or Ukrainian authorities.
The Kremlin is no stranger to twisting the truth to fit its needs. Before Russia’s annexation of Crimea, it argued that the United States had hired snipers to fire at pro-Western protesters in Kyiv in order to blame Russia for their deaths. When a Malaysian airliner was shot down over Ukraine – most likely by pro-Russia rebels – the official Kremlin story was that Western secret services downed it to undermine Putin’s reputation. Allegations like these have whipped up nationalism, hatred, and anti-Western hysteria, distracting Russians from Putin’s culpability for their country’s economic crisis.
As menacing as Putin’s Russia may be, however, nothing about it is original. In 1934, Joseph Stalin, too, ordered a thorough investigation into the murder of a rival: Sergei Kirov, the head of the Communist Party in Leningrad. The NKVD, the precursor to the KGB, orchestrated the assassination on Stalin’s order, but the inquiry gave the Soviet dictator a pretext for eliminating other opponents. The search for Kirov’s murderers eventually culminated in the Great Terror, a massive purge of Party leaders, military commanders, and intellectuals. [Continue reading…]