Lessons from the death of Russia’s Boris Nemtsov, a Putin foe

Mid-afternoon in Rome, early summer 1924, by the banks of the Tiber. A young socialist politician, who had recently delivered a searing speech in parliament against the Italian leader, Benito Mussolini, and his fascist majority in the chamber, was seized, beaten, bundled into a car and stabbed repeatedly with a sharpened metal file until dead.

Mussolini probably didn’t order the killing of Giacomo Matteotti, though he may have been forewarned of it. The killers were arrested by the police: but the judges willing to prosecute were replaced with others friendly to the regime, an amnesty covered those convicted and the case was closed. The opposition deputies withdrew from parliament, hoping the Italy’s king would support them and dismiss Mussolini: instead, he confirmed his leadership. The threat of a reaction by an already weakened opposition receded. In a speech, Mussolini said he, and he alone was responsible for all that happened in his name; he was acclaimed; and fascism tightened its grip, to rule for the next 20 years.

It is important to find out — though we may never do so — if the trail for Boris Nemtsov’s murder on Friday leads to the top of the Russian government: yet in one sense it doesn’t matter. As in Rome 91 years ago, a bold and uncompromising politician defied fear and put on the record his belief that his country’s leadership was leading it to a disaster. As in Rome, some “patriots” decided that now was the time to rid the country of one of its few prominent critics, on the day before he was due to lead a protest against the war in Ukraine. Russia’s Investigative Committee, which answers to Russian President Vladimir Putin, said it was following several lines of inquiry.

As in Rome, most of the murdered man’s fellow citizens had not listened to, or if listened disliked, his message. Indeed, Moscow is now in a worse state, democratically, than Rome: for in the Eternal City, there was still then an opposition of some size, a judiciary part of which was willing to judge on the facts and not on orders from above, a head of state — the king — who might have intervened against the fascists. No opposition of a similar size exists in Russia today; no bold judges willing to act and speak out against instructions from above; and no one is above Putin.

And the same message has come out of Moscow as it did from Rome. The message is: we are set on a course which no internal opposition — Putin called such a force a “fifth column” a little before Christmas — can withstand. We are determined to hold Crimea taken from Ukraine, and to ensure that Ukraine stays weak, and in our power.

We — at some level: who cares which? — are capable of removing anyone who attempts to get in our way. We are the leaders of those who stand against the democratic world: we, as for centuries has been the case in Russia, stand for one people united, behind one leader.

There is a last hope. It is that Putin really is embarrassed by this: that it is not in his name, as the murderers must have believed it to have been. That he had wanted to keep open the possibility of a renewed dialogue with the West — since, after all, his country’s economy is declining fast and even his allies among the other former Soviet states, such as Belarus and Kazakhstan, are uneasy with the direction he is taking.

In an interview with the BBC, the recently retired chief of the British foreign intelligence service, MI6, Sir John Sawers, said that “We shouldn’t kid ourselves that Russia is on a path to democracy because it isn’t,” but added that “we don’t want to have a repeat of the Cuban missile crisis in 1962 where we got to the brink of nuclear war. We need to be able to address this through increased dialogue.”

For an official as close to the center of power as Sawers was, his fear of a nuclear exchange shows how much it is a part of Western leaders’ thinking: and of Putin’s, who has several times reminded the world of its nuclear force. It also shows that, even if the belief that Russia would become a democratic state has proven to be an illusion, there is still official hope for a dialogue to relieve the pressure, to at least freeze the conflict in Ukraine and to find some basis for a relationship which cannot be friendly, but which might be — as it was for much of the Cold War — stable. It presently seems a slim hope; it’s doesn’t seem possible yet; but it’s all that’s left.

John Lloyd co-founded the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford, where he is Director of Journalism. Lloyd has written several books, including What the Media Are Doing to Our Politics (2004). He is also a contributing editor at FT and the founder of FT Magazine.

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