In Moscow on February 27, 2015, a lone gunman killed Boris Nemtsov, a former deputy prime minister and a powerful and charismatic opposition leader who stood as an alternative to Vladimir Putin. In Leningrad on December 1, 1934, a lone gunman killed Sergey Kirov, a powerful Bolshevik who stood as an alternative to Josef Stalin.
Stalin’s involvement in the murder was denied, and never proved. It goes without saying that the Kremlin also was quick to deny Putin’s involvement in Nemtsov’s death.
The parallels are worth considering. The murder of Kirov marked the beginning of the great purges, the period in which high-level elites were so thoroughly “cleansed” that the USSR stood unprepared for Hitler’s invasion.
Similarly today, Putin’s actions in Ukraine and his refusal to share power with a modernizing elite has condemned Russia to another generation of economic backwardness and political isolation.
Of course, Kirov wasn’t the first political opponent to fall, any more than Nemtsov was. Rival political party leaders had been sent by Lenin to camps in the 1920s, and opposition political movements, including in Ukraine, had struggled to defeat Bolshevik collectivization in the early 1930s. But this was the first top-level political assassination of a person who could have become party leader
Similarly under Putin, political opponents have been killed, like journalist Anna Politkovskaya and Alexander Litvinenko, but they did not aspire to the presidency. And certainly much of the Putin era has been absorbed with the suppression of opposition political movements, whether in Russia, by keeping rival party leaders from registering for elections, or abroad ,by invading Georgia, Crimea and eastern Ukraine to prevent democratic regimes from succeeding in neighboring states. In the death of Nemtsov, irrespective of who is ultimately found responsible, we once again have the assassination of a person who could have become the leader of the country.
Stalin’s search for Kirov’s murderers led to a second set of crimes, the escalation of repression against the Old Bolsheviks and the show trials of the mid-1930s. Over a dozen of the founding members of the Bolshevik Party were found guilty of complicity in the murder in trumped-up show trials and executed.
The question now becomes whether Kremlin’s leaders imagine that they can take the country down a similar path of isolation and ultimate destruction? Or more likely, is the Kremlin thinking at all, or just allowing the terrible logic of this system they have created to unfold? When the Kremlin publicly labels the opposition leaders as enemies, and spews out nothing but hatred toward those who have a right to demand freedom, then killings — irrespective of who pulled the trigger — are a logical result.
The Putin regime has succeeded over the last 15 years in establishing a regime that historically is unparalleled in its thievery. Nemtsov himself had been the first person to start a systematic analysis of Putin’s corruption that, he claimed, includes the building and renovation of 20 palaces, the receipt of $700,000 in watches, his unlimited access to yachts, planes, and a Kremlin property management department with a staff of more than 60,000, and an annual presidential office budget of $2.41 billion. This all leaves aside the billions he is reported to have stashed abroad.
The regime hides successfully behind Kremlin-controlled patriotism and expansionism, making its actions in Ukraine out to be a response of local Russian-speaking populations to NATO aggression in support of a fascist junta in Kiev. The perfidy of the regime is quite unparalleled since Hitler hid his expansionism behind the desire to reunite German-speakers in the Sudetenland.
There is however an optimistic side. The population in Russia as a whole and in the large cities of Moscow and St. Petersburg in particular is not like the first-generation peasants of the Stalin era. They have traveled, they know what rule-of-law systems look like, and they know what property protection feels like. They can (for now) still connect with each other on social media.
Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube are all alive with information, commiserations, and expressions of extreme anger against the Kremlin. Nemtsov had thousands of followers on social media, and many of his friends also have thousands of followers. Other opposition leaders like Aleksey Navalny, Ilya Yashin, Ksenya Sobchak, and many more remain, and they are both shocked and defiant.
Former prime minister Mikhail Kasyanov wrote on his blog: “Bastards, you killed my friend in the center of Moscow…with four bullets, to make the point to all of us free-thinking people….The country is rolling off the cliff.” The march against the war in Ukraine Nemtsov had planned for Sunday has been rescheduled as a march in his memory. One can only hope it will attract large numbers.
The spokesman for the Investigative Committee, Vladimir Markin, cautioned the press not to jump to conclusions and then proceeded to put up a bewildering array of possible motives that included everything except Kremlin jealousy: He called the act a political provocation perhaps perpetrated by Islamic extremists angered over his stand on the Charlie Hebdo killing; or a “sacral sacrifice” by the opposition itself to destabilize the country; or related to his views on the Ukrainian war; or a business conflict; or an assault related to his personal life. The fact that Nemtsov’s girlfriend was Ukrainian and she was with him when he died was immediately picked up by Russian media.
Putin called the assassination an apparent “contract killing” and stated he was taking charge of the investigation. And despite the fact that initial eyewitness reports stated that the killers were driving a white car without license plates, by noon the next day, RT was claiming that the car had been found, now with license plates from the Muslim republic of Ingushetia.
The sad fact is that Western powers did not understand the significance of the killing of Kirov. Let’s hope that this time they will see Nemtsov’s death as the “shot that was heard around the world” and mobilize to deter further Russian oppression and expansionism.
President Obama quickly condemned the murder and stated that “I admired Nemtsov’s courageous dedication to the struggle against corruption in Russia and appreciated his willingness to share his candid views with me when we met in Moscow in 2009.” That would mean providing all forms of assistance to prevent the failure of Ukrainian democracy, a dream for which Nemtsov could well have died.
How to help the Russian opposition depends on whether they will be able to help themselves in the weeks to come. No one would want to be in their shoes. But standing with them in their insistence — echoing Nemtsov — that Putin’s authoritarian regime is based on massive corruption, will be more important than ever.
Karen Dawisha is the author of Putin’s Kleptocracy. Who Owns Russia? and the director of the Havighurst Center for Russian and Post-Soviet Studies at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.