Boris Nemtsov was a courageous man. Persistent in his criticisms of President Putin, he was undeterred by those who threatened him with death. And now, murdered as he walked through Moscow, Nemtsov has become a martyr for Russia’s better future.
His murder demands our scrutiny. It reeks of Russian intelligence. First off, Nemtsov’s murder, in nearly every detail, fits the profile of the typical Russian political assassination. A public critic of Vladimir Putin, Nemtsov had long been subject to spying efforts — both in-person surveillance and recordings of his phone conversations — from the Federal Security Services, the FSB (the successor to the KGB). But as the BBC’s John Sweeney has pointed out, Nemtsov was not only critical, but flamboyantly so — he went so far as to laugh outright at the Sochi mayor’s claim, prior to the Olympics, that there were no gays in the city. He also took moral pleasure in aggravating Russian kleptocrats. For this forthrightness, Putin surely hated Nemtsov — whether in Ukraine or elsewhere, Vladimir Putin regards such gall as a direct challenge to his personal power, a cardinal sin to be punished.
For some background evidence, watch this video of President Putin meeting Russian factory owners in 2009. After demanding that the assembled businessmen accede to his demands, Putin then taunts one of the wealthiest — Oleg Deripaska — summoning him to walk to the head of the table (where Putin is seated) and re-sign a contract. After Deripaska signs, in front of his colleagues and the cameras, Putin snaps, “Give me back my pen.” Staged for the gathered media, the intended message is unmistakable: There is one supreme authority in Russia, and it begins with P. And those businessmen were the lucky ones. Time and time again, Putin’s opponents have been murdered or imprisoned. Anna Politkovyskaya, Alexei Navalny, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, and Alexander Litvinenko (murdered on Kremlin orders) are just a few of the most well known. But as David Greene explains in his book, Midnight in Siberia, Russian culture is now defined by corruption — powerful elites are working to stifle the voices of the brave few. Nemtsov knew this. On February 10, he wrote, “I’m afraid Putin will kill me.”
There are other ways in which this murder bears the hallmarks of Russian intelligence. Watch the video of Nemtsov’s murder: It’s only when a government vehicle conceals Nemtsov from other drivers and the camera that the murderers strike. After executing Nemtsov, the shooter runs to a getaway car that has timed its approach to coincide with the attack. The team escapes and Nemtsov bleeds out. This isn’t the work of a few thugs. The clinical timing (synchronized staging, concealment, execution, escape) and the selected location (a bridge that offers no spot where Nemtsov could take cover) strongly suggest the culprits had military and intelligence training.
The backdrop of Moscow’s Saint Basil’s Cathedral might offer another hint of Russian-intelligence involvement. As I’ve noted, Russian intelligence takes pride in its fetish for dark messaging. Whether deliberate or coincidental, Nemtsov’s murder under the Cathedral’s gaze evokes the idea of Putin as the supreme master of Russia’s destiny. The Russian Orthodox Church has pledged overt political fealty to Putin, who, in return advances the church’s agenda — most notably, via his legislation against homosexuals.
Still, there’s another basic question we must answer about this murder: With Nemtsov under FSB surveillance, why didn’t anyone step in to help him?
And it’s not only the murder that should raise our attention — it’s the dubious quality of Russia’s investigative response. Russian and Ukrainian news agencies are reporting that Russian law enforcement, while searching Nemtsov’s apartment (again, almost certainly with FSB “support”), removed a number of documents. In addition, Nemtsov’s Ukrainian girlfriend has been held under armed guard with limited access to her consulate. And the snowplow driver — who drove alongside the attacker — claims he didn’t see the gunman.
Of course, in Putin’s Russia, the truth is subjective. We might never know the extent of government involvement in Nemtsov’s murder. Yet the photographs of a brave man’s body lying beneath the lights of St. Basil, affirms an undeniable truth: Today, in Russia, justice is dead.