The murder of Boris Nemtsov in broad daylight just outside the Kremlin confirms the worst fears about Russia under President Vladimir Putin. For a man like him, wealth and power leave no room for scruples. He is probably the world’s richest man, and he is ruthlessly extending the territory of Russia. Nemtsov publicized the country’s endemic corruption, and accused Putin of aggression against Ukraine. A fortnight ago, he was predicting that Putin would have him murdered. That’s the logic of systems of this kind. Putin’s message to Nemtsov’s aged mother reads in full, “Please accept my deepest condolences in connection with the irreparable loss. I sincerely share your sorrow.” What comes across most in these words: insincerity or cynicism, or both?
Galina Starovoitova was a member of the Duma, and an ethnographer who spoke up for minorities in Russia. Energetic and humorous, she helped me when I was researching for my book The Strange Death of the Soviet Empire. Putin had already taken over the FSB — that is, the new KGB — when she was shot dead answering her doorbell in Saint Petersburg. I moved in the same circles as Paul Khlebnikov, an American and the editor of Forbes in Russia until he was gunned down in 2004 for an exposé of corruption. Anna Politikovskaya was shot in 2006 for writing against Russian policy in Chechnya. That same year Alexander Litvinenko on his death bed openly accused Putin of ordering two agents to poison him with radioactive material. Sergei Magnitsky was tortured to death in the dungeons of the Lubyanka in 2009 for exposing corruption among officials. Nobody has been brought to justice for these and many other crimes. Putin has taken “personal control” (as his spokesman puts it) of the investigation into the Nemtsov killing. Well, he would, wouldn’t he? Creatively, he claims that Nemtsov was shot in order to make him, Putin, look bad.
Secretary of State John Kerry and his British counterpart Philip Hammond bleat that this is not how heads of state behave in the 21st century. History, they say as they sob, has moved on. But it is actually the Western democracies that have moved on — from having men of character, judgment, knowledge, experience, or prudence hold high office.
Pro-Russian agitation is already starting in the Baltic republics. History tells us they will go down fighting, alone again.