Nemtsov’s Murder and Three Other Deaths

NemtsovThe shocking murder of opposition figure Boris Nemtsov, literally in sight of the Kremlin, clearly marks the beginning of a new era in Russian politics and Russiawatching alike. And it is unlikely to be pretty.

Who killed Nemtsov, who was behind it? At this stage, I have absolutely no idea. The government? I find it hard to think Putin would actually order Nemtsov killed, not because Putin is a pacifist but because I see no real advantage. Already people are throwing around the parallel of the Kirov murder which at one stroke did away with Stalin’s greatest rival and gave him a pretext for purging the elite. But I don’t think Putin needs any excuses for whatever repressions he may want to do, and Nemtsov was certainly no threat. (I doubt he had the kind of “smoking gun” information on Ukraine some have suggested.) Besides, for a leader whose legitimacy is in part based on the way he ended the bespredel, the overt and violent lawlessness of the 1990s, this happening so close to the seat of power is an embarrassment. We’ll see if it dampens the mood of tomorrow’s planned opposition protests, but if anything I suspect it may galvanise them. Perhaps over-zealous security officers doing what they thought would please the boss? Maybe, but we have no reason to believe that. Nationalists or crazies inspired by the new mood of xenophobia and witch-hunting being stoked by the Kremlin? Much more plausible. Oppositionist figures wanting a martyr or, to go to the real extremes of the crazy spectrum, US agents likewise stirring trouble. I don’t believe that for a second.

But we don’t know. We know pretty much nothing but the facts, and so we are all tempted to interpret them based on our assumptions about Russia and Putin and the world. And that’s human, and inevitable, and dangerous. And it also points to the way I do think this is something of a watershed, marking three things that have been processes rather than sudden events, but as if often the way with processes become demonstrated through particular catalysts.

1. The death of neutrality. It is increasingly difficult not to be on one side or the other. We’ve already seen this over Ukraine (I’ve been castigated as a Kremlin stooge for not using the word “terrorist” to describe the rebels, and a Western shill for claiming that Russian troops are present, all for the same article!), but I think it’s also happening with Russia. Not to regard Putin as a murderous mafioso-fascist-tyrant-kleptocrat who kills for the hell of it is to be an apologist. To refuse to believe the State Department is actively trying to install Navalny in the Kremlin makes you a tool of Western “colour revolution.” Analysis increasingly, I’m sorry to say, takes second place to assertion of the world as the observer “knows” it to be.

2. The death of “stuff happens.” Nothing, it seems, is not part of a plan, a strategy, a ploy or a gambit. MH17 was a Ukrainian act of misinformation to demonise the rebels (arrant nonsense). Nemtsov must have been killed by the state because he was under 24/7 surveillance (very doubtful: that kind of surveillance would require a massive operation, out of proportion with his actual importance). The truth of the matter is that politicians and government are much less in control of events than they and we might think.

My working hypothesis is that Nemtsov was killed by some murderous mavericks, not government agents, nor opposition fanatics. But the reason they felt obliged to go and gun down a frankly past-his-peak anti-government figure is highly likely to be precisely because of the increasingly toxic political climate that clearly is a product of Kremlin agency, in which people like Nemtsov are portrayed as Russophobic minions of the West, enemies of Russia’s people, culture, values and interests. So, to loop things round, Putin is guilty, I suspect–and all the caveats about the lack of hard evidence yet–the same way that tobacco companies are considered guilty of cancer deaths after they may have known about the risks, or any hate-speaker may be when some unhinged acolytes take their sentiments and decide to turn them into bloody action. So maybe I am implicitly pointing to a third casualty:

3. The death of optimism. How does a regime soothe such feverish sentiments? Indeed, can it do so? I do not believe Putin is intent on World War III, or wants to create a neo-Stalinist terror-state, or do any of the other things the more extreme critics aver. But I suspect that in the name of holding onto power (his greatest ambition) and asserting the true sovereignty of Russia (his second greatest), regardless of the opposition of liberals at home, Ukraine, the West, or whoever, Putin has taken a step too far along a dark and dangerous path for him ever to be able to step back or even, worst yet, stop walking forward…

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  1. Reblogged this on Commentaria.

  2. I’m neutral and remain neutral. I’ve always said, Putin’s incursions into Ukraine violate every tenant of international law and order yet we must acknowledge that many in Russia are sincerely fond that he did it.

    In a Russia driven by one man and prospering from oil exports, the success of that man’s goals is the only way the average citizen can get any benefit. A powerful Russia doesn’t have to care what anyone else says. And expanding its sphere of influence will create opportunities for citizens.

    All we can do is remind them that they can’t blame the governments in those countries for opposing Russian expansion of influence, for ordinary people to have faith that Russia will pander to their interests, and that Russia is simply doing so too bluntly and would find more acceptance if they had done it with more finesse. Russia is free to expand its influence in the world but its current methods are making its neighbors uneasy.

    The result is that east european countries feel excluded from Russia’s decision making process and have turned moreso to NATO just in case. And if NATO is this encroaching threat, then of course NATO will be more than happy to accept. In essence Putin has done the one thing that would help NATO move eastward.

  3. Your remark that for the government (FSB) to kill Nemtsov “would require a massive operation, out of proportion with his actual importance” makes it even less likely that some maverick did it. Firstly, important or not, Nemtsov was being surveilled and bugged most of the time. Secondly, you mean to say within 200 m of Red Square and the Kremlin, there is no physical and camera surveillance, that the FSB don’t have the area completely under control? Thirdly, a snow-cleaning truck, which is state-run, was involved in blocking the actual shooting from one of the known surveillance cameras…. All this suggests, on the contrary, that this was very much an FSB operation and an in-your-face one at that, especially falling on Feb. 27, the day the takeover of Crimea began a year ago, knowing Putin’s penchant for significant dates. With serial murders, remember, always look for the telltale patterns.

    • Mark Galeotti

       /  March 1, 2015

      No, I say that to keep Nemtsov under round-the-clock 24/7/365 physical surveillance would be a massive op, and I doubt the FSB regarded him as a high enough priority to have a team of probably around 27 trained surveillance specialists detailed to him. This is one of those commonly-repeated claims for which I have seen no evidence. Of course, monitoring his email and phones, as an essentially technical task, is a different matter.

      As regards surveillance, there is massive camera surveillance once you are over the bridge and approaching the Kremlin, but no, on the bridge itself most of the surveillance is, like the footage we’ve seen, traffic control cameras, which have a resolution calibrated to seeing cars and the like, not close physical detail. As regards physical surveillance, I’ve crossed that bridge on foot many a time, and can only think of one occasion on which I’ve seen a police officer present. And foot traffic most of the time is sufficiently sporadic that a plainclothes officer would stick out immediately.

      And as regards the truck, well considering the poor resolution of the cameras, if it was a state hit, why even bother concealing it?

      None of this means it couldn’t be a state hit. But certainly nothing here actually provides any kind of proof that it was.

  4. I appreciate Mark’s usual thoughtful analysis, in this case, of Nemtsov’s murder, but still find it incomprehensible that Putin would not be personally involved in this assassination, especially in light of Litvinenko’s murder. There is a constant bias among many analysts to presume that everything Putin does is calculated and strategic, when a simple look at his personality suggests that he is a vain man, and can act, like almost everyone, on sheer vanity–what else could explain the murder of Litvinenko?

    Looking back on Stalin’s mass murders, we can ask the same question–how much of this was strategic, and how much was pure paranoia?

  5. Reblogged this on Jörg Peterkord.

  6. Putin is resting much easier now that he has presided over the murder of his chief adversary, and there are not so many remaining. Putin is at least responsible for setting the toxic tone enabling Nemtsov’s murder. It is discouraging to read so much devoted to defend Putin’s direct culpability, when setting such a poisonous atmosphere is about as serious an event for the leader of any nation. Putin is a murdering tyrant, documented dozens of times (Politkovskaya, et al) desperate to maintain popular support to keep himself in power. His crime families are the true rulers of Russia & Ukraine!

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