Days after Boris Nemtsov, a leading opponent of Vladimir Putin, was shot dead on a bridge in Moscow, thousands of his supporters marched to the spot where he was murdered. In scenes reminiscent of the massive demonstrations in December 2011 and May 2012 after the elections that re-elected Vladimir Putin and cemented his rule, ordinary Russians came out in force—although this time their mood was more of sadness than anger.
It is too early to say who killed Nemtsov; we might well never know. And whether Nemtsov’s death will catalyze a real mass movement against Putin’s increasingly authoritarian rule remains to be seen. There are, of course, very good reasons why Russians angry with the situation will hesitate to get involved.
Since the 2011 and 2012 protests, the Kremlin has cracked down hard on any public expression of dissent. Protesters have been imprisoned or fled, and ever more repressive legislation has been passed, both externally and internally directed. In more recent times, Putin’s supporters have talked about opposition leaders as part of a “Fifth Column,” though Putin himself has tried to avoid the term.
Smoke and mirrors
Nemtsov was a prominent target for this sort of criticism. A deputy prime minister under Boris Yeltsin, his political stock declined badly once Putin came to power. He gradually became an outspoken critic of the increasingly authoritarian direction in which Russia was moving and of Putin himself.
Unlikely to hold high office again, even in a post-Putin environment, Nemtsov gave up electoral runs to make room for a new wave of opposition figures. But he remained an important voice in Russian politics, made credible by his past experience in office and defiantly committed to the fight for a more democratic Russia.
He was killed just a few days before the march he had planned against what he considered Putin’s war in Ukraine, and before the release of his report on the Russian military’s role in Ukraine.
As is the norm in Russian political life today, within hours the killing was already the stuff of conspiracy, propaganda, and even fantasy. Speculation about who is guilty is already rife, and all sides' propaganda machines are in a frenzy.
On Twitter, conspiracy theories abound, alternately blaming Putin and blaming the U.S. A familiar phenomenon for Russian watchers is in full swing: “whataboutism,” where any criticism of the Russian elite is met with a “well, what about…” response, framing the critic as a hypocrite representing exactly that which they criticize—sending any dialogue back to the level of squabbling.
As always in the Twittersphere, most messages reach few people, but some from prominent players in the Russian political scene matter more. They reveal the extent of the widening gap between Russia and the West, as with Alexander Nekrassof, a former advisor to the Kremlin and self-avowed trouble-maker:
In various media outlets, including on Russia Today, analysts are pointing out that Putin had nothing to gain from Nemtsov’s death. He was not a credible political threat, and Putin would not have been so reckless as to order, or even sanction, his killing. Like so much in Russian media reports, there is enough truth in this analysis to make it believable.
But it also misses the point. The Putin era has seen many high-profile killings of political dissenters—and whoever carries them out inspires fear and suppresses opposition. Given how many similar high-profile cases there have been—Politkovskaya, Beketov, Litvinenko—it is completely reasonable to believe that the Kremlin was in some way involved.
So while the Russian media is suggesting he could have been killed by a rogue Islamic terrorist in retaliation for his position on the Charlie Hebdo attack, Nemtsov’s murder was very probably meant as a message about the dangers of speaking openly against the current regime.
If so, it reflects what commentators have called “legitimized hate”—the climate of deadly fear that stifles those who oppose Putin’s Russia.
Ultimately, despite what evidence emerges about who killed Nemtsov, individuals' opinions will be determined by whether or not they believe the Kremlin is capable of ordering such a killing.
A number of world leaders responded to Nemtsov’s death in shocked and saddened tones but also voiced pleas that his murder be investigated transparently and effectively. Statements by U.S. President Barack Obama, High Representative of the European Union Federica Mogherini, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and Finnish Prime Minister Alexander Stubb all unmistakeably took the same line: that access to truth and justice are by no means to be taken for granted in Putin’s Russia.
Putin supporters can and will argue that this is evidence of a hypocritical Western antipathy towards all things Russian. They might also want to consider that such open distrust is the inevitable product of an authoritarian political system, where justice is always opaque, and where murders of prominent dissenters go unpunished.
With a regime like this in place, Western leaders and dissenting Russians alike can be forgiven for thinking Nemtsov’s killing might go the same way.