The assassination of Boris Nemtsov

Boris Nemtsov was assassinated last night in Moscow, on the Bolshoy Moskvoretsky Bridge near the Kremlin.

Nemtsov was the only Russian opposition leader who had held both a major elected public office, as governor of the Nizhny Novgorod region (appointed 1991, elected 1995, resigned 1997) and a senior government job, as vice PM in reformist Yeltsin cabinets (1997-8). He was one of the leaders of the still-influential Union of Right Forces in the Third Duma in 2000-4.

I cannot recall an earlier murder in Russia of a public politician of comparable stature except, perhaps, that of the popular Duma deputy Galina Starovoytova in St. Petersburg in 1998. Also, Sergei Yushenkov, a prominent Union of Right Forces parliamentarian, was shot in 2003.

The site of the killing would normally be considered one of the safest in Moscow, closely watched by police and security services of all kinds. Recall how fast they reacted when opposition activists tried to hoist a Ukrainian flag upon a nearby bridge.

The Kremlin will likely make a major effort to pin Nemtsov’s murder on the Russian opposition and/or the Ukrainians, and use it as a pretext for the persecution and demonization of Russian dissidents.

Murder, opportunity and motive [updated March 1]: Judging by the location of the murder and by the way things work in Moscow, however perfunctory my understanding may be, it’s uncomfortably clear who had the most fitting means and the greatest opportunity for committing the crime. There is far less clarity about the motive, but for the time being, let us simply note it is not unusual for dictatorships to murder political opponents.


  1. The site of the killing would normally be considered one of the safest in Moscow, closely watched by police and security services of all kinds.

    Well, since Mathias Rust landed a plane on it at any rate. 🙂

    More seriously, my first thought was of Kirov. Streetwise Professor has beaten me to posting about the obvious parallels, but we’re in agreement that this will be exploited to death by Putin.

    • That’s the first parallel that comes to mind but there are reasons to accept that Kirov was a genuine, immediate threat to Stalin’s leadership, judging by the voting patterns at the XVII Party congress in January-February 1934.

  2. It reminded me of late Milosevic-era Serbia: the disappearance and murder of Ivan Stambolic, the assassination attempts on Vuk Draskovic, the successful assassination of Zoran Djindjic. Admittedly, the last-named happened after Milosevic’s downfall but it was the result of the climate Slobo had created, i.e. an ugly fusion of government and gangland. Putin’s mafia state is much the same.

      • Maybe that’s a bit fanciful on my part. But if not now then surely some time soon. I just have a pretty strong hunch that one day Strelkov will be found “suicided” in a hotel room.

        Most likely candidates for the Nemtsov murder are obviously Putin and/or ultra-nationalists working with direct/indirect orders from Kremlin. So more Matteotti than Kirov?

        As I say, I think Putin has been conducting a year-long experiment to see how much he can get away with, testing the responses of the Russian public and Western politicians. Last night he took his research one step further.

        • Kremlin blame game. Who will the scapegoats be? Some possible scenarios:

          1. Islamists. Already hinted at when some government sources said the killers abandoned a car with Ingush plates and mentioned Nemtsov’s support for Charlie Hebdo. Kremlin will link North Caucasian guerrillas to ISIS and call on the West to join Russia in a common fight against terrorism.

          2. Nemtsov’s personal life. Russian media goes into character assassination mode. The murder was not political but a crime of passion resulting from a sordid affair.

          3. Kremlin admits it was ultra-nationalists. Conveniently, they all die in a firefight with the police or are found hanging next to a full written confession.

          4. Ukrainian or CIA provocation. I admit I can’t see how they could make this fly but Putin may be testing the gullibility of the Russian public again.

          • I would go for 2 or 3. If 1990s rumors were true, Nemtsov had a reputation as a ladies’ man, unsurprisingly since he was handsome and open (an exact opposite of P). He was killed while walking late at night with a young model. As I’ve said, one version of Kirov’s death claims he was killed by the jealous husband of a woman who may have had an affair with Kirov. She was executed in 1935. Kirov was a philanderer but preferred ballerinas. The presumed killer’s diary was unclassified in 2009 and from what I’ve read, did not support the jealousy motive.

            • “with a young model”

              And a Ukrainian model, no less. A Banderite femme fatale? Plenty of scope for smears and insinuations there. (If the Kremlin propaganda machine needs inspiration it can always look to British tabloids).

              • I’ve just realized that the Russian opposition is not on your list. I fear that the end game will be to blame Nemtsov’s fellow liberals (possibly in association with Ukrainians and/or the CIA) for trying to set up Putin by killing Nemtsov. That sort of logic.

                • I suppose that would come under #4, if you made that a grab bag of absurd conspiracy theories.

                  I haven’t watched RT on TV much here as the signal keeps breaking up (no great loss), but I did catch something about Nemtsov’s “business interests” possibly being at the root of the murder. File that smear under #3.

        • If Matteotti had been allowed to live until 1937 while leading a relatively small, non-violent opposition movement together, say, with former PM Nitti, the analogy could work. As you say, Putin is testing the limits all the time, or as some say, cooking the frog slowly.

          Also recall that Stalin’s agents apparently manipulated a jealous husband [or just a disturbed, unstable man] into shooting Kirov.

          • Yeah, the Italian analogy doesn’t fit that well. I was just thinking though that the Matteotti Affair was the work of freelance fascist thugs (BTW they knew what they were doing when they named their secret service after the Cheka).

            Putin certainly won’t sweat over Nemtsov the same way Mussolini panicked over Matteotti. But the Matteotti Affair finally made Mussolini realise he could get away with anything. This might be a similar turning point for Putin, although I suspect he may have reached it months ago.

            The brazenness of this murder right next to the Kremlin is incredible. There is no way that Russian security services do not already know who the culprits are.

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