Counter-Revolution and Political Murder in Putin’s Russia

Pourquoi ont-ils tué Nemtsov?

nemIn memory of Larisa Bogoraz, Elena Bonner, Yuri Glazov, Natalia Gorbanevskaya, Anatoly Marchenko, Anna Politkovskaya, Andrei Sakharov, and Galina Starovoitova.

“Bitches always hate decent people.”
– Boris Nemtsov

Boris Nemtsov anticipated his own death. He had long become one of czar Putka’s most vocal opponents, one whose voice could not be silenced. He spoke in the name of that Russian democratic tradition that culminated in the collapse of Bolshevism and the first stage of the Yeltsin regime, with all its dilemmas and contradictions. He wrote relentlessly against the oligarchic-FSB-style corruption embodied by the Putin regime; he was actually working on an explosive text on this very topic when he was eliminated in a mafia-like hit. As Yevgenia Albats – the editor of the “Novoye Vremya” magazine – points out, Russia has gone into a stage of full-blown war between the friends and the enemies of the rule of law and of open society.

Nemtsov symbolized a type of politician perhaps only comparable with Zoran Djindjic, the Serbian Prime Minister assassinated in 2003. He was despised by the economic and political mafias, seeing as he identified with civil society and its aspirations. In a recent article in the “Washington Post,” Charles Lane, a member on the newspaper's editorial board, accurately points out that we find ourselves in the midst of a global counterrevolutionary offensive. The aim is to abolish the great democratic achievements brought about by the revolutionary wave that began in 1989.

We ourselves have written about this dangerous regrouping of forces which abhor liberal values ​​and institutions, from the Russian and Chinese leaders to Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and the Ortega regime in Managua, including Nicolás Maduro and other neo-leftists. In our opinion, Nemtsov’s murder indicates that Putinist Russia has reached its point of terminal agony – a very dangerous stage, in which political extremism intertwines with blunt terror.

We disagree with those who believe that Putin had no interest in this murder. On the contrary, he had the most interest in it, but – being the disinformation expert that he is – perhaps he was counting precisely on this type of fallacious reasoning. Vladimir Putin announced that he would personally lead the murder investigation. We believe it worth mentioning that Stalin, upon receiving the news of Sergei Kirov’s assassination in Leningrad, on December 1, 1934 – a murder he was no stranger to, according to the historians’ almost unanimous consensus – immediately left for Leningrad on the special train, to personally lead the investigation. He was accompanied by Genrikh Yagoda, the head of the OGPU. A series of suspicious deaths ensued, including that of the head of the OGPU in that city, as well as the deaths of other prominent figures directly responsible with Kirov’s security. Stalin personally investigated the perpetrator – a feeble person, probably downright manipulated by the secret police – slapped and forced him to say things that perhaps the latter did not really believe.

In 1936, at the first show trial in Moscow, that of the Grigory Zinoviev-Lev Kamenev group, Lenin’s former comrades confessed, as a result of physical and mental torture, that they had been the brains behind the whole conspiracy. The USSR Attorney General, former Menshevik Andrei Vyshinsky, was screaming at the top of his lungs: “Shoot these rabid dogs to the very last one!” In 1935, Kamenev had published an article in Kirov’s memory in “Pravda,” with the title “The Lighthouse Man.” Vyshinsky was quoting from that text and foaming at the mouth with rage: “Blasphemy, defendant Kamenev!”

In March 1938, at the third show trial, a trained pharmacist and veteran Cheka member Yagoda – Dzerzhinsky and Menzhinsky’s successor at the helm of the secret police, collector of female underwear, poisons and pornographic literature – while sitting in the dock, “confessed” and “admitted” to his role in the killing of the Leningrad communist organization’s leader. He claimed he was following the orders of none other than Trotsky. Levelheaded observers, including Arthur Koestler, could not overlook the absurdity of that confession. After the Bukharin trial, Koestler resigned from the German Communist writers in exile organization. A year later, following the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, he resigned from the German Communist Party and began working on his novel “Darkness at Noon” (also known by its French title, “Le Zero et l'Infini”).

A native of Leningrad himself, trained in the KGB’s political culture, thus in the political culture of a criminal organization, a declared admirer of Felix Dzerzhinsky and Yuri Andropov, perhaps even a secret apologist for Nikolai Yezhov and Lavrenty Beria, Putin is very familiar with the subject. We wonder if he has ever read Hélène Carrère d’Encausse’s book “Le Malheur russe,” a study as erudite as it is disturbing – and, alas, so topical – about political murder in Russia’s history. The author’s thesis: that Russia makes the most striking exception to the general rule that “the political progress of society tends to lead to conflict resolution by other means [than political murder].” In the foreword to this book’s American edition, the great historian Adam Ulam stated the following: “If the misfortune of pre-revolutionary Soviet Russia was having been taken over by sectarian fanatics, who soon after turned into cynical bureaucrats, then that which has fatally changed the nature of old Russia and delayed its transformation into a modern state was another historical catastrophe – the Tatar Yoke.” (d'Encausse, the secretary of the French Academy, is an expert on Russia’s violent past starting with the Kievan period).

The killing of Boris Nemtsov is inseparable from Putin’s effort to counter the radicalization of political opposition in Russia, to neutralize – even by means of assassinations -- the figures that galvanize the democratic actions and protests against the imperialist adventure in Ukraine. The novelty, however, lies in the authoritarian (or “authoriczarian”) Putin being assigned the repressive mission by default, in circumstances which generate a type of pressure that his twentieth century predecessors did not have to face. If there is anything essential brought about by the collapse of communism – especially in Russia, but really everywhere – it is precisely this act of depriving the authoritarian figure of the means to legitimize anti-democratic practices. Everything, including political murder, occurs in an infinitely more integrated world, where the media are harder to control and a country’s isolation comes at a much greater expense. In an excellent article in Journal of Democracy (“The Menu of Manipulation,” JoD 13, no. 2, April 2002, p. 47), Andreas Schedler explains how authoritarian regimes that hold elections with “some” opposition are nowadays the most widespread and common species of this type of non-liberal political configuration. In this sense, Nemtsov’s assassination is a sign of extreme political despair in the Kremlin. Recent events show that Vladimir Putin is moving back to the twentieth century – lock, stock, and barrel – risking and pushing ever more forcibly what little is left of the recipe for à la russe democracy from his “Manipulation Menu.”

Of course, one must not expect to find Putin’s fingerprints on the trigger of the murder weapon. In totalitarian regimes, be they communist or fascist, orders are merely whispered, alluded to, implied. But they are always promptly carried out. And, at the end of the day, what is the probable purpose of this murder? We believe that Vladimir Milov – former Deputy Minister of Economy, who worked closely with Boris Nemtsov to expose the massive amount of corruption at the top – is not wrong in asserting that this is in fact an effort to revive the culture of universalized fear, to instill a sense of dread and helplessness among those who refuse to make a pact with the Putin system. Just like a century ago, when on July 31, 1914 Jean Jaurès was assassinated, the killer bullet aimed for an idea, for a set of values, for a constellation of aspirations. To cite the title of a wonderful song by Jacques Brel, we believe that here lies the beginning of an answer to the question: Pourquoi ont-ils tué Nemtsov?

P.S. When Putin declared emphatically that “the disappearance of the USSR was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the twentieth century,” those who thought it was a mere rhetorical hyperbole were not few. They could not be more wrong. For Putin and his people (siloviki) – that rapacious kleptocracy that Karen Dawisha analyzed in a book of alarming topicality – the collapse of the Soviet empire was a tragedy of cosmic proportions. Yes, they did get rich, they did thrive financially, they did plunder as much as they could and even more, but they also lost global power, were forced to accept (or, more specifically, to simulate) rules and procedures that they detest. This is the hour of an all-out retaliation.

Vladimir Tismaneanu is a professor of politics at the University of Maryland (College Park) and author of numerous books, including most recently “The Devil in History: Communism, Fascism, and Some Lessons of the Twentieth Century.” Marius Stan is a Romanian political scientist, author of books in Romanian and Polish, and currently a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Bucharest. This essay was translated from Romanian into English by Monica Got.

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