NEW YORK – In his play Murder in the Cathedral, T. S. Eliot describes the murder of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket, as a silently ordered hit. The English king, Henry II, did not need to give a direct order; his knights knew what to do with somebody seen to be undermining the state.
Eliot may have set his play in twelfth-century England, but he wrote it in 1935, barely two years after Adolf Hitler had come to power in Germany. So it is, at least in part, a cautionary tale about the rise of fascism in Europe. Sadly, it has lost none of its relevance. Today, Eliot’s masterpiece can be read as a warning about the path being taken by Russia, where politics under President Vladimir Putin has been growing murderously medieval.
One by one, Putin’s critics have been eliminated. In 2006, the journalist Anna Politkovskaya was gunned down in an elevator, and Alexander Litvinenko, a former KGB agent who had been critical of Putin, died of polonium poison while in exile in London. In 2009, Sergei Magnitsky, a lawyer campaigning against corruption, died in prison after being denied medical care for life-threatening conditions. The same year, another lawyer, Stanislav Markelov, a champion of human rights, was shot following a news conference.
The murder last week of Boris Nemtsov, a leading opposition politician and a former deputy prime minister under Boris Yeltsin, should come as no surprise. But it should come as a shock – and as a wake-up call for those Russians who until now have tolerated a culture of lawlessness and impunity, unseen since the darkest days of Stalin’s personal rule in the Soviet Union.
Before his death, Nemtsov was said to be working on a report titled “Putin and the War,”
providing proof of Russia’s involvement in the conflict in eastern Ukraine. He was scheduled to lead a protest against the war two days after his murder. Some have wondered if Putin was afraid of what Nemtsov had uncovered, and thus ordered the assassination.
That is unlikely, at least in terms of someone receiving a direct order from Putin. Simply put, orchestrating Nemtsov’s murder was not worth the trouble; after all, the Kremlin’s propaganda machine would have had little problem twisting Nemtsov’s report to Putin’s benefit.
Indeed, even Nemtsov’s brazen murder is unlikely to hurt Putin politically. His popularity now stands at 86%. For many Russians, Nemtsov’s opposition to the war in Ukraine made him a traitor, whose death was justified – indeed, almost demanded – by national necessity.
Putin has announced that he will personally oversee the investigation into the assassination.
But those leading the effort have already indicated its likely conclusion: Nemtsov’s murder was an attempt to destabilize Russia. We can be all but certain that some culprit or another will be “found,” and that his crime will be part of a conspiracy by the CIA or Ukrainian authorities.
The Kremlin is no stranger to twisting the truth to fit its needs. Before Russia’s annexation of Crimea, it argued that the United States had hired snipers to fire at pro-Western protesters in Kyiv in order to blame Russia for their deaths. When a Malaysian airliner was shot down over Ukraine – most likely by pro-Russia rebels – the official Kremlin story was that Western secret services downed it to undermine Putin’s reputation. Allegations like these have whipped up nationalism, hatred, and anti-Western hysteria, distracting Russians from Putin’s culpability for their country’s economic crisis.
As menacing as Putin’s Russia may be, however, nothing about it is original. In 1934, Joseph Stalin, too, ordered a thorough investigation into the murder of a rival: Sergei Kirov, the head of the Communist Party in Leningrad. The NKVD, the precursor to the KGB, orchestrated the assassination on Stalin’s order, but the inquiry gave the Soviet dictator a pretext for eliminating other opponents. The search for Kirov’s murderers eventually culminated in the Great Terror, a massive purge of Party leaders, military commanders, and intellectuals.
Putin may not have ordered the hit on Nemtsov or any of the others. But, like Stalin, he has nurtured a climate of fear and lawlessness, in which those who rally behind the Kremlin feel a duty to eliminate the leader’s opponents however they can, and in anticipation of his will.
An atmosphere in which unlawful deeds become heroic acts was a signature feature of Stalin’s rule. That stifling dynamic has returned under Putin. During the darkest days of the Soviet Union, the chiefs of the NKVD were the country’s second most important officials. Today, Andrei Lugovoi, the KGB agent that the British government suspects of delivering the polonium that killed Litvinenko, sits in the Russian Duma.
So what will happen next? Will Putin, like Stalin, unleash his own great terror, and murderously pursue supposed adversaries? Or will Nemtsov’s death finally move complacent and obedient Russians to action?
In the first decade of this century, it was easy to love Putin. He made Russians rich, cosmopolitan, and respected. Today, as low oil prices and Western sanctions bite, he is making them poor and nearly universally despised. On March 1, the day Nemtsov was to lead his protest, tens of thousands of Russians took to the streets with slogans like “Nemtsov is love, Putin is war.”
Could it be that Russia’s culture of impunity has reached an inflection point? Putin’s regime relies on the promise of economic prosperity, without which it could begin to unravel – if not as a result of mass protest, then because insiders no longer have a stake in its political survival. At that point, when Putin is at his most vulnerable, his allies will have to act carefully – and keep looking over their shoulders.
Nina L. Khrushcheva is a dean at The New School in New York, and a senior fellow at the World Policy Institute, where she directs the Russia Project.