Nemtsov 150228 Guardian

Boris Nemtsov, a leader of the Russian opposition, was shot down Friday night within sight of the Kremlin. Toward the end of Boris Yeltsin’s presidency in the late 1990s, Nemtsov was one of his potential successors.

The brutality with which Nemtsov was killed brought to mind the deaths of other rivals for power in the Soviet Union, where clear lines of succession were never developed. Post-Soviet Russia has only a bit more than two decades of history. Succession is nominally by popular election, but that is not fully normalized. Vladimir Putin has played fast and loose with elections, first as Yeltsin’s handpicked successor and later with his tradeoff with Dmitry Medvedev as Prime Minister and President.

So it is not hard to wonder if there is a parallel to succession in the early Soviet Union. Stalin succeeded Lenin, with some question as to Lenin’s intentions, in the 1920s. He then set about consolidating his power and eliminating rivals. Leon Trotsky had been another of Lenin’s Bolshevik compatriots, war commissar during the civil war that followed the Bolshevik takeover. He was expelled from the Communist Party in 1927, deported from the Soviet Union in 1929, and killed in Mexico in 1940.

A closer analogy is being drawn with Sergey Kirov, another old Bolshevik leader, who was shot in his government office in 1934. Kirov was guarded by the NKVD, the predecessor agency to the KGB and today’s FSB. Nemtsov would have been shadowed by the FSB; nonetheless, the assassins succeeded. In Kirov’s case, an assassin was quickly identified, found guilty, and shot. Stalin personally directed the investigation, as Putin has taken responsibility for investigating Nemtsov’s death.

Kirov’s death was used by Stalin as the justification for his purges of military and civilian leaders during the 1930s. Putin and his government have been condemning “fifth columnists” and others disloyal to his regime, so the question is whether he will use Nemtsov’s death in the same way Stalin used Kirov’s, to round up and eliminate those he considers disloyal.

The Moscow Times editoral board sees a simple either/or choice, between an honest and transparent search for the perpetrators or a crackdown on critics. But Putin has never been willing to take this kind of choice. He can also obfuscate and distract, as the official news outlets now hawk their version of possible motives for Nemtsov’s murder, none of them having anything to do with governmental power plays.

Russia-watchers largely agree that it matters little exactly who killed Nemtsov. The Kremlin gains by having one more opposition voice silenced, and the warning goes out to others. If the killers acted independently of the Kremlin, that might be something for the Kremlin to be worried about: whether the propaganda campaign in support of the war against Ukraine and against dissenters has stirred up something that is beyond its control. However, the certainty that FSB agents were watching suggests that that is not considered a problem

Tens of thousands of people marched in Moscow in Nemtsov’s memory on March 1. That is a small percentage of Moscow’s population. Nemtsov and others had scheduled a march against the war in Ukraine. Whether this march is a prologue to further opposition or a token that will fade remains to be seen.

More coverage of Nemtsov’s death:

Background on Nemtsov

Tribute to Nemtsov as a friend

The test of a country isn’t freedom – it’s dignity.

Statement by a Russian leftist website.


Photo from The Guardian.

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