Boris Nemtsov is dead.
We do not know who killed him or why, and we may never know. But we do know this: the opposition leader and former deputy prime minister was killed within sight of a Kremlin occupied by a president who rallies his supporters to defend the fatherland against enemies domestic and foreign. He was killed in a city whose airwaves are saturated by the search for a ‘fifth column’ of ‘national traitors’. He was killed in a country in whose name vigilantes have been empowered to kill with impunity.
The Kremlin’s most problematic relationship is not with America or with Europe, but with Russia itself. We do not know whether Nemtsov was killed on the Kremlin’s order, in order to silence a critic and cow others into submission, or whether he was murdered by others, pursuing their own aims and seeking, perhaps, to demonstrate their usefulness to the regime. Neither is a happy explanation, not for Russian society, and not for the Kremlin. The language of politics in Russia has long been violent, and Nemtsov is not the first victim. The victim will eventually become politics itself, as violence displaces language altogether.
Regimes in countries where violence displaces language end only through violence, because the language of civilized political contestation no longer suffices to legitimize power. Russia is not there yet. But might is rapidly replacing right in Russia, where the state-funded ‘Anti-Maidan’ march eschewed rhetoric in favor of thuggery.
No one will believe the results of whatever investigation is conducted after Nemtsov’s murder. The deaths of Anna Politkovskaya, Natalia Estimirova, Anastasia Baburova, Stanislav Markelov and so many others remain without satisfactory resolution, a summary judgment against the rule of law in Russia. There is and can be no trust in the police, prosecutors and judges who will investigate and prosecute the case, for they have, collectively, eviscerated the concept of truth for the Russian public.
Whoever did order Nemtsov’s killing knew this. They will, most likely, also have known what will happen next. They will believe, tonight, that few will rally to Nemtsov’s memory, while his friends, comrades and fellow travelers will flock to the exit. They will know also, that Nemtsov’s death will be welcomed by those, who see in Putin and his war the champion of Russia’s national salvation. They will be counting on Putin himself to cry with one eye while winking with the other. And they have no reason to believe otherwise.
Boris Nemtsov’s murder was violence calculated to beget more violence. Murders are a kind of ritual, a religious act in which one person takes on the prerogative of the Almighty. Tonight’s crime, committed in the shadow of the Church of St. Basil, Ivan the Terrible’s iconic masterpiece, is no exception.
This particular faith must not acquire more adherents in Russia. The country has already sacrificed more than enough.