"Russia does not have a machinery of ideology or repression on the scale of the 1930s. Mr Nemtsov did not present any plausible political threat. But the country does have plenty of the sort of scoundrels described in "The Devils", Dostoevsky's prophetic novel of moral degradation and political terrorism. “One or two generations of vice are essential now," explains that novel's chief provocateur, Petr Verkhovensky. "Monstrous, abject vice by which a man is transformed into a loathsome, cruel, egoistic reptile. That's what we need! And what's more, a little 'fresh blood' that we may get accustomed to it.” -- The Economist, 3/ 2/ 2015
"In all likelihood no one in the Kremlin actually ordered the killing— and this is part of the reason Mr. Nemtsov’s murder marks the beginning of yet another new and frightening period in Russian history. The Kremlin has recently created a loose army of avengers who believe they are acting in the country’s best interests, without receiving any explicit instructions. Despite his lack of political clout, Mr. Nemtsov was a logical first target for this menacing force."-Masha Gessen, NY Times, 3/2/2015
Russia went through a period in the 90s and the 2000s where gangster and Mafia were sort of the equivalent of man on the street. In a lot of ways, the streets of Moscow and Leningrad resembled the streets of Capone's Chicago or Wiemar Berlin and Munich.
However, there have been a lot of regime-friendly killings under the Putin-Medvedev-Putin cycle of power. The most recent, the gangland style assassination of Boris Nematov which seems to answer the question "How bad can it get?" as "Pretty damn bad" actually fits a set of data points that The Economist describes as being provided by the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, indicate that since 1995, 8% of political assassinations have occurred in Russia and Eastern Europe.
What little is known about Mr Nemtsov’s death fits with other data points. Though the ideology of Mr Nemtsov’s killer is still a mystery, 29% of perpetrators are seemingly motivated by ethnic or separatist sentiments. Short-range weapons like sub-machine guns and pistols are the most popular weapon among hit men, and leaders of political movements are often the victims in such crimes. Assassinations are also common in authoritarian regimes that do not quite qualify as totalitarian. If Mr Nemtsov's murder was politically motivated, it fits a pattern.
Rationally, of course, this makes little sense. Nemtsov may have been an opposition leader, but under Putin's regime, opposition hasn't meant much and is meaning less and less.
What does strike me is that Putin is becoming less and less flexible and more controlling. Anyone who has indicated his respect for Stalin and comes from the KGB is probably not envisioning a liberal democracy as a positive outcome. Nemtsov was aware of the danger, but indicated that if he was afraid, he probably wouldn't be leading an opposition party. The site of the murder is also intriguing. There is no public space around with the possible exception of Tienanmen Square that is better guarded, watched and monitored with a mix of technology and human capabilities than Red Square. The guy was walking across a bridge with his younger, Ukrainian significant other at night toward the Kremlin on the way home and somebody jumped out of a car or fired from the window and nailed him four times in the back. Not a terribly hard shot, of course; but the likelihood of doing it and getting away with it given the location and level of paranoia endemic to the occupiers of the Kremlin since Ivan the Terrible is limited. Unless it was orchestrated by the guardians of the state.
Now, the mythology of Henry II and Thomas Becket provides some illustration. Kings like Henry were rare in the Middle Ages of course, but he was something of a hands on guy on the things he was interested in -- money, taxes, power, war. He picked Becket, his drinking and whoring buddy to be the Archbishop of Canterbury largely because he figured he could trust him to do what he wanted him to do in terms of money, taxes, power and the Church. Well, once ordained, Becket began to act like an actual Archbishop. They squabbled, Becket went into exile, England got into trouble with the Pope and so on; they made a somewhat mock reconciliation, and Becket was allowed to return to England. Where, of course, he continued to act like an Archbishop; as head of the Church in England, he was a very potent symbol with a certain amount of power that to a micro-manager King. The myth is that Henry was sort of drunk, started complaining about Becket and said "Somebody go kill the sonofabitch..." or, more poetically, "Who will rid me of this troublesome priest?" Three knights got up from the banquet, got on their horses, and cantered off to Canterbury where they offed the Archbishop. The King didn't mean anything really and so he went through a ritual scourging, did Penance and Becket remained the symbol of conscience and duty to God first for the next 1000 years...except that when Henry VIII decided to redecorate all the churches, cathedrals, monasteries and convents to his taste, Becket was yanked from his grave and tossed out on the trash heap.
"I was born in a welfare state Ruled by bureaucracy Controlled by civil servants And people dressed in grey Got no privacy, got no liberty Cos the twentieth century people Took it all away from me." --Ray Davies
Well, as Ray Davies put it so well, "This the age of machinery/a mechanical nightmare/The wonderful world of technology/Napalm Nuclear Bombs/Biological Warfare." Putin didn't have to have a drunken brawl, he just had to mutter something or less; and, while Putin is a notorious micro manager himself, this looks like something that would have been handled autonomously by some low level manager in the FSB office charged with coordination with Skinhead/Nationalist/Bikers and Mafia Contract Killers. Makes you wonder what the cost of the man's life was? A new Harley? A Dacha formerly owned by Stalin? An autographed picture of Vladimir and Dmitri skinning a bear over a beer from Putin's own brewery?
Actually, although he's a bit younger, about my age actually, I'm starting to feel a bit of kinship with Vladimir as well as with Ray Davies. After all, we're all 20th Century Men who don't really want to be here.
Activist and human rights advocate Masha Geesen -- a Russian-American who worked in Moscow for decades but left as it became harder to make a living and fearing reprisals, had her own encounter with Mr. Putin. She described it a couple of years ago, when she was forced to resign from a job with a news magazine in Moscow. She got a call from "Putin, Vladamir, Vladamirovich..." who had a meeting set up with him, the publisher who forced her to resign, and her to discuss what had happened. Putin dictated what he thought was a fair solution and the publisher offered her back her job. She turned it down. So, she's had some direct experience.
What Masha describes in her piece in the New York Times is a not so new development in Russia, and for that matter other countries going through periods of mass change. It's worth remembering that the American Legion was involved heavily in anti-union and anti-immigrant and anti-socialist activities right after it's founding; IWW activists were lynched in Centralia Washington in the 1920s. The Red Guards of Maoist China were a volunteer party organization to protect the Revolution and Mao's vision. There were a number of organizations of reactionary forces over the centuries in Russia that may not have had official government recognition or support, but were working to protect the Kremlin against...something.
Gessen points out that Nemtsov was not a threat to Putin, to the regime or to anything. The protest movement is Russia has been utterly marginalized. Part of this is due to the patriotic fervor of a people at war responding to anyone or anything whom they perceive as standing against them -- Freedom Fries, anyone? Want some tea bags with that M14?--or that might present a threat. Part of it is the desire to show that patriotic fervor and be seen showing it. And, quite frankly, the Biker-Skinhead-Anti-gay Axis and the Mafia all have their own oars in this water. So this force is utterly unorganized and uncontrolled and doing what the various elements see as protecting the Kremlin and Mother Russia...from Mother Russia. She is clear -- Gessen was of no real interest to Putin. He may have found Nemstov an irritant and perhaps my Beer-Bear fantasy has some metaphorical value But, Masha Gessen probably calls it better:
Less than a week after that march, and just before the one he had organized, Mr. Nemtsov was gunned down while walking a bridge that spans the Moscow River right in front of the Kremlin. It is under constant camera and live surveillance. The message was clear: People will be killed in the name of the Kremlin, in plain view of the Kremlin, against the backdrop of the Kremlin, simply for daring to oppose the Kremlin.