Who killed Russia's Boris Nemtsov? Mystery may never be solved

  • The Guardian/Luke Harding
  • Updated: Mar 03, 2015 13:35 IST

In the 72 hours since Boris Nemtsov was murdered, the Kremlin has floated numerous explanations for his death. Vladimir Putin has called his killing a “provocation”. It’s a strange word. What Putin means is that whoever murdered Nemtsov did so to discredit the state. Since the state is the primary victim here, the state can’t be responsible, this logic runs.

Others have blamed Islamist extremists. Or Ukrainian fascists. Putin’s ally Ramzan Kadyrov, Chechnya’s thuggish president, has accused “western spy agencies”, an old favourite. The muck-raking website Lifenews.ru, which has close links to the FSB, Putin’s former spy agency, has pointed the finger at Nemtsov’s colourful love life. At the time of his murder, he was walking past the Kremlin with a Ukrainian model, it noted.

The only explanation not being given in Moscow for Nemtsov’s killing late on Friday evening is the blindingly obvious one: that he was murdered for his opposition activities. Specifically, for his very public criticism of Putin’s secret war in Ukraine in which at least 6,000 people have been killed over the past year, and which – according to his friends – he had been about to expose.

Nemtsov had been one of few Russian liberals brave enough to denounce Putin’s extensive undercover military support for the separatist rebels in Ukraine. He described the way Putin had annexed Crimea, using masked special forces, as “illegal”, though he recognised a majority of Crimeans wanted to join Russia. In his final interview, on Friday, he denounced Russia’s president as a “pathological liar”.

In the interview with the liberal radio station Echo of Moscow, Nemtsov seemed in good spirits. He was on waspish form. He attacked the Kremlin’s “dead-end” politics and mishandling of the economy. Nemtsov’s criticism of the Russian state was longstanding. Since being forced out of Russian parliamentary politics a decade ago, Nemtsov had founded several anti-Putin movements. With state media under the Kremlin’s thumb, though, Nemtsov was banned from TV. He was on the margins.

What changed was the war of Ukraine and the unleashing on Russia federal TV channels of a wave of nationalist hysteria and hatred. State TV regularly branded Nemtsov a fifth columnist. In the wake of his murder, NTV quietly shelved another anti-Nemtsov hatchet job, entitled Anatomy of a Protest, due to be screened on Sunday night. By 2015, most other Russian opposition leaders were in exile (the former oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the ex-chess champion Gary Kasparov) or in jail (the anti-corruption blogger Alexei Navalny).

All of this made Nemtsov especially vulnerable. Hours before his murder, moreover, Nemtsov said he had “documentary” proof that undercover Russian soldiers were fighting and dying in eastern Ukraine. It was an assertion borne out by a steady flow of coffins returning in the dead of night from the war zone in Donetsk and Luhansk. According to his friend Ilya Yashin, Nemtsov was preparing an explosive essay on the subject.

Nemtsov had written dissenting pamphlets before. One of them, Putin: A Reckoning, accused Russia’s president and his circle of massive personal corruption. Another targeted Yuri Luzhkov, Moscow’s former mayor, later toppled. But this new one went to the heart of the Kremlin’s big lie. At the weekend, police seized Nemtsov’s hard drives. There seems little prospect his last polemic will now ever be published.

Instead, the Kremlin seems to be moving towards old-fashioned cover-up. On Monday, the authorities implausibly announced that the CCTV cameras next to the spot where Nemtsov was shot dead “were not working”. The politician had had a late dinner with his girlfriend, Ukrainian Anna Duritskaya , in GUM, an upmarket shopping centre. They strolled together across the cobbles of Red Square, then walked past the Kremlin. They started crossing a bridge over the Moscow river. It was 11.30pm.

According to Duritskaya, someone emerged from a stairwell immediately behind them. The assassin shot Nemtsov six times in the back. Four of the bullets struck him, one in the heart; he died instantly. The killer then escaped in a waiting white car, driven by an accomplice. The car disappeared into the night. Duritskaya told the liberal TV channel Rain she hadn’t been able to see the person who fired the fatal shots. Investigators recovered the 9mm bullets. They didn’t find a murder weapon.

The location, though, told its own chilling story: an opponent of Putin lying dead in the street, under the walls of Russian power, and next to the country’s most famous landmark, St Basil’s cathedral. The visual scene is perfect for TV. It seems extraordinary that a former deputy prime minister could be murdered here, outside the Russian equivalent of the White House or the Houses of Parliament, with the shooter apparently able to drive off.

Officials have released one carefully curated CCTV shot taken from far away. A snowplough obscures the moment when Nemtsov is shot. Like all major opposition figures, Nemtsov was under surveillance by the FSB, the successor agency to the KGB. The FSB expends enormous effort on keeping track of its targets. On this occasion, however, an organisation known for its resources and unlimited manpower seems to have lost track of him.

In recent months, Nemtsov had voiced growing fears that he might be killed. In an interview with the FT last Monday, he said Putin was distinctly capable of murder, saying of him: “He is a totally amoral human being. Totally amoral. He is a Leviathan.” Nemtsov went on: “Putin is very dangerous. He is more dangerous than the Soviets were. In the Soviet Union, there was at least a system, and decisions were taken by the politburo. Decisions about war, decisions to kill people, were not taken by Brezhnev alone, or by Andropov either, but that’s how it works now.”

We will probably never know who killed Boris Nemtsov. The Kremlin says it’s not to blame. Despite this denial, it’s entirely possible the state ordered Nemtsov’s appalling murder; equally possible that shadowy nationalist forces decided to kill someone routinely derided as an American spy. As many of Nemtsov’s friends have pointed out, Putin deliberately fostered the atmosphere of hysteria and hatred. It is this which allowed Nemtsov to be killed. So the moral responsibility rests with him, they say.

Meanwhile, Putin’s comment that he is taking the investigation under his personal control doesn’t exactly inspire confidence. Rather, the Kremlin’s actions suggest that the chief goal now is to confuse the Russian public. The numerous “versions” of Nemtsov’s murder – from love tiff to Charlie Hebdo-inspired Islamists to “provocation” – are part of a sophisticated postmodern media strategy. How is one supposed to know which one is actually true?

In fact, the aim is to blur what is true with what is not, to the point that the truth disappears. Russia Today, the Kremlin propaganda channel, uses the same methods for western audiences. Its boss, Margarita Simonyan, argues that there is no such thing as truth, merely narrative. Russia’s narrative is just as valid as the “western narrative”, she argues. In this cynical relativist world of swirling competing versions, nothing is really true. And yet someone shot and killed Boris Nemtsov. He was alive. Now he is dead.

Such methods have been used in previous cases where enemies of the Russian state have mysteriously wound up dead. It’s a long list. In October 2006, a gunman murdered the journalist Anna Politkovskaya in the stairwell of her Moscow apartment building. In the wake of her killing, Putin dismissed her as pretty much “insignificant” inside Russia, and “merely famous in the west”. Last Friday, Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s press spokesperson, echoed this. He suggested similarly that Nemtsov was a marginal figure, “scarcely more important than your average citizen”.

Three weeks after Politkovskaya’s murder, two assassins from Moscow bumped off another well-known critic of Putin’s, Alexander Litvinenko. Last month, a public inquiry into Litvinenko’s 2006 murder opened at the high court in London . Here, at least, the British police were able to obtain a mountain of evidence: CCTV footage showing Litvinenko at the Mayfair murder scene; call records from the two suspects, Andrei Lugovoi and Dmitry Kovtun; witnesses who were in a hotel bar when Litvinenko swallowed half a cup of radioactive green tea.

The inquiry chairman, Sir Robert Owen, will announce his findings later. He has already indicated that there is a “prima facie case” that this is a Russian state killing. The evidence backs up this interpretation. Lugovoi and Kovtun poisoned Litvinenko with polonium-210, a rare isotope typically made by a nuclear reactor. Once identified, it is easy to trace. Scotland Yard found a trail of polonium which led from Moscow to London: on plane seats, hotel rooms, on the shisha pipe (price £9) that Lugovoi smoked in a Moroccan bar.

Two former KGB agents allegedly killed Litvinenko, then, using the equivalent of a small nuclear bomb. As with Nemtsov, Putin has denied involvement. In the meantime, Lugovoi has prospered. He became a deputy in Russia’s state duma for an ultra-nationalist party. He has produced his own versions of Litvinenko’s killing, blaming it on MI6, Tony Blair and the late oligarch Boris Berezovsky. Over the weekend, he popped up on Russia’s state Rossiya TV channel to share his theories of Nemtsov’s death.

During my four years in Russia as the Guardian’s bureau chief I covered other similar killings. Stanislav Markelov, a human rights lawyer, was shot dead in 2009 close to the gold-domed Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. Murdered with him was Anastasia Barburova, a 25-year-old journalist with the opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta. By the time I got to the scene, Markelov’s body had been removed. Vermillion splashes of blood were visible on the white snow. There were few clues. Two neo-Nazis were eventually convicted of their murders.

At the trial of a group of Chechens accused of Politkovskaya’s murder I met Natalia Estemirova , a friend of the murdered journalist, who worked for the esteemed human rights organisation Memorial. Estemirova lived in Grozny, Chechnya, and documented human rights abuses by both Islamist rebels and security forces under the command of Ramzan Kadyrov. In the summer of 2009, gunmen abducted her from her home and drove her to the neighbouring republic of Ingushetia. They marched her off the road into a wood. And shot her five times in the head and chest.

Estemirova’s killers have never been caught. Several Chechens were eventually convicted of Politkovskaya’s murder. But the person who organised the hit was never captured, and no plausible motive for her murder ever given. In the absence of dispassionate investigation, proper legal process, or even official regret, the suspicion of state complicity remains. What one can say with certainty is that troublesome critics of the Kremlin have an uncanny habit in Putin’s Russia of ending up dead.

Then there is Sergei Magnitsky . Magnitsky was a Russian lawyer who uncovered a $280m fraud by interior minister officials and a Moscow tax office. These same officials put Magnitsky in jail. They demanded he withdraw his testimony against them. He refused. So they denied him access to a doctor; he grew seriously ill. In November 2009, riot police burst into his cell and beat him to death. The Kremlin subsequently put Magnitsky on trial, even though he was already dead, after western countries sanctioned the corrupt officials involved.

On Sunday, tens of thousands of mourners filed past the spot where Nemtsov was gunned down. Some held banners that read: “Je suis Nemtsov”; others carried placards which named the “four bullets” that cut him down as Russia’s four state TV channels. In London, protesters held a vigil outside the Russian embassy, with flowers and candles. I asked one Russian friend who she thought was responsible for Nemtsov’s death. Her reply was simple and sad. “Leviathan killed him,” she said.

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