Responding to the shock of the gang-style execution of Nemtsov in Moscow, Duma Deputy Ilya Ponomarev, speaking at Tufts University yesterday, said that it reminded him of the Kirov assassination, and predicted that the effect on Russian politics might be of comparable magnitude. I did not have the opportunity to question him directly about what precisely he had in mind, but I gathered from his other remarks that he believes the crime was prompted by a struggle for power within the Putin regime. After all, Stalin used the Kirov murder to launch the infamous purges that reached their height in the trials of 1938 and is widely suspected of having arranged the murder himself.
Russian politics for some time has resembled the proverbial dog fight under a rug, despite the image promoted by the regime of a seamless and efficient “vertical of power.” In some important respects, the killing of Nemtsov does not resemble the killing of Kirov. Kirov was one of Stalin’s closest associates and, in effect, his viceroy in Leningrad. Nemtsov was, on the other hand, a prominent and active oppositionist. A direct point-by-point comparison of the two murders would be absurd. Vladimir Putin does not need to arrange the murder of a prominent oppositionist in order to purge elements he considers unreliable in his own government.
Many persons at the Tufts symposium assumed, upon hearing the shocking news, that Putin himself ordered the assassination and did so as a stern warning to other would-be oppositionists. This was a natural reaction for anyone who assumes that Putin exercises the sort of total control of Russia that Stalin once did of the Soviet Union. It identifies a motivation that cannot be dismissed out of hand.