Who Killed Boris Nemtsov?

Practically no one in the West doubts the murder of once-rising reform politician Boris Nemtsov was the work of Vladimir Putin, and/or his allies in government. If Putin didn’t give the direct order, the pundits say, the Russian leader created the "atmosphere of hatred" directed at the Russian opposition, of which Nemtsov was a half-forgotten yet still active leader. This obviates the need for evidence, while giving the accusers ample room to back off if and when facts to the contrary are uncovered – evidence which can then be easily discounted, because, after all, everyone knows a real investigation is impossible in Putin’s Russia. Thus freed of the facts, our new Cold Warriors can elaborate their conspiracy theories without fear of contradiction.

Funny how political murders in the US – the Kennedy brothers, Martin Luther King – are invariably the work of a “lone nut,” but in Russia it’s always the Putin government. When Dr. David Kelly, a prominent weapons expert and critic of the evidence Whitehall had publicized to justify the Iraq war, committed "suicide" just as he was about to reveal how the British government had doctored up its brief, there were suspicions but these were dismissed as a "conspiracy theory." An entirely different standard is applied to Russia, and yet, aside from Anglo-American exceptionalism, perhaps there are some good reasons for this. Russia, after all, is a country where contract killings were once a staple of doing business: where gangsterism is widespread, and oligarchs, gorging on the riches of "privatized" companies, are in deadly competition for spoils in a system where government, and not the market, rules.

Boris Nemtsov, a reformer who rose to prominence in the chaos of post-Soviet Russia, made a lot of enemies along the way. That he met his end on a bridge a stone’s throw from the Kremlin, murdered in cold blood by a hit man, shocked the country and the world only because everyone thought the days when Russia resembled the Wild West were over. Vladimir Putin, we all thought, had ushered in an era of stability if not justice. Yet even Putin’s enemies, with some alarm, are now throwing doubt on the West’s conventional wisdom.

Speaking of the murder, Irina Khakamada, who co-founded with Nemtsov the opposition Solidarity Party, while blaming "the climate of intimidation," also warned that "the murder could herald a dangerous destabilization," according to Talking Points Memo. "It’s a provocation that is clearly not in Putin’s interests, it’s aimed at rocking the situation."

This, ironically, is the same line being taken by the Russian authorities, who listed a series of motives for the crime, number one being that the murder was a "provocation" designed to destabilize the Russian state and that Nemtsov was a “sacrificial victim for those who do not shun any method for achieving their political goals."

Putin eerily predicted this possibility in a comment made three years ago when he suggested that his enemies were not above murdering a prominent opposition figure so they could blame it on him.

The truth is likely a bit more prosaic.

Nemtsov’s enemies were legion: aside from Putin and his supporters, there are the more extreme nationalists who think Putin is a sell-out. Nemtsov’s open support for the Ukrainian government against his own country generated the kind of hatred antiwar activists had to endure during the Vietnam war: think Jane Fonda upon her return from Hanoi. Perhaps a bit more lethal are the oligarchs threatened by Nemtsov’s reform program – a series of "anti-corruption" measures ultimately aborted by his mentor, Boris Yeltsin.

Nemtsov was once a popular figure, whose charismatic style and apparent willingness to speak truth to power endeared him to reform-minded people in the wake of the Soviet Union’s collapse. Lifted up to the highest levels of power by Yeltsin, Nemtsov praised Yeltsin as a "good tsar," a peerless leader who could practically do no wrong. Yeltsin, he rhapsodized, "is a true Russian czar, with all the pluses and minuses, with all his recklessness and sprees, his decisiveness and his courage, and the odd time with his bashfulness." Read in retrospect, Nemtsov’s panegyrics are an embarrassment, especially in the Russia of today which remembers "Tsar" Yeltsin’s reign as a time of despoiling thievery, decline, and despair:

"Unlike the ‘bad’ Russian tsars, Yeltsin is a ‘good’ Russian tsar and a completely forgiving person. For all that, his physique plays a role: he is such an enormous peasant, and from the Urals.

"Naturally, all kinds of intrigues wind around him, and many people try to get something for themselves out of their closeness to him. But he is an unselfish person, of that I am certain."

Those intrigues winding around Yeltsin were the cause of Nemtsov’s ultimate political downfall. The problem for Nemtsov was that his "good tsar" was a plaything in the hands of a group of oligarchs, who backed and financed Yeltsin’s regime as long as they could loot the country. Dubious no-bid "privatization" schemes handed over vast tracks of Russian industry to people who were no more than petty criminals: these gangsters rose to prominence amid the ruins of the Soviet Union, often employing Chechen criminals to strong-arm their competitors. Boris Berezovsky is perhaps the emblematic figure of this tribe, and together the oligarchs pooled their resources to seize effective control of the Russian state, doling out the goodies among themselves. But these thieves soon set to quarreling over the spoils, and after Yeltsin won a second term as President with their invaluable help, Nemstov, along with Anatoly Chubais, decided it was time to change the rules of the game.

There would be no more rigged auctions of state property, no more insider deals, no more looting. The Russian people, who had been promised capitalist prosperity, had instead gotten "shock therapy" and the sight of fat-assed kleptocrats with political connections gorging on the "reforms" while ordinary people starved. The Chubais-Nemtsov initiative started a civil war amongst the oligarchs, with Beresovsky and his allies arrayed against the reformists – who, it turned out, were just as corrupt as their opponents.

Put on the defensive, Beresovsky’s allies in the media publicized a sweetheart deal wherein Chubais and his allies enriched themselves while their favored oligarchs got sweet deals from the government. The horribly flawed "privatization" programs championed by Nemtsov, instead of leading to a free market, had instead created a system of nearly unparalleled corruption. As Matt Taibbi and Mark Ames pointed out in The Exile: Sex, Drugs, and Libel in the New Russia, Nemtsov’s "anti-corruption" decree "provided the legal basis for significantly expanding the scope of the insider dealing it was supposed to be eliminating."

Nemtsov had hoped that Yeltsin would anoint him as his successor – a possibility Rep. Jim Leach’s congressional report on money-laundering in Russia pointed to with alarm – but instead the drunken tsar, who was by that time the most hated man in Russia, turned to Putin as the only man who could save the country from complete chaos. Nemtsov, associated with the corrupt Yeltsin years, faded into the background, no longer lionized even by the liberal opposition – until now.

So, we return to the question at the head of this column: Who killed Boris Nemtsov? The answer is: we don’t know, at least not at this point, and one can only marvel at the investigative prowess of talking heads who "solved" this crime from a distance of several thousand miles, hours after it occurred. Nemtsov’s many enemies include the oligarchs he allied himself with, and then later turned on, who were no doubt eager to exact their revenge. Beresovky, who met his own mysterious death years earlier, was one of his biggest enemies. Once in collusion, the rapacious oligarch and the would-be reformer fell out in the "war of the bankers" that preceded the end of the Yeltsin era: it was Beresovsky who had Nemtsov fired from his job as economic advisor to Ukraine’s Viktor Yushchenko.

It is ridiculous to assume Nemtsov was killed by the Putin regime: indeed, as the co-founder of Nemtsov’s Solidarity party noted above, the Russian leader is among those with the most to lose from this incident. Yet that is the narrative being written by the Western media, one that suits their newfound cold warrior mentality. Absurdly depicting Russia as falling back into authoritarianism comparable to the Stalin era, these worthies are pushing for regime change in the Kremlin.

The fact of the matter is that Russia today, for all its faults, has never been freer: it has gone from the era of the gulag, when millions were murdered by the Soviets and many more imprisoned, to a country that is at least half-free, with elections as open as Chicago’s and a "mainstream" media which, if it’s controlled by pro-government oligarchs, is no more monochromatic ideologically than our own.

Yet the mythology built up around Nemtsov and his death will certainly eclipse the truth, at least here in the West – where "narrative" trumps truth in every instance. His martyrdom will be used by the new cold warriors to whip up anti-Russian hysteria, relations with Moscow will turn even colder, and Ukraine will continue to be the site of a proxy war between Washington and the Kremlin. This new anti-Russian crusade is, indeed, the most dangerous recent development in the War Party’s strategic vision, for it unites both left and right in a campaign to extend US/EU hegemony from the Azores to the Urals.

Putin is no angel, but if you want to see devils just look at his probable successors – no, not the Putinists, none of whom have the stature to measure up to the original, but the outright fascists and ultra-nationalists who will take full advantage of Washington’s open hostility. Add to this the fact that Russia, while nowhere near the power it once was, yet retains its nuclear arsenal, and you have all the makings of a global calamity in progress.


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You can buy An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard (Prometheus Books, 2000), my biography of the great libertarian thinker, here.

Author: Justin Raimondo

Justin Raimondo passed away on June 27, 2019. He was the co-founder and editorial director of Antiwar.com, and was a senior fellow at the Randolph Bourne Institute. He was a contributing editor at The American Conservative, and wrote a monthly column for Chronicles. He was the author of Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement [Center for Libertarian Studies, 1993; Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2000], and An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard [Prometheus Books, 2000].