Boris Nemtsov’s assassination can be considered the natural outcome of trends that have been shaping Russia’s development for the past couple of years. More ominously, the killing may signal that Russia is headed for a period of prolonged political violence.
Although suspects are now in custody in connection with Nemtsov’s murder, few independent observers believe the case will ever be satisfactorily resolved. The consensus view among such analysts is that no matter who killed Nemtsov on February 27, ultimate responsibility for the assassination lies with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The Kremlin’s domestic and foreign policies – especially after Putin’s regained the presidency in 2012 – has fostered an atmosphere conducive to political violence.
In particular, the Kremlin has exploited state-controlled mass media to purposely divide Russians into those who support Putin and those who do not. And those who oppose the Kremlin’s policies are subjected to venomous attack and daily doses of calumny at the hands of state media. Media manipulation has succeeded in forging a new Russian mindset, one that sociologists call a “negative identity.” Because the Kremlin lacks a positive agenda and vision, it pushes Russians to define themselves by who they are not -- not who they are.
State media has used “hatred of the enemy” – Ukrainians, Americans, Westerners in general, along with all those who side with them – to forge a social bond meant to marginalize disparate pockets of internal opposition to the Kremlin. It is noteworthy that of Russia’s most prominent voices of opposition at present, Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Garri Kasparov are living in involuntary exile, Alexei Navalny was under house arrest and Nemtsov has just been brazenly gunned down. The state also dubs anyone who openly disagrees with official policy as a “fifth columnist” and/or “foreign agent.”
Likewise, Russia’s international conduct – in particular its “hybrid war” in eastern Ukraine – contributes to the spreading of a poisonous atmosphere of hatred and suspicion. The politics of hate in Russia has reached a point where Russians are going blind. According to a recent Levada Center survey, 81 percent of Russians had a negative view of the United States, while 71 percent had a negative view of the European Union. The same poll showed 68 percent of Russians believed their country was facing a foreign threat; 84 percent supported the annexation of Crimea and 65 percent said they wanted to live in a vast and powerful country that is respected and feared by the outside world.
Over the past year violence has been “normalized” in Russia as state-subservient television channels have lionized “heroic Russian rebels” in eastern Ukraine. The main storyline fed to the Russian populace on a daily basis is that the fighters are defending Russia proper against an onslaught of Western values. Such a meme implicitly legitimatizes atrocities perpetrated by the separatists.
While it has proven an effective tactic so far, using hatred as a social bond is a tricky business. In a way, it is like cycling: you’ve got to keep pedaling, or you’ll fall off. Thus, any regime that tries to instrumentalize hatred has to grapple with constant pressure to escalate – both in domestic politics and foreign policy.
The problem is, if one pedals too vigorously, he or she eventually loses control. As a result, Putin’s regime might one day soon find that its monopoly on violence is challenged by non-state political actors. When this day arrives, the spiral of political terror could unwind in a manner that the state cannot control. It might well be the case that Nemtsov’s assassination marks the beginning of this process.
Commentators often try to make sense of landmark political events by trying to find historical analogies. Nemtsov’s gangland-style hit has already been compared to the 1933 Reichstag fire, a provocation used by Hitler to consolidate Nazi power, and the 1934 Kirov assassination, the event used by Stalin to unleash the Great Terror, which wiped out the Bolshevik “old guard.” The only problem with these parallels is that there is no conclusive evidence that the Kremlin was intricately involved in Nemtsov’s murder in the same way Hitler was behind the Reichstag fire and Stalin was interested in Kirov’s demise. It is a sad irony that some opposition members say the Putin regime’s direct involvement would be a more preferable scenario than the current uncertainty because it would provide a clearer picture of where the overall political situation stands, and where it might be headed.
What is coming to Russia could be much more murky and ambiguous than anyone really wants to admit: Russia might be gradually sinking into a state when political violence becomes a daily routine – a feature characteristic of many 20th-century Third World dictatorships.
One analogy is the political situation in Spain on the eve of the 1936-39 Civil War. In the weeks leading up to the rebellion led by Francisco Franco, political violence and atrocities became the norm. The process was unleashed by the brazen assassination of rightist leader Jose Calvo Sotelo in July, 1936. Of course, such an example doesn’t mean Russia will descend into civil war the way Spain did. Instead, it could mean that right-wing forces in Russia will declare war on representatives of European values, and move aggressively to liquidate the perceived threat.
Just over a century ago, Russia went through a time in the aftermath of the 1905 Revolution when political terror seemed to be out of control. Petr Stolypin, the tsar’s prime minister during that era, (and, as rumor has it, Putin’s role model), tried hard to contain terror by forging the state monopoly on violence. His ruthless measures -- they gave rise to the infamous notion of a “Stolypin necktie,” a reference to the gallows – seemed to succeed. Yet in 1911, Stolypin himself was assassinated in perhaps the most spectacular political hit since the assassination of Julius Caesar -- in the Kiev Opera House, with Nicholas II watching from the imperial box as his prime minister met his end.
Igor Torbakov is Senior Fellow at Uppsala University and at Södertörn University, Stockholm, Sweden.