By Michael Birnbaum
Russia’s imperiled opposition movement on Saturday accused the Kremlin of being linked to the gangland-style murder of a towering figure of post-Soviet politics, amid the first signs that the true culprits may never be known.
The killing of Boris Nemtsov — at the Kremlin’s doorstep and beneath the colorful domes of St. Basil’s Cathedral — stunned the opposition. Many members said they felt new anxiety about their safety in a nation that has been whipped to a hard-edged patriotic fervor after a year of conflict with Ukraine. The killing of a man who had once served at the top levels of Russian power was by far the highest-profile assassination during President Vladimir Putin’s 15 years in power.
Authorities announced they were investigating a slew of possibilities, none of which included what Putin critics said was a primary suspect: the Kremlin itself. Many in the opposition reasoned that, at minimum, the security services that blanket Red Square must have had some advance warning of Nemtsov’s fate.
Some said they feared a fresh wave of political terror in Russia, and more than a few were deeply pessimistic about the future. With Nemtsov’s death, Russia’s two most charismatic opposition leaders have now been rendered mute, since Alexey Navalny, a leader a generation younger, is currently back in jail and has been plagued by legal troubles. There are few obvious successors at a time when Kremlin critics have struggled to make headway against the nationalist zeal that surged after the annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula a year ago.
Opposition leaders announced a memorial march across central Moscow on Sunday, scrapping a rally that they had hoped would revive their movement and that had been Nemtsov’s pet project in recent weeks.
It was unclear whether the slaying would spur support for the beleaguered opposition movement or whether its members would simply be further marginalized by fear and the silencing of one of their most prominent voices.
“It’s not decided, but it could go both directions. Toward more cruelty or actually some change in the regime, as well, if we figure out how to use this momentum,” said Leonid Volkov, an opposition leader who had been organizing Sunday’s rally with Nemtsov.
He said that opposition leaders were newly fearful for their lives. Before, the assumption was that they risked being deprived of their liberty for their political activism. Now they face a more existential dilemma.
“It’s a new era in Russian opposition politics,” Volkov said.
A Putin spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said Saturday that the assassination was a provocation intended to discredit the Kremlin and drive a wedge into Russian society. He said that Russian investigators were hard at work trying to track down suspects. Authorities said that Nemtsov, 55, was shot with a Makarov pistol at least four times as he walked with his girlfriend on a bridge over the Moscow River on an unseasonably warm winter night.
A local Moscow television station on Saturday broadcast what it said was surveillance footage of the bridge at the time of the killing. The grainy footage appears to show a figure leaping into a passing getaway car, although the view at the precise moment of the shooting is obscured by a passing snowplow. It takes 11 minutes for an emergency vehicle to arrive.
The slain politician himself had said both publicly and privately that he feared for his life, friends and associates said Saturday. He made powerful enemies among the Kremlin’s inner circle while campaigning against corruption, and he had lambasted Putin in unusually personal terms. But he always gambled that he had a shield provided by his past as a deputy prime minister and onetime heir to Russia’s first post-Soviet president, Boris Yeltsin.
Although Putin condemned Nemtsov’s death, Russian authorities appeared to be making few concessions to the opposition. The investigative committee charged with leading the inquiry said it was checking whether Kremlin critics had arranged Nemtsov’s killing to give themselves a martyr and raise their profile.
“Nemtsov could have been a kind of sacrifice for those who stop at nothing to attain their political ends,” committee spokesman Vladimir Markin said in a statement.
He also said authorities were examining connections to Islamist extremism, Ukraine, business dealings and personal disputes — none of which opposition leaders said seemed likely.
Nemtsov’s death was a bitter bookend to the hopes that had accompanied the dashing, Western-style politician in the heady years after the breakup of the Soviet Union as he took a lead role in igniting Russia’s rocket-powered free-market economy. Now many of those reforms have been undone, with Putin taking near-absolute personal control of the country and re-nationalizing broad swaths of the market.
In the year since the conflict began in Ukraine, Russian society has mobilized around the concept of an existential clash with the West. Putin warned darkly of a “fifth column” of Western-oriented Russians, and Nemtsov was surely high on the list. State-run television constantly pushes the accusation that U.S.-backed fascists are perpetrating genocide in Ukraine. Igor Strelkov, a far-right nationalist with dreams of establishing a new Russian Empire, was for a time last year one of the most popular figures in the country when he led pro-Russian rebel forces in eastern Ukraine.
In a measure of the paranoia gusting through the nation, a rumor spread among Putin supporters Saturday that the United States had killed Nemtsov to destabilize Russia.
Kremlin critics meanwhile traded other theories Saturday about the shooting, boiling down to whether it was directly ordered by authorities or was simply the product of the dangerous new climate.
“There is only one conclusion,” opposition leader and Nemtsov ally Vladimir Milov wrote on his blog. “The murder of Boris Nemtsov is connected to the authorities.” He said that Nemtsov was surely being closely tracked by authorities a day ahead of the protest, especially in the high-security heart of Moscow.
Others said it might simply be violence in the air.
“I cannot rule out this aggressive atmosphere created by the Kremlin for the last year,” said Stanislav Belkovsky, an opposition analyst who was an associate of Nemtsov’s. “They are united by very dangerous principles, truly hating the opposition. All this could lead to the murder.”
At the crime scene on a dreary Moscow Saturday, hundreds of people gathered to lay red roses and white carnations. Many of them were in tears.
“It’s the fault of all this hate and intolerance,” said Galina Asadova, 30, who works in advertising. “We just hope it comes to an end. We just hope it won’t be cruel, and without a lot of blood.”