Prominent anti-corruption blogger Alexis Navalny was forbidden from attending the funeral of assassinated Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov on Tuesday, which prompted him to powerfully lash out against those he says refuse to see the connection between Nemtsov’s death and the Kremlin. (Navalny, himself currently serving a bogus 15-day sentence for distributing leaflets, is an even more notable anti-Putin figure than Nemtsov was.)
In a blog post published Tuesday, Navalny argues that Nemtsov’s murder was explicitly ordered “by the political leadership of the country, including Vladimir Putin.” He says that the only ambiguity to be found is in the question of whether Putin called for Nemtsov’s death specifically, or merely a “hugely sensational action.” He concluded that there is practically no feasible explanation for the shooting besides a direct Kremlin hand in the architecture of the plan.
Practically everyone outside of the Kremlin — including Navalny — openly admits that it’s unlikely the public will ever be certain about who carried out the murder, and at whose orders. Indeed, it’s hard to be optimistic about the transparency of such an investigation. But while Navalny is in agreement with most serious observers in his conviction that the Kremlin is culpable, he differs with many experts in his contention that there is no substantive difference between Putin himself and so-called Putinism. He condemned the rhetorical separation of the two on his blog:
That’s enough repeating the nonsense about how ‘Boris was killed by an atmosphere of hatred.’ What atmosphere, exactly, eh? We’ve had the atmosphere of hatred since 2007, and in recent months, we have seen the organized construction of pro-government extremist-terrorist groups, directly declaring as their goal combating the opposition where the police cannot.
He goes on to present several examples of such groups with obvious government ties, including protesters billing themselves as “anti-Maidan,” in contrast to the Ukrainian protests that sparked Russian intervention last year. “This is not freelancing,” Navalny says. He is right that the phrase “atmosphere of hatred” fails to adequately describe the context in which Nemtsov died. To be sure, the atmosphere was a conscious creation stoked by Putin’s ruthless political tactics, raving propaganda, celebration of avowed nationalists, and the systematic collaborationism of the rule of law. In this sense, it’s quite fair — and almost universally common — to argue that Putinism was responsible for Nemtsov’s death. But is Navalny right that any nuance beyond “Putin did it” constitutes an exoneration?
It’s possible to cast Putin as the agent here, while also noting the difference between his personal orders and the devastating and murderous climate he’s produced. Far from making Putin less culpable for Nemtsov’s death, the latter scenario suggests something incredibly chilling about the entrenchment of Putinism in modern Russian society, which has far more structural resilience than a single head of state.
In the words of journalist Ksenia Sobchak, “Actually it would be in some way less worrying if Putin had ordered Nemtsov’s killing…But I feel, unfortunately, this is not the case. There is no Putin who gave a command to kill. But there is a Putin who has built an appalling terminator, and he has lost control of it.”