Shortly before midnight on February 27, 2015, as Boris Nemtsov and his girlfriend were crossing the Bolshoy Moskvoretsky Bridge in the shadow of the Kremlin, a man stepped out of the darkness and shot the prominent opposition politician four times, killing him instantly. Nemtsov had been scheduled to lead a large demonstration the following day against the war in Ukraine and economic conditions at home. What should have been a protest march became a funeral.
The assassination was not an isolated event, but one in a long line of political killings in recent years. Kremlin critic Galina Starovoitova was gunned down in November 1998. Sergei Yushenkov, co-chairman of the Liberal Russia party, was shot in April 2003. Three months later, Duma deputy Yuri Shchekochikhin died under mysterious circumstances, possibly from thallium poisoning. In October 2006, journalist Anna Politkovskaya was murdered in Moscow, and several weeks later Alexander Litvinenko was fed polonium-210 by two former KGB agents in a London hotel and died a slow, agonizing death. Many more cases could be cited.
Murder as political tool has by now been recognized as an important feature of the Putin regime. Opponents are branded traitors, fifth columnists, and foreign agents. They are subjected to intimidation and harassment. If they fail to get the message, harsher punishments follow, sometimes even death.
All of this has been widely reported in the West, but what has been forgotten is that political murder has a long tradition in Russia. It did not begin with Putin; rather, it reflects deeper, persistent aspects of Russian political culture.
A paranoid Ivan the Terrible executed his best military commander in 1565 on bogus charges of treason, and Peter the Great had his son and heir to the throne tortured to death out of fear he had been plotting against him. In 1762, Catherine the Great was placed on the throne after the Orlov brothers (including Grigory, Catherine’s lover) deposed and then strangled her husband, Peter III. Catherine’s son, Paul I, suffered a similar fate, garroted in his bedroom by a clique of courtiers in 1801. “Despotism tempered by assassination, that is our Magna Carta,” a nobleman told a German diplomat at the time.
By the later decades of the nineteenth century, the threat came from revolutionary terrorists, not murderous aristocrats. Alexander II was blown to pieces in the streets near the Winter Palace in 1881. After the revolution of 1917, the Bolsheviks made certain there would be no restoration, shooting the tsar and his family in Yekaterinburg the following summer. Weeks later Socialist Revolutionary Fanya Kaplan shot Lenin in Moscow, nearly killing him, an assassination attempt which ignited the Red Terror.
In the 1930s, Stalin turned against his comrades, branding them spies and traitors before ordering a bullet in the back of their heads. Even escaping to the West did not guarantee safety, as Trotsky found out while in exile in Mexico City in 1940, when a Soviet agent plunged an ice pick into his skull. The precise number of men and women Stalin had killed as “enemies of the people” will likely never be known.
Arguably the most spectacular of all political killings was that of Grigory Rasputin. It was exactly a century ago this month that the notorious Siberian peasant holy man and confidant of Nicholas and Alexandra was murdered at the Petrograd home of Prince Felix Yusupov. The story is the stuff of legend. Poisoned, shot, and beaten, Rasputin, as Yusupov later recounted, had been nearly impossible to kill. When Rasputin’s corpse was retrieved from the icy waters of the Malaya Nevka River, people claimed his hands had frozen while making the sign of the cross, proof he had still been alive when his killers tossed him into the river.
Although the account of Rasputin’s assassination is pure myth, what is beyond doubt is that Yusupov was convinced the only way to save the monarchy was to kill Rasputin. By 1916, Rasputin had become the scapegoat for Russia’s social and economic ills at home and its military defeats at the front. In a time of paranoid hysteria, most Russians believed Rasputin was a German spy who used his intimacy with the tsar to aid the enemy. There never was any truth to this, but Yusupov, like most Russians, had no doubts.
The notion that Russia’s problems were the making of foreigners and their treacherous Russian allies was common then, just as it was under Stalin, and now again under Putin. The idea has its obvious appeal: One needn’t seek out the difficult internal causes of the nation’s woes when one can simply blame everything on one’s enemies, real or imagined. Instead of committing to the messy, demanding work inherent in the running of any complex society, a neater formula is offered: Get rid of our enemies and we shall be rid of our problems. Moreover, the cultivation of the specter of enemies and “dark forces” serves to rally support around the country’s leaders and legitimizes violence in the defense of the motherland.
To Yusupov it all seemed so simple: Free Russia of Rasputin’s villainy and the tsar would win the war and calm the mounting wave of unrest at home. In fact, doing away with Rasputin only hastened the fall of the Romanovs. The bullet that killed Rasputin, the poet Alexander Blok remarked, “struck the very heart of the reigning dynasty.” Within months of the assassination, the tsar abdicated and the three-hundred-year-old house of Romanov came crashing down. The murder of Rasputin, the man Nicholas and Alexandra affectionately called “our Friend,” can rightly be seen as the opening act of the Russian Revolution.
It’s unlikely that Putin ordered Nemtsov’s killing, but it’s clear he’s done much to create the poisonous atmosphere that encourages and even sanctions murder as a legitimate political weapon. Putin, in this regard, is a logical continuation of Russian tradition. So far the strategy has worked for him, but at what point will Putin’s regime meet its Rasputin?
Douglas Smith is an award-winning historian and translator and the author of Former People and other books on Russia. Before becoming a historian, he worked for the U.S. State Department in the Soviet Union and as a Russian affairs analyst for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in Munich. He lives in Seattle with his wife and two children.
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