In this series, I have looked at the case of Paul Klebnikov, Anna Poliykovskaya, Alexander Litivenko, Boris Berezkovsky and Sergei Magnitsky. Next, we look at the last of the cases which ask the question whether Vladimir Putin is a murderous thug.
Boris Nemtsov rose to prominence in the Yeltsin administration before forming the Union of Right Forces which managed to win over 6 million votes in the 1999 parliamentary elections and he was voted into the State Duma, the lower house of parliament. By 2003, the party failed to reach the 5% threshold for inclusion in the Duma and he resigned from the party.
In 2004, he co-authored an article warning of the impending dictatorship of Putin and formed an umbrella group of Putin opponents. During the 2004 Ukrainian election, he supported Victor Yushchenko over his Putin-supported opponent and was later appointed by Yushchenko as an economic adviser. This was controversial at the time given his staunch opposition to Putin. Upon his return to Russia, Nemtsov did not let up on his criticism of Putin and in 2010 signed a “Putin Must Go” letter.
Previous to that, he was arrested in 2007 for participating in an anti-Putin march in St. Petersburg. In December 2010 he was arrested again for participating in a rally against the recent ban on rallies and again in December 2011 for his presence at a rally protesting alleged irregularities in the recent parliamentary elections. There was clearly a pattern of harassment at the hands of the police, most likely instigated by Putin. After the Crimean annexation and Russia’s presence in eastern Ukraine, he became particularly vocal against Putin and accused him of embezzling up to $30 billion from the Sochi Olympics.
Two days before his scheduled appearance at a Moscow rally to protest Russian aggression in Ukraine, Nemtsov was gunned down within sight of the walls of the Kremlin near Red Square. He was in the company of his girlfriend, a Ukrainian model named Anna Duritskaya who was not injured in the attack. At the time of the murder, the surveillance cameras in this area which are maintained by the FSB were turned off for maintenance. The only video of the incident was from long range at a television station. However, the actual shooting was obscured when a city utility truck arrived and parked blocking the camera’s view. The getaway vehicle was later identified and retrieved.
On March 7, officials arrested two suspects- Anzor Gubashev and Zaur Dadaev. The latter is the cousin of Ramzan Kadyrov of Chechnya. Police later announced that he confessed to the murder. Kadyrov described Dadaev as a courageous fighter and deeply religious and suggested that the infamous Mohammed depictions in the Charlie Hebdo magazine greatly offended Dadaev. He also claimed that Dadaev was critical of what he believed were Nemtsov’s comments supportive of the parody magazine. This alleged motive for the murder made no sense on several fronts. First, the Chechen unit he fought with was secular and often battled Islamist elements within the Chechen rebel ranks. His mother said that he was not particularly religious and never mentioned anything about Charlie Hebdo. Dadaev later retracted his confession and was found guilty regardless and sentenced to 20 years in prison.
Another alleged victim of Putin is Mikhail Lesin. He actually was very close to Putin during Putin’s presidency and was instrumental in shutting down opposition media sources through intimidation, buy-outs, legal action, harassment and censorship. Hoping to form an alternative to CNN and BBC, he founded Russia Today (RT) to broadcast the news with a Moscow twist. He also founded a company called Video International which controlled up to 70% of the television advertising market. Lesin came to the attention of US Senate watchdogs who accused him of being responsible for the censorship of the media in Russia and possibly laundering money through real estate purchases in the United States. By this time in 2014, Lesin had moved to Los Angeles to assist his son break into the movie business. He purchased at least $37 million in real estate in southern California. Complaints from Congress were referred to the FBI and DOJ although it is not believed an investigation was ever started.
In November 2015, Lesin was found in a DC hotel dead without any identification. The body was later confirmed by the Russian embassy to be that of Lesin. The cause of death was forced blunt trauma to the head with the theory that Lesin had become severely intoxicated, passed out, and smashed his skull. In July 2017, some media reported that the FBI believed his death was an assassination carried out by the FSB. These FBI suspicions were written in a report compiled by Christopher Steele who alleged that he was killed by freelance FSB officers working for an unnamed Russian oligarch close to Putin. They were initially tasked with just scaring Lesin but ended up killing him. The alleged motive was that Lesin had flown to DC to meet with DOJ officials to work out an immunity deal in exchange for information on the workings of RT.
However, there is absolutely no evidence that a DOJ or FBI probe was ever launched against RT. Furthermore, unlike the others, there was no bad blood between Putin and Lesin. When Lesin left Russia for southern California, the two were on good terms with Lesin doing Putin’s media bidding, albeit from afar, and Lesin had made his millions in Putin’s oligarchic system. In the end, it is quite possible that Lesin got drunk, passed out and struck his head. Video coverage of Lesin showed that he returned to the hotel in a disheveled condition and the coroner’s report noted that he appeared intoxicated when found.
USA Today ran an article claiming that 38 Russians had mysteriously died between 2014 and 2018 including activists, dissidents, journalists, and politicians. A closer look at the list reveals that many of the deaths are not that “mysterious.” For example, it is not unknown for people in their 50s to have a heart attack. Of the 38, at least 16 died of natural causes or the deaths were undetermined. This shortens the list to about 22 people and of those 22, some were Chechen rebels killed in battle or while in Russian custody. It has also been noted that of the 42 journalists killed in Russia from 2000 to 2019, 26 of them were murdered. Again, some of these journalists were killed while covering stories in an active war zone in Chechnya, Dagestan, or eastern Ukraine.
Furthermore, many of the dead have been elevated to almost saintly status when many were not angels. Some of these people in their zeal for money or journalistic fame operated in dangerous areas like Chechnya, or with dangerous people like the Russian mafia. Nemtsov was a known womanizer. According to many in Russia, few people really listened to Nemtsov. A common refrain after his death was “a dog’s death to a dog.” By Russian standards, Litivenko matched the definition of a traitor and he lived in exile on the largesse of Berezkovsky. Both were granted asylum in Great Britain not because of their intelligence value but on humanitarian grounds. For all his railing about Putin’s corruption, Berezkovsky was up to his eyes in corruption in Russia and in England. Although people like Berezkovsky, Litivenko and Politkovskaya were outspoken critics of Putin, none of their families ever blamed Putin for ordering their murders.
Razman Kadyrov has been mentioned as a possibility along the way and the Chechen rebel leader is a creation of Putin. Being a Putin appointee, he enjoys such a special status in Russia that sometimes the laws do not seem to apply to Chechnya. Both Politkovskaya and Nemtsov were harsh critics of Kadyrov also but it would be wrong to ascribe Kadyrov’s crimes to Putin.
The Russian leader too is a hostage to the scheme he hatched for peace after the Second Chechen War. This does not absolve Putin of all responsibility. To call Putin a killer is to reduce Russia’s problems to the size of Putin. The system he has put in place will likely remain long after he is gone.
And rest assured, the people will shed more tears for Vladimir Putin than all the tears shed for Boris Nemtsov, Anna Politkovskaya, and Alexander Litivenko combined. Such is the reality of Russia.
Next: A changing of the guard and an overlooked war