What is it with people? Offing themselves like death’s going out of fashion! First Litvinenko poisons himself with green tea in a sushi restaurant in the middle of London and blames radioactive polonium. Then Berezovsky strangles himself with a scarf and drags his own corpse to the bathroom to make some kind of political point. And last Friday it’s Nemtsov, executing himself mafia-style on the Great Moskvoretsky Bridge in full view of the Kremlin.
A friend from London rings up: “Nemtsov’s picked an odd place to shoot himself,” he says, inviting a witticism. “You are quite right,” I reply. “One’s own back is an odd place.” My laurels as a humorist do not last long, however. I am soon outdone by Ramzan Kadyrov, president of the Chechen Republic: “There is not the slightest doubt,” declares Kadyrov, “that the assassination of Nemtsov is the work of Western secret services.”
The street has been cleared of inconveniently passing cars by turning a traffic light to red. A snow removal truck stands in wait and then moves up to obscure the assassins from a security camera, even though there’s no snow on the roads. The dead body is left on the asphalt for several hours while newsmen take pictures, a twenty-first century equivalent of displaying on the castle ramparts the severed head of a vanquished foe.
The assassination would be similar enough to political assassinations elsewhere in the world, from Sarajevo to Dallas, were it not for the fact that the day of the shooting, February 27, had been proclaimed by the Kremlin “Black Ops Day.” You know, like “International Women’s Day,” “Father’s Day,” “Breast Cancer Awareness Day,” “Tag der Deutschen Einheit,” “Bevrijdingsdag,” “Festa della Repubblica,” and so on. Bureaucracies like holidays. Not all bureaucracies, however, are headed by secret policemen.
The investigators, predictably, are hot on the trail of Islamic extremists, neo-fascists, anti-vivisectionists, anarcho-syndicalists, and little green men from Mars. They are sure to leave no stone unturned when it comes to Nemtsov’s private life, his financial affairs, his friends and his childhood. Along with newspaper hacks, they will be asking the question that, since times immemorial, has confused many a man brighter than themselves: “Cui bono?”
They forget they are living in a police state, where that question is largely rhetorical. Terror is its own reward. In Russian, Chinese, or North Korean, “Cui bono?” translates not as "Who benefits from it?” but as “Who allowed it?” Who would kill Litvinenko or Berezovsky without prior approval from the ruling junta? Who would shoot Nemtsov within earshot of the Kremlin – where every second passerby is a plainclothes security guard – unless the “black op” had been cleared in advance?
On Sunday, March 1, at 8 PM Moscow time, NTV channel was to broadcast the final part of a documentary entitled Anatomy of Dissent. The title is menacing. There are those among us who dissent, is the implication, and NTV’s reporters are here to dissect their motives and to show that they are nothing but traitors to their homeland. A previous part of the film was broadcast in 2012, focussing on the activities of three leading opposition figures – Sergei Udaltsov, Konstantin Lebedev, and Leonid Razvozjaev – whereupon the reporters’ files were promptly passed on to the police. All three were arrested, tried, and convicted. Udaltsov copped a plea and got 2 years, Lebedev and Razvozjaev got 4 years each.
The focus of the final part of the documentary is Nemtsov. As of Saturday afternoon, trailers of the film vanished from Muscovites’ screens, and come Sunday night the film was not shown. Had Nemtsov managed to survive the assassination, the NTV broadcast would have all but guaranteed him time in the slammer for betraying his homeland as an opposition activist.
Please do not misunderstand me. Litvinenko, Berezovsky, Nemtsov – they were no angels. To imagine any of them as town worthies in a painting by Rembrandt is as difficult as it is to imagine an Obama Contemplating a Bust of Homer. All three had, at some juncture in their lives, collaborated with the secret police and thought nothing of it. And if, by some conjuring trick of history, Nemtsov had come to head the junta that killed him, I have little doubt that last Friday another man in his place would have been shot in the back on the Great Moskvoretsky Bridge.
Andrei Navrozov, born in Moscow, lives in Palermo and is European editor for Chronicles. The former publisher of the Yale Lit, he is a widely published author and translator. His Italian Carousel: Scenes of Internal Exile was published by Peter Owen Publishers.