Why a death in Russia matters here

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A memorial immediately sprang up where Boris Nemtsov was shot, near Moscow's St. Basil Cathedral.

Former Deputy Prime Minister Boris Y. Nemtsov, 55 years old, was brutally murdered in Moscow last week, just steps away from the Kremlin.  His death has deeply shocked those who care about Russia.  While over 50,000 somber Muscovites filled the streets in a weekend memorial march to the bridge where Nemtsov was shot in the back, the Kremlin fielded preposterous theories as to the cause of the shooting: It was radical Muslims, it was the Russian opposition trying to create a martyr, it was Ukrainian nationalists or, inevitably, the CIA.

Whether or not Putin himself ordered the hit, this politically motivated shooting must be laid at the footsteps of the Putin regime. Why? Because Putin has created a climate of fear and hatred of anything and anyone that smacks of “otherness.”

From state-controlled TV and radio, Russians have been force-fed a steady stream of propaganda. Most of the Russian population has embraced the new era of demonization – of the West, of the opposition, of pro-Maidan Ukrainian nationalists, of nongovernmental organizations, of the independent media. Observers have gone from describing today’s Russia as “quasi-authoritarianism” to “quasi-fascism” – and some are dropping the qualifiers entirely.

The West needs to see Russian President Putin as the bully that he is.  We need to recognize how far he has moved from the democratic norms that have governed Europe in the postwar era.

A regime that regularly labels dissenting voices as “enemy agents” and uses the judicial system to silence, harass, jail and exile those who speak up is a regime that embraces the hatred it encourages. Those who shot Boris Nemtsov, a courageous, eloquent, long-time activist for a democratic Russia, knew they could act with impunity. Many other murders have come before his, and none of the murderers have been brought to justice in Putin’s Russia. Sometimes the thug shooters are found and tried, but the real perpetrators of the crime – those who ordered it – are never uncovered. This murder will likely be no exception. Those who hate – whether they are supporting the war in Chechnya (likely in the case of murdered journalist Anna Politkovskaya) or Ukrainian separatists, as is possible in Nemtsov’s case – feel that they have a license to kill.

Nemtsov, active in the movement against the Russian role in the Ukraine war and a vocal opponent of Putin’s, was poised to release a new report implicating Russia in that war. He was a thorn in the side of the Kremlin. The Russian opposition, however, has been weak and marginalized for years, both because of political repression and because of internal fractures within the opposition ranks. Perhaps this senseless death will help spur unity and a sense of purpose among democrats in Russia.

Boris Nemtsov visited Seattle in the late 1990s, when the idea of a Western-inclined and friendly Russia was still a possibility, and met with students and community members at the University of Washington. One couldn’t help but be inspired by this earnest, open and brilliant young man. Through programs supporting human rights and civil society in Russia since that time, the Henry M. Jackson Foundation has since met hundreds of bright young men and women like Boris who, despite the odds, are working within the Russian system to make it better. What will this murder say to them?

These activists and political leaders are putting their lives at risk for the future of Russia. We in the West should support them by uniting in our condemnation of what Russia has become and by finding the political will to stand up to Putin. We must recognize this crime for what it is: an outrageous, overt act of violence in a country which has become more dangerous with every passing day.


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About the Authors & Contributors

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Lara Iglitzin

Lara Iglitzin is the executive director of the Seattle-based Henry M. Jackson Foundation, which works to promote human rights and civil society in Russia.