The February 2015 Assassination of Boris Nemtsov and the Flawed Trial of His Alleged Killers: An Exploration of Russia’s “Crime of the 21st Century”
by John B. Dunlop
Stuttgart: Ibidem, 197 pp., $40.00 (paper)
a documentary film written and directed by Vladimir V. Kara-Murza
The Man Who Was Too Free
a documentary film written by Mikhail Fishman and directed by Vera Krichevskaya
Last November The Economist took President Trump to task for dismissing the probable involvement of Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman in the murder of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi: “Mr. Trump’s glossing over the murder of a peaceful critic is an alarming departure for America…. Previous presidents have sought to balance moral values and national interests.”
Trump has been equally dismissive regarding Russian President Vladimir Putin’s alleged sponsorship of political murders, saying in December 2015: “Nobody has proven that he’s killed anyone…. He’s always denied it.” And in October 2018, after being pressed into finally admitting that Putin was “probably” involved in political assassinations, Trump added a caveat: “It’s not in our country.”
Trump’s reactions are part of his established pattern of excusing the Kremlin’s misdeeds. But his reluctance to address Russia’s political murders is not a sharp departure from past presidents’ responses. After President George W. Bush asked Putin about the October 2006 killing of the journalist Anna Politkovskaya in a telephone call just a few days after it occurred, he was apparently reassured by Putin’s promise that there would be a thorough investigation (there never was one). Despite the fact that only weeks later the exiled Putin critic Alexander Litvinenko announced on his London deathbed that he had been poisoned by Putin, Bush welcomed Putin at his summer home in Kennebunkport, Maine, the following summer, so that the two could “work on their personal relationship” and enjoy a ride in Bush’s speedboat.
President Obama’s response to the most shocking of all Russian political murders, the February 27, 2015, shooting of the opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, was also muted. Although he immediately condemned the crime and called on the Russian government to conduct an impartial, prompt, and transparent investigation, Obama did not follow up on a Senate resolution introduced on March 4, 2015, by John McCain and Lindsey Graham urging him to seek a United Nations Security Council resolution that would establish an independent investigation into the assassination. (It eventually died in the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations.)
Now, four years later, John Dunlop’s remarkable investigation has shed new light on the Nemtsov assassination, although he cautions that “there remains much that needs to be learned concerning how the crime was committed.” Dunlop calls it the “Russian crime of the twenty-first century.” Not only was Nemtsov brazenly shot to death at the Kremlin’s doorstep; as the Russian documentary films Nemtsov and The Man Who Was Too Free make clear, he had a huge influence on Russian politics for two and a half decades. In the words of a former Nemtsov colleague: “He was like some sort of meteorite…. He soared, lit everything up—and then he was gone.”
Born in Sochi in 1959, Nemtsov grew up in Gorky (renamed Nizhny Novgorod in 1990), where he trained as a physicist. He earned his Ph.D. at age twenty-five and within just a few years had published more than sixty scholarly articles. According to his widow, Raisa, “physics was his life. He couldn’t talk about anything else.” But Nemtsov then got caught up in the civic activism that began to flourish in his country in the late 1980s and joined—along with his mother, a physician—a movement to protest the construction of a nuclear plant outside Gorky.
In March 1990, Nemtsov was elected to represent Gorky in the Russian parliament (then called the Supreme Soviet). He was the only non-Communist candidate in a field of thirteen. In his first television appearance of the campaign, he stated: “I can only promise one thing: I will not lie.” Important elements of his bold platform were the restriction of the powers of the KGB and the end of the Communist Party’s domination of politics. His fellow democrat Grigory Yavlinsky observed that Nemtsov, a natural orator, was “one of the youngest, most brilliant, most intelligent and most interesting people in the parliament.”
Nemtsov appeared at the side of Boris Yeltsin during the dramatic confrontation with the plotters of the coup against Mikhail Gorbachev in August 1991—a show of support that Yeltsin rewarded by appointing Nemtsov, then only thirty-two, head of the Nizhny Novgorod regional government. These were difficult times in Russia. The economy had broken down, with resources severely depleted, and many cities, including Nizhny Novgorod, were in serious decline. Nemtsov initiated an ambitious program of economic reform, hailed nationwide, which included privatization of state companies and rebuilding the region’s infrastructure. When new roads were constructed, he inspected them personally. According his deputy, Yuri Lebedev: “He would get behind the wheel of a Volga, after putting a glass of vodka on the hood, and, if he could drive two kilometers without spilling the vodka, he would officially accept the new road.”
Tall, handsome, and charismatic, Nemtsov had an exceptional connection with ordinary people, delighting crowds at rallies with spontaneous jokes or impromptu dancing. In the words of Lebedev: “He charmed everyone, from grandmothers to young girls, young and old men…. He knew how to talk to people.” In 1995, despite the nationwide decline in the popularity of democratic reformers and the resurgence of the Communists, he was elected governor of Nizhny Novgorod.
Yeltsin was by this time referring to Nemtsov as his heir apparent, even telling President Clinton when he introduced him to Nemtsov in Washington in September 1994: “Keep an eye on this young man. One day he will be president of Russia.” But Yeltsin’s popularity declined sharply as the 1996 presidential elections approached, and former economic minister Yegor Gaidar tried to convince Nemtsov to run for president, telling him: “You are the only one of us reformers who can talk with the people, with the babushkas [grandmothers].” Nemtsov responded: “I will never be president. The president has to send people to die.”
Nemtsov was not afraid to confront Yeltsin when he objected to the president’s policies. In January 1996, after the Kremlin unleashed a war in Chechnya, he collected more than a million signatures protesting Russia’s conduct of the war, drove a truck with the documents to Moscow, and delivered them to the Kremlin. Yeltsin was so angry that he refused to speak to Nemtsov for months afterward.
But Yeltsin, who valued Nemtsov’s skills as a politician, overcame his anger and in 1997 invited him to be a first deputy prime minister, along with Anatoly Chubais, in his new cabinet. With so much left to accomplish in Nizhny Novgorod, Nemtsov refused the offer. It was not until Yeltsin’s daughter Tatyana made a special trip to see him and spent six hours tearfully begging him to reconsider that he agreed to accept the position.
As it turns out, Nemtsov’s decision to join the Kremlin government was a huge mistake. In the words of the journalist Yevgenia Albats, a close friend of his: “The move to Moscow ruined Boris’s career. He would have gone on to be Yeltsin’s successor in 1999 had he not made that move.” Once in the Kremlin, the uncompromising Nemtsov took on the oligarchs, who were gobbling up the state’s resources at bargain-basement prices, and vowed that there would be “no more crony privatization.” In particular, he vigorously opposed a noncompetitive auction of the telecom company Svyazinvest, which the oligarchs Boris Berezovsky and Vladimir Gusinsky were set to purchase at well below its value.
After the company was sold to the highest bidder, Berezovsky and Gusinsky were outraged. They designated Nemtsov “enemy number one” and used their control of two main television stations to launch a propaganda campaign against him. Nemtsov’s weakness for sex made him an easy target, and before long televised reports of his “nude frolicking” with women caused his poll ratings to plummet. In August 1998 the Russian government defaulted on its debt and devalued the ruble, forcing Yeltsin to dismiss most of his government. Although he asked Nemtsov to remain in his post, Nemtsov resigned and, as the democratic oppositionist Aleksei Navalny later pointed out, “was blamed for all the horrors and problems of Yeltsin’s team.”
Nemtsov recalled in his 2007 memoir, Confessions of a Rebel,1 that Yeltsin’s appointment of Putin as prime minister—and thus Yeltsin’s designated heir—in August 1999 came as an unpleasant shock, mainly because Putin was a product of the KGB. Nonetheless, Nemtsov, who had become a leader of the newly formed Union of Right Forces (SPS) party, praised Putin publicly as “a capable, experienced and intelligent person.” Nemtsov was elected as a deputy to the state Duma in December 1999, and he abstained when the SPS voted to support Putin’s candidacy as president in 2000, but he then worked with the new president on a friendly basis, in large part because Chubais, now co-chairman of the SPS, insisted on a conciliatory approach to Putin.
Whatever illusions Nemtsov had about Putin, they quickly faded as Putin began a systematic assault on the media and grossly mishandled such crises as the Kursk nuclear submarine disaster in 2000 and the Moscow Dubrovka Theater hostage-taking in 2002. After the SPS failed to gain seats in the 2003 Duma elections, Nemtsov became a political outsider and shifted to the streets, where he campaigned loudly against the corruption and authoritarianism of the Putin regime and was frequently arrested and often imprisoned for fifteen days (the usual sentence for organizing an illegal protest). Video footage of Nemtsov being manhandled by police and shoved into paddy wagons was a grim foretelling of what the future held for him. Once, while sharing a prison cell with Navalny, Nemtsov explained to him why he continued to subject himself to such hardships: “I want to be able to respect myself.” Nemtsov and Navalny joined forces in 2011–2012, when they led huge protests—the largest since the collapse of the USSR—against voting fraud in the 2011 Duma election and against Putin’s 2012 reelection to the presidency.
Meanwhile Nemtsov began producing meticulously documented reports on Kremlin corruption2 and traveled to Washington to urge the US Congress to pass the Magnitsky Act, which sanctioned Russian officials responsible for the 2009 prison death of the Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky. Later, after the 2014 Russian invasion of Crimea, Nemtsov lobbied hard to convince Western governments to impose sanctions on members of the Russian government. At the time of his murder, Nemtsov was about to publish a scathing indictment of Russia’s military involvement in Ukraine, “Putin and the War,” and was organizing an antiwar protest, scheduled for March 1, 2015.
These activities alone gave Putin and the Kremlin plenty of reason to want Nemtsov dead. But for Putin, there may also have been personal considerations. Nemtsov did not hesitate to express his contempt for him publicly, often with sarcasm. In a 2013 interview, Nemtsov joked about Putin’s small stature and remarked that “all Russia’s fierce tyrants have been small—Ivan the Terrible, Lenin, Stalin.” Later, in April 2014, when asked about Putin by a Ukrainian journalist, Nemtsov blurted out: “Fuck your Vladimir Putin!” The journalist then posted the interview on YouTube. According to Albats, “He was afraid of being killed. And he was trying to convince himself, and me, that they wouldn’t touch him because he [had been] a member of the Russian government, a vice premier, and they wouldn’t want to create a precedent.”
Dunlop, the author of two pathbreaking studies of Russian terrorist incidents,3 presents convincing evidence of Kremlin involvement in—and indeed direction of—Nemtsov’s murder. Within six days of the murder, Russian police had rounded up and charged five men from Chechnya, suggesting that the authorities had advance warning of the crime. In fact, as Dunlop shows, the FSB had been monitoring Nemtsov’s movements for months, and thus would have had to know that a group of Chechens were following him.
The five were convicted and sentenced to long prison terms in June 2017, after a nine-month trial, reported on in detail by the Russian website zone.media. Investigators initially put out the theory that the Chechens were motivated by revenge because of an anti-Muslim statement Nemtsov had allegedly made after the Charlie Hebdo killings in Paris. But when it emerged that the Chechens had moved to Moscow in October 2014 (before the Charlie Hebdo attack in January), supposedly to start tailing him and prepare for his murder, this motive was discarded.
The Chechens were then said by prosecutors to have taken on the job for money—the equivalent of $234,000—to be paid by the accused mastermind of the plot, Ruslan Mukhudinov, who was said to have fled to the United Arab Emirates after the murder. There was no explanation of how Mukhudinov, a driver for Ruslan Geremeev, the deputy commander of the crack Chechen battalion Sever, acquired this money. Geremeev himself was initially regarded as a suspect because two of the accused were members of Sever, which was subordinate to the Internal Troops of the Russian MVD (Ministry of Internal Affairs), but controlled more directly by Chechen president Ramzan Kadyrov. Also, Geremeev lived with the Chechens in a rented Moscow apartment. But amazingly, despite requests from lawyers for the defense and for Nemtsov’s family, Geremeev never appeared in court.
Significantly, investigators and prosecutors, all under Putin’s control, deliberately withheld videotape evidence of the crime. Nemtsov was shot just before midnight while walking across the Bolshoi Moskvoretskii Bridge with his Ukrainian girlfriend, Anna Duritskaya. (After initial questioning, Duritskaya returned to Kiev and was not called to testify at the trial, again despite the urgings of the defense.) The bridge stands at the foot of the Kremlin walls, an area under extensive camera surveillance by the Federal Protective Service (FSO). Yet the FSO, headed at the time by Putin’s crony from the St. Petersburg KGB, Evgeny Murov, claimed that its more than a dozen CCTV cameras were directed at the area inside the Kremlin walls, not on the bridge itself.
A Chechen named Zaur Dadaev, a member of the Sever battalion, was said by prosecutors to have fired six shots at Nemtsov from behind. But this claim conflicted with evidence from a twenty-four-hour camera belonging to a Russian television station (TV Center) across the Moscow River. The camera captured foggy footage of someone running up to Nemtsov and Duritskaya just as a garbage truck (initially claimed to be a snowplow) blocked the view of him for two seconds. The film, posted on the Internet, then showed the man being picked up by a waiting car and whisked away. As defense lawyers and commentators pointed out, it would have been impossible for the shooter to fire six bullets in just two seconds from what was alleged to have been a Makarov semiautomatic pistol. (The weapon was never recovered.)
Subsequently, another video was found on the Internet by Igor Murzin, a St. Petersburg lawyer and a specialist on road-monitoring video systems, who took it upon himself to investigate the Nemtsov case. (The presiding judge, Yuri Zhitnikov, who was requested by a Nemtsov family lawyer to recuse himself on the grounds that he was under “outside influence,” refused to allow the jury to see the video.) The film in question, recorded on the dashcam of Alexandr Kalugin, who was driving on the bridge just after the initial shots were fired at Nemtsov, showed a man (who later identified himself at the trial as Evgeny Molodykh) walking up to Nemtsov’s body, then over to the garbage truck, and then back over to “finish off” the gravely wounded Nemtsov.
The Kalugin videotape also showed several other witnesses in strategic places on the bridge at the time of the murder, none of whom were either identified or interviewed by the prosecution. Presumably they were employees of the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB), who were following Nemtsov at the time of his murder. As Dunlop notes, “any attempts by defense attorneys or by Nemtsov family lawyers to mention their existence were quashed by the presiding judge.”
Molodykh, who had disappeared after initial questioning by investigators, unexpectedly turned up at the trial in May 2017, claiming that he had been an innocent bystander at the crime scene. He described a man resembling Dadaev as the first and only shooter. Dadaev had initially confessed to the killing, but later retracted his statement on the grounds that he had been tortured, which was confirmed by members of the Kremlin’s advisory council on human rights, who visited Dadaev in prison soon after his arrest. Dunlop rules out the possibility that Dadaev was the first shooter, pointing out that he had a good alibi. A videotape from a camera at the entrance to his apartment building showed that he was there at the time of the murder. (The judge excluded this tape from evidence at the trial, on the grounds that the camera’s timer was supposedly damaged.)
No murder weapons were found by police, and the claim by FSB ballistic analysts that the six bullets all came from a single gun was challenged by an outside expert called by Dadaev’s lawyer. This expert concluded that because investigators at the scene had mishandled ballistic evidence, it was not possible to establish the weapons that fired the bullets.
Dunlop offers several theories—put forth by lawyers, including Murzin, the American journalist David Satter, and Russian political commentators—of who orchestrated the crime, with the main suspicions centering on the Chechen president, Ramzan Kadyrov, and Putin. Dunlop comes down on the side of those who believe that Kadyrov’s Chechens did participate in the murder, together with the FSB, despite Dadaev’s apparent innocence in the actual shooting, and posits that another member of the Sever battalion, Beslan Shavanov, might have been the first shooter. (Shavanov left Moscow the day after the murder and supposedly blew himself up with a grenade while being apprehended by police in Grozny.) The presence of the Chechens in Moscow during the months before the murder and their hasty retreat from the city afterward strongly suggest their involvement. Also, we know that Kadyrov in the past has used hit squads to eliminate his own and Putin’s opponents, including the Chechen journalist Natalia Estemirova and possibly Anna Politkovskaya, both highly critical of him and Putin. (It was Politkovskaya who labeled Kadyrov “the Kremlin’s Chechen dragon.”) Significantly, although Dunlop does not mention this, Kadyrov once told Nemtsov to his face that he deserved to be killed, after which Nemtsov recalled that “in his eyes I saw hatred.”
But Kadyrov would never carry out such a high-profile crime without being ordered to do so by Putin. As Akhmed Zakaev, the head of the Chechen government in exile, observed: “Kadyrov can do what he wants in Chechnya, but not in Moscow or Russia.” And Nemtsov’s close associate Vladimir Milov, a former deputy minister in the Russian government, noted that “by doing anything to Nemtsov [on his own] Kadyrov would be crossing a red line and entering the territory under Daddy’s [Putin’s] jurisdiction.”
As Dunlop’s investigation reveals, the Nemtsov murder seems to have involved a Kremlin power struggle. In defiance of Putin, the FSB, after rounding up Kadyrov’s men, tried to implicate the apparent organizers of the crime, Kadyrov and his protector Viktor Zolotov, who headed the MVD Internal Troops at the time and was also a close Putin ally from St. Petersburg. The FSB had long wanted to curtail the power of Kadyrov, who rules Chechnya like a fiefdom and oversteps his bounds in speaking out on Russia’s foreign and security policy. Putin’s unexplained disappearance for ten days after the murder, during which the Kremlin announced that he had awarded Kadyrov a high state honor, suggested that he was under pressure. But he weathered the storm.
Putin’s powerful Investigative Committee, headed by his crony Aleksandr Bastrykin, managed to prevent Kadyrov’s protégé Geremeev from being interrogated by prosecutors, allowing him to disappear—either in Chechnya or the United Arab Emirates. Neither Geremeev’s boss Zolotov nor Kadyrov was ever questioned. In fact, Putin created a new National Guard the next year and appointed Zolotov its chief, as well as elevating him to provisional membership on his National Security Council. As for Kadyrov, with Putin’s strong endorsement he was reelected Chechen president in September 2016 with 98 percent of the popular vote. Putin, it seems, needs Kadyrov, who has just presided over another crackdown on gay men in Chechnya, not only to keep the restive Chechen people firmly in line but also to eliminate Putin’s enemies should he be called upon.
Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the exiled former Russian oligarch who was arrested by Putin’s police in 2003 and languished in prison for ten years, observed of the Nemtsov murder: “I think Boris would have wanted to die this way…on the bridge leading to the Kremlin, shot by a real enemy, not by accident. It’s a good death.” But above all, Nemtsov, who so valued the truth, would have wanted the persons who ordered the murder brought to justice, and clearly this will not happen with Putin in the Kremlin.
On February 27, 2018, the Washington, D.C., City Council named a block of Wisconsin Avenue in front of the Russian embassy Boris Nemtsov Plaza. Along with members of Congress, Vladimir Kara-Murza, Nemtsov’s former close colleague and the director of the film Nemtsov, spoke at the ceremony. An active Russian opposition politician, Kara-Murza has been the victim of two near-fatal poisonings that he attributes to the Kremlin. Yet he remains optimistic: “The best possible tribute to [Nemtsov] and to his legacy will be a free and democratic Russia, and that day will come.” When that day arrives, it will be because of Russians like Kara-Murza, who so courageously follow in the footsteps of Boris Nemtsov.