There are two leading theories about the death of Boris Nemtsov, the former Russian deputy prime minister and liberal activist gunned down in Moscow last week, and neither one is flattering to Russian President Vladimir Putin. According to one interpretation, Putin himself must have signed off on the murder, which took place in view of the Kremlin on a bridge under constant surveillance. A second theory—advanced by Masha Gessen in The New York Times, among others—holds that Putin and his inner circle are not directly responsible, but that Nemtsov was killed by vigilante nationalist gangs, an accidental casualty of the wave of anti-liberal propaganda put forward by state media. Either way, the shocking incident signals that things are only getting scarier for Russia’s beleaguered liberal opposition.
Western governments have called for a full and transparent investigation, which Putin has announced he will personally oversee. “The most serious attention should be paid to high-profile crimes, including those with a political motive. We need to finally rid Russia of shame and tragedy such as we experienced and saw very recently. I mean the brazen murder of Boris Nemtsov right in the center of the capital,” he said this week. Putin called the attack a “provocation,” implying that Nemtsov was killed by opposition figures as a way to discredit the Kremlin. Early signs—a security camera obstructed at the crucial moment, the rapid cleaning of the site by city workers—point to a distinct lack of interest in identifying the perpetrators.
Nemtsov’s 23-year-old girlfriend Anna Duritskaya, the sole witness, has fled to her native Ukraine as state media promotes the implausible theory that she or another former lover might have orchestrated the murder. Radical Islamists from Russia’s embattled Caucasus are among the other unlikely culprits being floated by the Kremlin.