Sam Gordon Webb
Naked Politics Blogger
On February 27th 2015, a Russian man was brutally murdered on a bridge in Moscow. His name was Boris Nemtsov, an ardently anti-Kremlin and vocal critique of Vladimir Putin. His death was no mistake, and few Western governments doubt that he was murdered by his arch nemesis.
Since then there has been no justice. Five Chechen men were prosecuted in 2017, widely discredited as a political cover up by Nemtsov’s supporters. And let’s remember Russia is good at cover ups. Take for example, Nikolai Glushkov, oligarch and political exile Boris Berezovsky, human rights activist Nastya Estemirova, investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya and former FSB officer Alexander Litvinenko.
Churchill described Russia as a “riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma”. Not much has changed. The culprits of the poisoning of Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia on a leafy street in Salisbury last March have yet to be officially named, frustrating the global community in the process. In September, Russia emerged as the main suspects for a spate of mysterious illnesses affecting American diplomats in Cuba and China, but the evidence was too patchy to warrant an official investigation.
History tells us that Russia follows its own rulebook, one fraught with political ambition but lacking in democratic accountability. President Putin is what political analysts describe as an “authoritarian populist”; otherwise known as a man with two faces. In rural Russia, where his support is greatest, he is portrayed as a “Muzhik” (a real man/a man of the people), a strongman leader who stands up for ordinary Russians.
This is “authoritarian populism” with a difference. Unlike more westernized forms of populism aimed at conveying an anti corruption or anti elitist message, such messages aren’t at all conveyed by Russia’s leader. Corruption and elitism are normalised features of Russian life. Instead depoliticisation and demobolisation of the Russian population forms a key part of Russian populism. Putin relies on the non-interference of his own people, not their engagement.
Russia’s young liberal core is controlled by its totalitarian leader making it more difficult for young people to stand up to their unassailable leader. Putin’s power is so so great and his methods so secretive, that challenging his authority is pointless, if not dangerous.
Nemtsov’s death has proved to be a serious blow in Russia’s liberal movement. As journalist Oleg Kashin pointed out, his death accelerated the disappearance of Russia’s opposition movement. Nemtsov’s closest allies are no longer visible in the Russian political scene.
Nonetheless, younger Russians are beginning to bite back. It was recently reported that two schoolchildren from St Petersburg, Russia’s second largest city, were threatened with expulsion, a criminal probe and being blacklisted from all Russian universities simply because they had set up an independent student union. After its first meeting last November, described by authorities as an “unsanctioned rally”, the police arrived on the scene to investigate. They held “preventive discussions” with the boys, asking them to disband their newly formed group.
However, these teenagers were in no mood to be controlled by their elders. Many of Russia’s educators would have grown up during far more rigid Soviet times, dictating their political attitudes. The disparity in views has lead to mounting tensions between students and teachers, with parents weighing in also.
Younger Russians aren’t so easily pulled into line, especially when their subordination is given global attention thanks to online sharing of information. The increasing digitization of Russia’s society has presented new problems to Putin’s authoritarian power model. These are the sorts of problems that Boris Nemtsov actively encouraged, a man who wanted a democratic Russia determined by the rule of law- laws that are followed by everyone, including Russia’s premier.
In 2018, Russia’s controversial extremism laws were enforced on 24 year old Russian Maria Motuznaya for posting a jokey meme online. She faced six years in prison, before her chargers were finally dropped most likely due to international outrage.
A recent report by King’s College London suggested that Russian state media published 138 contradictory accounts of the nerve poisoning in Salisbury last year. Crucially, the account which seems most likely- precisely that the Russian state played a critical role in the poisoning- was not mentioned at all.
The problem with lying is that not everyone sees it that way. A recent opinion poll suggested around 70% of Russian villagers have a positive view of their leader being more traditional and less exposed to alternative political ideas. By accepting his falsehoods, Russians play to his strengths. They also help him to reassert his power.
“I’m afraid Putin will kill me” Nemtsov once told a Russian newspaper two weeks before his death. Putin didn’t pull the trigger, but of course he never does. Russians broke into anger and a new dawn of political activism soon emerged. Nemtsov’s death sparked immediate anger, but in Russia, activism very rarely conveys political reward.
Putin has held power for 18 years, and continues to consolidate it, much to the dismay of the West. His agenda is nothing short of barbaric and evil- to manipulate elections, to force his people into submission, and to murder his most stringent political opponents. The late Republican Senator John McCain put it wisely when he described Russia as America’s “adversary and moral opposite”.
Nemtsov was courageous, and his legacy remains strong. He wanted a free, tolerant and equal Russian society. It would be a first for Russia, and life changing for Russians. Schoolchildren would be able to set up their own student union without fearing for their futures. Instead, the voices of young people are silenced with totalitarian precision. If Boris Nemtsov were still alive today, he would be encouraging active engagement not passive withdrawal from the political process.
Clearly changing Russian minds is a slow process. Just as clear is the fact that western governments are obliged to help. So far, the U.S response to possible election interference has been abysmal. Trump even denies it ever happened. Despite this, some are beginning to act, motivated by concerns over Russia’s expanding geopolitical interests and spurred on by domestic insurgencies. Nemstov’s death was a tragedy that angered many Russians. Nemtsov knew how to convert his own anger into activism, being one of his most valuable legacies. Russia’s young are beginning to do the same thing, spelling danger for Putin and hope for everyone else.