Boris Nemtsov’s murder resembles past Russian contract hits

Boris Nemtsov’s body in the shadow of St. Basil Cathidral.
Boris Nemtsov’s body in the shadow of St. Basil Cathidral.
Image: AP/Pavel Golovkin
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Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov has been shot dead on a Moscow street close to the Kremlin, in what may be a gangland-style hit.

The killing of the 55-year-old Nemtsov, a liberal former deputy prime minister, and among the few remaining Russian politicians to remain a vocal opponent of president Vladimir Putin, occurred in Moscow early Saturday (Feb. 28) local time. Meduza, a Russian website, said that Nemtsov was shot by several assailants who emerged from a car. This is a live feed from the murder scene, where police, journalists, and bystanders are congregating:

Further details are sparse. But in Russia, few people own guns—generally, it is government security personnel, and gangs. So when people are murdered with firearms, particularly when they are prominent figures like politicians, notable businessmen, or journalists, it is an ordered execution. Whoever ordered the death is virtually never identified, nor the precise reason for the hit.

Dead at 55.
Dead at 55.
Image: Reuters/Sergei Karpukhin

Among those who have died this way were journalists Anna Politkovskaya, who was shot in the elevator of her home in 2006, and Paul Klebnikov, who was shot in the back on the street in 2004.

Such murders often go unsolved because of the interwoven nature of criminality and Russian officialdom. In the Politkovskaya case, for instance, it was established that one of the killers was with the FSB, the Russian security agency. But the trail went cold after that; no higher-ups were ever fingered. Experts I spoke to for my book Putin’s Labyrinth: Spies, Murder, and the Dark Heart of the New Russia told me that no Russian gang will carry out the murder of a high-profile figure absent a signal of approval from senior levels of government.

Two weeks previously, Nemtsov had told (link in Russian) a Russian news website, Sobesednik.ru, that he feared Putin might order his murder. Update: Putin himself has responded to the killing (Russian) through his spokesman, saying it “has all the hallmarks of a contract killing and is of a purely provocational nature.”