by Cyrille BRET – 1st March 2015
The dramatic assassination of the Russian politician Boris Nemtsov last Friday is not only a criminal investigation matter. It is also the symptom of a chronic disease the country has to cure: physical extreme violence has been and remains a commonplace tool in the political debate. As long as murderers remain Russian influential policy makers, a significant political change is out of reach.
The assassination of the Russian PM Stolypin in 1911
Over the last two centuries, in Russia, plain murder has been considered a full-fledge political act. Despite several revolutions (in 1905, in 1917, in 1929 and in 1991), the assassination of prominent public figures has been constantly used as a usual tool to change leaders, policies and regimes. The political history of Russia is intertwined with criminal cases.
During the imperial period, a series of assassinations set the pace of modern Russia social evolutions and political reactions. The murder of the tsar Alexander 2nd in 1881 put an end to the relative liberalisation of the country. Decades of institutional conservatism followed. in the aftermath of the 1905 revolution, the assassination of the reformist and authoritarian Prime minister Stolypin (see picture) in 1911 infringed on the modernisation of the economic system. It also probably jeopardised the ability of Nicholas 2nd to cope with the revolutionary movement. Topped with the massacre of the imperial family in 1918, this trend highlights the fascination for physical elimination and individual terrorism.
It is almost banal in Russian political philosophy to discuss, assess and (too) often condone murder as the only true political gesture. The Demons portrayed by the conservative writer Dostoyevsky embody the impossibility to lead a political debate without using force. The responsibility lies mainly of course on the authoritarian nature of the successive Russian regimes: neither the tsarist empire nor the soviet regime gave room for institutional opposition.
Throughout the Soviet era, high profile assassinations were as important as mass murders in the setting of the Party line. For example, the killing of Stalin’s best enemy Lev Trotski in 1940, at a time when he was totally harmless for the leader of the USSR, highlights the importance of physical elimination in the framework of Soviet totalitarianism. Even more important, from a political point of view, was the murder of the Petersburg Party Leader Kirov in 1934: it triggered the bloodshed of the Great Purge and set a three decade long series of mass murder interrupted only by the death of Stalin.
In modern Russia, political assassination remains a tactics which has been never ruled out of the political sphere, and the murder of Boris Nemtsov is only the latest.
The permanence of physical violence on the Russian political scene has deep consequences on the status of the criminal investigation services and of the reputation of the judiciary system. Since the motive of those crimes is political, they are to be treated as such: it has not to be solved but has to be exploited; it has not to be investigated but has to be denounced as “manipulations” aimed at destabilising the State. Ordinary police work and scrupulous judiciary treatments are utterly irrelevant in those matters. And the balance of power would appear as mere weakness for the ordinary man. Whether they are state sponsored, terrorist acts or common crimes are paradoxically of almost no importance from a Russian layman’s prospective. They have to be taken into account as a political event.
The influence of political murderers shows that Russia politics remain influenced by terrorist, Stalinist and totalitarian patterns. What is at stake here, is Russia’s incapacity to get rid of political violence.