Welcome to our column, Russia Update, where we will be closely following day-to-day developments in Russia, including the Russian government’s foreign and domestic policies.
The previous issue is here.
Aleksey Venediktov, editor of Ekho Moskvy, has given testimony to police about threats to journalist Ksenya Sobchak, saying that since the murder of Boris Nemtsov, such threats need to be taken more seriously.
– Alexey Navalny On the Murder of Boris Nemtsov
–Theories about Possible Perpetrators of the Murder of Boris Nemtsov
–Novaya Gazeta Releases Sensational Kremlin Memo: âIt is Seen as Correct to Initiate Annexation of Eastern Regions of Ukraine to Russiaâ
–Former Russian Intelligence Officers Behind Boisto âTrack IIâ Talks â and Now the Flawed Minsk Agreement.
See also our Russia This Week stories:
Ultranationalists Angry over âCapitulationâ of Minsk Agreement,
âAnti-Maidanâ Launched by Nationalists, Cossacks, Veterans, Bikers
The Guild War â How Should Journalists Treat Russian State Propagandists?
Please help The Interpreter to continue providing this valuable information service by making a donation towards our costsâ.
Today, six days after the assassination of opposition leader Boris
Nemtsov, the state media has fallen silent on promoting various theories
for his murder and has not produced any new evidence.
In the last six days we’ve seen just one video of the scene that
appears to be valid, released by TV Tsentr, showing a possibly
suspicious role of a street-cleaning machine or snowplow.
But while authorities have invoked the usual scapegoat for Russian crimes — “persons of Caucasian origin” meaning the North Caucasus of Russia, home to Chechens, Ingush, Dagestanis and others — they have made no arrests.
The Russian independent press and blogosphere has had an outpouring of recollection about Nemtsov and discussion of theories of the case and criticism of the official versions of events. But they have not been able to conduct an investigation under the very conditions that make it possible to kill an opposition figure. TV Rain, the one remaining independent TV channel, got an interview with Nemtsov’s companion, Anna Duritskaya, who was with him when he was shot, but she was not only in shock and unable to say much; it was later reported that she was under a signed statement not to disclose the details of the investigation.
Oleg Kashin, one of the most prolific bloggers who, despite his location now in exile in Europe after a severe beating, remains connected to networks of sources in Russia, said that the investigation was thorough — even examining cigarette butts — but had nothing new yet.
Alexey Venediktov, editor-in-chief of the radio station and web site Ekho Moskvy set the tone today in describing his own questioning by the police regarding threats to another journalist, talk show host and socialite Ksenya Sobchak.
He said that it was the duty of the police to investigate murders, and that Nemtsov himself, as he had sat in the studio of Ekho Moskvy giving an interview, hours before his death, did not heed warnings given to him by reporters that he should have a bodyguard, given the threats he had received — from social media, on his home phone, and in the climate of hatred incited by official media and negative advertising campaigns. Some of these were collected today by Yod and cumulatively, made quite an impression.
Banners hung from buildings in Moscow and St. Petersburg showing the “Fifth Columnists” who are to blame for “falling income and rising prices”. Nemtsov is in the upper right corner on the left and in the middle on the right.
Alexey Navalny, Nemtsov’s fellow opposition leader, was coordinating a big anti-war march with him on the eve of his murder, is still serving the 15-day jail sentence he earned while out leafletting together with Nemtsov in the metro last month, He has written among the best debunkings of the reasons the Kremlin claims Nemtsov’s murder couldn’t possibly be executed by the government — that he was a marginal figure from the past — an official in Yeltsin’s 1990s — that his murder only discredits the government so they wouldn’t undertake it, and so on.
Navalny explains that Nemtsov had a following more than is admitted by a government anxious to downplay it, and still maintained contacts with those in the Kremlin today, as could be seen from some of those who attended his funeral.
Andrei Illarionov, a former advisor to Putin, has lined up all the data and theories on his blog and examined the evidence from the Investigative Committee so far, and shows the discrepancies and the holes in the stories of the pro-Kremlin press. The following is a summary translation by The Interpreter:
1. The white vehicle — this was indicated by Vladimir Markin, spokesman for the Investigative Committee and picked up by state media and opposition alike. Illarionov says that shooting from a white vehicle is a “Chechen footprint” or style in which drive-by shootings are committed in the Caucasus, so as to turn attention toward blaming of Caucasians.
This story was undone by the TV Tsentr tape, which illustrates that no shots came out of the car windows. Instead, the shooter got into a car to escape — and that car wasn’t white.
2. The authorities never mentioned a snowplow at first — but again, the TV Tsentr tape indicated that a street-cleaning vehicle may have even deliberately blocked the view of cameras during the murder, and may also have enabled someone to jump on and off it, to get to the scene of the crime.
3. Illarionov points out that the time slot on the TV Tsentr video for the murder would not accommodate 6 shots, and likely only 2 could have fit in.
4. The TV Tsentr tape also indicates that the official version of the shooting — that the killer came up the stairs, then shot Nemtsov from a Makarov — could not be true, as the videotape shows no figures by the stairs at all.
5. Sergei B., the snowplow driver produced by LifeNews as a witness, may be fake; in any event, he says he didn’t see anything.
The TV Tsentr tape shows how after Nemtsov was attacked at 23:31.14-16, a car slowed down, and stopped in about 10-15 seconds at 23;31.29.
“The only reason that a driver would stop a car immediately at that very place was the crime — of which he was a witness (or accomplice),” says Illarionov. But he didn’t get out of the car or get closer to Nemtsov, so he does not seem to be random.
Duritskaya talked with the driver for four minutes. When she walked away from the snowplow, the driver left the scene of the crime (at 23:36:06) at full speed. He did not go on “cleaning the curb,” as he claimed to LifeNews.
6. “Viktor M.,” a witness produced by LifeNews and put on camera with his face disguised, claims he was walking behind Nemtsov and Duritskaya at a distance of about 80 meters. On the TV Tsentr tape, he appears at about the first lamp post from the direction of Vasilyevsky Spusk (about 125 meters from the scene of the crime) only at 23:31:50, that is about 34 seconds after the first shots and the falling of Nemtsov to the ground. If what he says is true, he would have been about 200 meters from the scene, although not directly at the line of sight. If he was still “looking at his smartphone” as he described, then he would not have seen Nemtsov fall or the man jump over the barrier to get into the getaway car. The TV Tsentr video here, too, contradicts his story, as he didn’t “fall on” a man lying on the ground, but approached him at a rapid pace. Thus, Viktor M. could not have seen the suspected murderer and describe him as “a man dressed in jeans and a brown sweater.”
It’s also not clear from the video whether Viktor M. tried to help
Nemtsov; he approached only at 23:32:50 when Duritskaya had walked away
from the body toward the snowplow man. Viktor M. spent approximately 23
seconds by the body.
LifeNews reported the following:
The criminals shot the politician right before his
eyes…Viktor threw himself to help the man lying on the ground. However
the help was too late — Boris Nemtsov, who had take several bullets in
his back began to gasp and died shortly afterward. Only later Viktor
learned that a famous politician had died in his arms.
This part of the story is “close” to what likely really happened but it is necessary to make some corrections, says Illarionov.
until Duritskaya left Nemtsov to go to the snowplow driver (did he call
to her?), Viktor M went up to the mortally wounded Nemtsov and made
four shots at him, apparently with the bullets from the Yuryuzansky
Mechanized Factor, made in 1986 (the other bullets found at the scene).
And that’s why Nemtsov died “before Viktor’s eyes.”
that, Viktor M. walked away at 23:33:13 from Nemtsov and went up to the
snowplow man and Duritskaya. Seeing that “everything was fine,” he went
back to the body and remained there for awhile. It’s not clear if he
waited for the police to come.
7. Anna Duritskaya is clearly
frightened and in shock, she said she didn’t see anything, and if she
remembers later, her original testimony when she said she didn’t see
anything will be recalled. It is not likely she’ll return to Russia for
8. Officials have “divided the labor” of the
“witnesses” — at first, they tried to have just two, Duritskaya and
the snowplow man, but then they ended up with Viktor M. His story,
published February 28 at 17:43, was said to be “testimony from a key
witness.” Illarionov then sees him as being entrusted to relay all the
key components of the version of the story — the description of the
killer, the type of car, and even adding in for good measure the
“attempts to save the man lying on the ground” who “died in his arms.”
when TV Tsentr, which belongs to the city of Moscow, decided to release
their video footage, this completely upset the plans of police and
intelligence, says Illarionov. Then LifeNews scrambled to come up
with Sergei B., the snowplow driver who “was a witness to the murder of
Nemtsov but didn’t see the killer” — even though he was 5-6 meters
away, and Viktor M. was 200 meters away.
9. So, to re-cap, there
are now three persons of interest — Nemtsov’s compansion, the snowplow
driver and the “accidental passerby”. Illarionov believes that the
snowplow driver and the passerby are actually accomplices. Duritskaya’s
name and everything about her past was spilled across the pages of the
press; nothing is known about the other two, even their full names. To
add to the confusion, yesterday there were reports that Serge B. had
quit his job; then others that said he had not. Says Illarionov:
“The style reminds me of the resignation, several days
after the Smolensk air crash [in which a plane full of top Polish
officials were killed], of a key witness to the crime, the Smolensk
Severny airport dispatcher, Col. N. Krasnokutsky.”
10. The cameras are said not to be working; the Federal
Protection Service (FSO) responsible for guarding the president and the
guards of the Kremlin also said the cameras on the lamp posts that
recorded Nemtsov’s murder (said to number 18) do not belong to them. But
Moscow city officials refuted that statement and said the cameras were
11. Authorities have also hastened to put out a variety
of theories about the murder culprits, from the CIA to the SBU to
Chechens to Russian nationalists.
Illarionov concludes that the
authorities made exceptional efforts to cover up the murder, and adapt
to the revelations of the TV Tsentr footage; he therefore believes the
killers will never be found — at least in the near future — and that
the very disinformation and cover-up, as well as the conflicting
stories, are indications that the state is behind the assassination.
— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick
Today March 5 is the 62nd anniversary of the death of Joseph Stalin in 1953, the Soviet dictator responsible for jailing or executing millions of people whose legacy is alive today.
It is also the 75th anniversary of the day in 1940 Stalin gave the order for the Katyn Forest massacre, when Soviet troops massacred at least 20,000 Polish officers and intellectuals, and covered up the mass crime against humanity for decades.
The pro-government pravda.ru provided a “balanced” propaganda YouTube
on Stalin, passing lightly over the purges and the GULAG, as well as
deportations of entire peoples, to say that attitudes differed to Stalin
at different times depending on people’s economic well-being, and that
the Russian people were grateful to him as a powerful figure that got
the nuclear bomb built for Russia and made Russia the strong country it
With the state media ambivalent or even supportive of Stalin nowadays, it is no wonder that there are still supporters who mark his death.
Argumenty i fakty turned the Stalin story into an infographic – but without the numbers of his victims.
Translation: How Joseph Stalin was in life: special features.
Translation: Today, March 5, Generalissimo Joseph Stalin is remembered, on this day in 1953 Stalin departed this life.
Stalin’s role in commanding the Soviet army in the defeat of the Nazis is now revived as part of propagandistic analogies with the Russian-backed militants fighting the Ukrainian government, branded as “fascist,” and is also used openly in patriotic training in Belarus.
Translation: recruits at the Bobruysk Draft Board are met by…Stalin.
But there are people who condemn the Stalin legacy, including Yevgeniya Albat, editor of New Times, some of whose relatives were executed under Stalin.
Translation: Stalin died 62 years ago, but his cause lives on in the heads of 86% of Russians to this day.
The reference is to Putin’s (supposed) approval rating.
Translation: 62 years ago, Stalin, the most famous mass murderer in history died, after annihilating millions of his fellow countrymen.
Translation: “Stalin didn’t walk away into the past, he dissolved into the future.” [ former French President Charles] de Gaulle. In my view, an unusual quote.
— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick
While the Russian state media has spun a wild variety of theories about who might have killed opposition leader Boris Nemtsov on the night of February 27, and mainly muddied the waters, Reuters’ journalists in Moscow have come up with further information about Nemtsov’s last notes and a report he was preparing to publish in order to prove the Russian military involvement in the war in Ukraine:
It may have been the last note Boris Nemtsov ever wrote, a hurried scrawl in blue pen on a plain white sheet of A4 paper.
A day before he was shot dead near the Kremlin last week, the Russian opposition figure and his close aide Olga Shorina were discussing a sensitive investigation he was preparing into Moscow’s backing for separatist fighters in eastern Ukraine.
Fearing their office was bugged by state intelligence, Nemtsov resorted to scribbling.
“Some paratroopers from Ivanovo have got in touch with me. 17 killed, they didn’t give them their money, but for now they are frightened to talk,” said the note, shown to Reuters by Shorina.
“He did not want to say anything, just in case. He did not want to utter it out loud, which is why he wrote it down for me,” she said.
Read more here.
The article sheds light on an issue that has been debated as to how much Nemtsov was really under surveillance by intelligence and how important a figure he was. Clearly, he himself believed he was under constant electronic surveillance, and sources such as former US ambassador to Moscow have pointed out that they have seen cars tailing Nemtsov and his colleagues.
A comment made frequently about the report on the military is
that it couldn’t have been a motive for killing Nemtsov, as a number of
journalists and NGOs have already publicized lists of Russian contract
fighters who were killed in Ukraine and the stories of some who have
been severely injured, as we have reported.
But what this leaves out is the
importance of the political promotion of such information, and the kind
of charismatic and connected figure who can do this.
Facts alone seldom move governments and
international bodies to act; persuasive presentation and advocacy does.
Nemtsov, a trained physicist and mathematician who served as first
deputy prime minister had already shown that he was capable of getting
the world to pay attention to the gross excesses of the Sochi Olympics — three times the cost of any world Olympic Games — by literally doing the
math about shady government loans and kickbacks.
While his work in Russian was less visible to the West, Nemtsov worked
with his fellow opposition party member Leonid Martenyuk to create a
viral Russian-language video on Putin’s responsibility for the downing of MH17 by
Russian-backed militants which has more than a million views on YouTube.
Earlier, Nemtsov was successful in lobbying for the Magnitsky Act
of sanctions against those responsible for the death of lawyer Sergei
Magnitsky and other massive human rights violators. And he showed while
in office in the Yaroslavl legislature that he was able to get a corrupt
official fired through persistent faction work.
We note that a tweet about the Reuters’ report by pro-Kremlin researcher Yury Barmin frames implies that returning paratroopers from Ukraine might have been motivated to kill Nemtsov.
But the Reuters story contains nothing of that implication. While ultranationalists and fighters from the Donbass are indicated as people possibly motivated to kill Nemtsov, Reuters actually said that it was the relatives of the soldiers, not the soldiers themselves; likely the families were concerned that they hadn’t heard from their loved ones.
Shorina and Ilya Yashin, another close associate of Nemtsov’s from the RPR-PARNAS party said they would try to assemble Nemtsov’s notes and publish the report he was never able to finish.
— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick
Russian talk show host and opposition member Ksenya Sobchak was threatened by an unidentified man on March 2 at the funeral of slain opposition leader Boris Nemtsov who said, “You’re next.”
Aleksandr Venediktov, editor-in-chief of Ekho Moskvy said he has given testimony to investigators, but says he can’t recall details.
Translation: An investigator of the Interior Ministry questioned me on the issue of Ksenya Sobchak and the phrase “Ksenya, you’re next.” I answered all the questions. I could not make a sketch.
In a live interview on TV Rain, Venediktov told a reporter that at the doorway of the Sakharov Center, where a funeral service for Nemtsov was held a man approached her and said “You’re next.” She told him to go away. He then came up a few minutes later and repeated the same threat — and she told him to get lost again. Then he approached a third time, and Venediktov, who was standing next to Sobchak came up to him and said “Please leave.” Since there were a lot of police near the area, he finally left (translation by The Interpreter):
“That was all I saw, and the investigator spoke to me for 40 minutes, and asked if I would help the investigation to make a composite sketch, I said of course I’m prepared to help the investigation, but I would hardly be able to, because I saw several thousand people that day, and spoke with hundreds of people who were strangers. So hardly. But it does mean that the inspection will continue, if they are making sketches, that means they’re looking for a person.”
In the past, an extremist Russian Orthodox activist name Enteo and his followers has come to the Sakharov Center to heckle people at public seminars, such as on gay rights. At one point last year LGBT activists were forced to remain in the Sakharov Center and call the police for an escort because of threats made to them by this group.
Asked if such a threat was worth taking seriously, Venediktov said it was, especially in light of threats on social media and the murder of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, who was killed only a few hours after giving his last interview, on Ekho Moskvy:
“Any threat should be taken seriously because when people who are mentally unstable, they can constitute a threat as well. We see that Boris did not treat this seriously. To walk out in the evening without a body guard, a man who was hated by certain segments of society who are armed — that of course as to be taken seriously. In fact, he [Nemtsov] was told that. And he would say ‘Oh, but what can I do? You can’t run away from everybody. Literally on the day of his death, literally Ksenya Larina [a journalist at Ekho Moskvy] told him that, and he replied, “Well, what can I do.”
Venediktov said that as far as he knew, Sobchak had not initially herself made a police report about the incident at the funeral, but that police followed up because they saw there were threats against her in social media. (Later she was summoned to give testimony herself.)
A police investigator came to question him in his office, and he also received a summons to appear for interrogation.
“That is part of their professional work, and now it is the professional duty of the MVD to catch the murderer of Boris Nemtsov,” Venediktov added.
Asked why no progress seemed to be made on Nemtsov’s murder investigation, and little information was being released, Venediktov said that experts had told him that if a suspect is not immediately captured hot on the heels, then it can take a long time.
Among the ominous statements to Sobchak that came after Nemtsov’s murder were cynical tweets by Anton Korobkov-Zemlyansky (@korobkov), a pro-Kremlin propagandist and provocateur on social media.
In an interview with Korobkov last year, Global Voices said that such figures should be heeded, especially because they are supposedly an influential voice in Russia and also bring a critique to the United States. Yet increasingly, especially since Nemtsov’s murder, their hate-fest against against the opposition is being taken as something more serious than beneficial social commentary. Korobkov was banned from Twitter by management earlier this year after making a violent threat to a Ukrainian activist.
Korobkov was able to reach a Russian staff person in Twitter to plead his case; he also staged a demonstration in front of the US Embassy in Moscow, and there may have been a consideration of the fact that one of Russia’s wealthiest oligarchs, Alisher Usmanov, has invested in Twitter. Korobokov was reinstated.
Blogger Nina Jobe noticed his comment to Sobchak’s report of the threat at Nemtsov’s funeral:
Translation: FSB agents could drop polonium in her tea. Or nicotine. One drop would be sufficient.
Among those who noticed was the spokesman of the US Embassy:
We also found a number of other menacing tweets from Korobkov, given the fact that Nemtsov was killed on the Bolshoi Moskvoretsky Bridge.
Translation: Ksyush, don’t wait for me on the bridge, I’m stuck in traffic.
Sobchak retorted to a follower who brought the tweet to her attention:
Translation: Listen, if you read the blog of the Internet tapeworm @korobkov voluntarily, why complain? That’s how it should be.
Sobchak has been harassed by more than just tweets, however. Her face is often on the billboards or propaganda videos put out by the government to vilify the “fifth columnists.”
In December 2014, she confronted Putin at his year-end press conference over his tolerance of the order by Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov to burn down the homes of families of terrorists. Putin responded that Kadyrov should get sympathy because his own cousin was killed in a gunfight between police and terrorists who took over the press building in Grozny. Her question led to a lawsuit by the government of Chechnya against Sobchak, although their was ample evidence that Kadyrov’s police had torched the houses.
Sobchak also challenged Putin regarding his tolerance of the
incitement of hatred against Ukrainians on Russia state media, noting
the notorious TV1 broadcast of the “toddler crucifixion” hoax. Later,
TV1 walked back the hoax, but defended their biased coverage of the war in Ukraine.
Soon, Sobchak had people picketing in front of her home, carrying
signs with the cities and dates of terrorist attacks and a poster using
her nickname, “Ksyusha, do you want it to continue?”
Translation: The Kremlinbots harass Ksenya Sobchak.
Sobchak is the daughter of Anatoly Sobchak, mayor of Leningrad, now St. Petersburg, for whom Putin once worked as an aide in the city council. Sobchak died suddenly of a heart attack in 2000 after a meeting with Putin, while campaigning for Putin’s presidential election. This relationship is thought to give Ksenya Sobchak some protection, but it’s not certain how far it extends. Sobchak’s death, which was not investigated until months after he died, coupled with the fact that other people in the city council also suffered heart attacks at the time, has led some to suspect foul play.
— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick