If Boris Nemtsov, the Russian statesman and activist killed in Moscow last week, had been a character in a political thriller—and he certainly had the looks and charisma for the part—the script might have been criticized as lacking subtlety. There is the opposition leader gunned down on the eve of a major protest march, shortly after an interview that foreshadows his murder. There is his nemesis, the authoritarian strongman whose foes often turn up dead, vowing to personally oversee the investigation.
In the new Russia, political murder is old hat. Even before Vladimir Putin’s rise to power, member of parliament Galina Starovoitova, a leading pro-democracy voice, was shot dead in 1998 in an apparent hit ordered by a fellow MP with ties to organized crime. Notable Putin-era victims include journalist Anna Politkovskaya and human rights lawyer Stanislav Markelov. Yet even with this grim history, Nemtsov’s murder was shocking—both because of his stature and because of the brazenness of an assassination on the doorstep of the Kremlin.
The details of the murder remain murky, almost certainly as a result in part of deliberate disinformation. Nonetheless, Nemtsov’s allies are pointing to the Kremlin as directly or indirectly responsible. Putin himself has called the murder a “provocation,” and his defenders argue that he is far more likely to be hurt than helped by Nemtsov’s death. In fact, circumstantial evidence of government involvement—with or without Putin’s actual approval—is compelling. But those who seek to exonerate Putin of this crime may ultimately be right about its outcome.
Nemtsov, 55 at the time of his murder, was by all accounts a remarkable man, one who could have been a brilliant physicist if he had not traded science for politics. Raised in the provincial city of Gorky in the Soviet Union’s twilight years, he became politically active in the late 1980s, Russia’s genuine era of hope and change. In 1990, he was elected to the Supreme Soviet of the Russian Federation; during the hardliners’ coup in August 1991, he grew close to Boris Yeltsin, leading to his appointment that November as administrative chief of the Nizhny Novgorod region (Gorky in Soviet days). Later he won a popular election for governor, leaving that post in 1997 to join the Yeltsin government.
At the time, the young, dynamic, charming Nemtsov was touted as an heir apparent to Yeltsin; a 1997 poll found him leading potential presidential candidates with nearly 30 percent support. That plummeted to 1 percent after the economic collapse of 1998, which shattered Russians’ faith in the pro-Western course Nemtsov championed. When Yeltsin sacked the government in the wake of the crash, he asked Nemtsov to stay; Nemtsov chose to resign and return to independent politics.
Always his own man, Nemtsov was willing to defy his mentor on such issues as the war in Chechnya, against which he led a petition drive in 1996. Still, like many Russian liberals, he staked his hopes on a powerful pro-market, pro-freedom president rather than a system of checks and balances. That was a fatal error: The executive powers created for Yeltsin enabled Putin’s authoritarian restoration. Early on, Nemtsov hailed Putin himself as the new “good czar,” endorsing him as Yeltsin’s successor and even coauthoring a January 2000 New York Times op-ed that defended Putin as “Russia’s best bet.”
Sincere or tactical, these sympathies were short-lived, and Nemtsov soon found himself in increasingly vocal—and futile—opposition. His attempts to get elected to Russia’s parliament, the Duma, were stymied both by lack of popularity and by changes in election laws intended to hobble independent parties. He persisted, working to unify opposition groups and publishing several acclaimed reports that scathingly analyzed Putin’s policies and claimed to document his illegal wealth. In late 2011 and early 2012, the revival of protests after the announcement of Putin’s return to the presidency propelled Nemtsov to the front rows of vast crowds; it also earned him several arrests and stints in jail, including a day in a barely lit solitary holding cell with no bunk or chair.
On a frigid, windy night in Washington, a couple hundred people trekked to the Newseum for a vigil for the murdered French journalists from the Parisian weekly Charlie Hebdo, the police that died trying to protect them, and those that were wounded.
Outgoing Maryland governor Martin O'Malley is commuting the sentences of the state's four remaining inmates on death row. In 2012, Maryland abolished the death penalty, but the law did not apply to those already sentenced for execution. O'Malley, a Democrat, said in an official statement that executions of convicted murderers "make every citizen a party to a legalized killing as punishment."
Last week the world of comic books reeled from two bits of sensational news. First, it was -revealed that Archie Andrews, hero of the classic Archie comics, was dead. Or rather, “dead,” as they put it in industry parlance, because only the Archie of one of the Archie books, Life with Archie, had bought the farm. (The Archie of the long-running flagship book, Archie, lives on.) What made Archie’s demise so notable was the manner in which he was dispatched. He was assassinated. Gunned down while valiantly saving the life of his friend. Who’s a war hero.
By most accounts, Kermit Gosnell seemed stunned last week when a jury found him guilty of three counts of first-degree murder in what seemed to have been his routine killings of newborn babies at his abortion clinic in Philadelphia; he thought he was doing his job. Abortion is legal and is a much-touted right. The president recently lavished praise on Planned Parenthood, a lobbyist for which had testified to Florida legislators in March that an infant born alive in the course of an abortion might be left to die anyhow.
President Obama was asked about the Kermit Gosnell trial in an interview that aired this morning:
"Have you been watching the Gosnell trial? It's a Philadelphia abortion doctor accused of gruesome crimes. Are you following it, and do you think it animates a larger debate about abortion in this country?"
CNN now reports that an 8-year-old child was killed in today's Boston marathon bombings:
"We're now being told, as bad as the situation is, according to ... one of the local stations in Boston, one of the two people killed was an 8-year-old child," said CNN's Wolf Blitzer. "We don't know if it was a boy or girl, but an 8-year-old child killed in this terror attack near the finish line in Boston, at the Boston marathon."