Who was Boris Nemtsov and why was he murdered?

Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov was fatally gunned down in Moscow Friday. A look at some of the leading theories by a Russia expert who knew Nemtsov. 

(AP Photo/Dmitry Lovetsky)
People light candles in memory of Boris Nemtsov, seen behind, at the monument of political prisoners 'Solovetsky Stone' in central St.Petersburg, Russia, Saturday, Feb. 28, 2015. Nemtsov was gunned down Saturday near the Kremlin, just a day before a planned protest against the government.

The gunning-down of Russian opposition leader Boris Y. Nemtsov has some pundits consumed with the whodunit.

But one expert on Russian politics, who knew the victim professionally, says any theory that doesn’t begin and end with Russian President Vladimir Putin doesn’t hold water.

Author and Russia political expert Amy Knight says in interview that she barely slept Friday night after hearing of the death of Mr. Nemtsov, whose work she has edited for American publication and has worked with via telephone.  

“The biggest theory which dumbfounded me is the notion that Nemtsov’s own party ordered his murder because that’s just absolutely ridiculous and I can’t even believe it’s being dignified,” Knight says. "This was a man with whom I have spoken many times over the phone. He is someone I respect for his courage, his keen observations about Vladimir Putin and his rigorous attention to detail and research.”

Ms. Knight has a PhD degree in Russian politics at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). She worked for 18 years at the U.S. Library of Congress as a Soviet/Russian affairs specialist. In 1993-94, she was a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. Her books include “Who Killed Kirov” and “Spies Without Cloaks.”

Knight addressed the theories presented in the media and by the Kremlin about who killed Nemtsov and why.

Nemtsov, 55, was a former first deputy prime minister and a leader of the Russian political opposition. The Investigative Committee of the Prosecutor General’s Office said in a statement, according to The New York Times, that Nemtsov's murder may have been intended to build support for a government opposition rally scheduled for March 1.

“The investigation is considering several versions,” the statement said.

The first on the list in that statement was “a murder as a provocation to destabilize the political situation in the country, where the figure of Nemtsov could have become a sort of sacrificial victim for those who stop at nothing to achieve their political goals.”

The committee also suggested that Islamic extremists had killed Nemtsov in response to his views on the Charlie Hebdo shootings in Paris. And the committee floated the theory that his murder may be connected to the Ukraine conflict, where Russia-backed separatists have been fighting Ukrainian forces since last April. Nemtsov had said he had evidence that proved Russia's direct involvement in the separatist rebellion, reported The Associated Press.

“As usual, the wild speculation isn’t surprising from one end to the other. The Kremlin has its propaganda machine cranked all the way up for this one –  tossing out everything it can think of in hopes the media will latch on,” Knight says. “Think about this for a moment. If you are someone who opposes Putin right now and you see a high-profile leader shot in the street, you are going to be afraid. I believe that’s a far more credible motive than to say it was his own party or a foreign faction, etc.”

Knight refers back to the political assassination of Galina Starovoitova in St. Petersburg in 1998 as a frame of reference for Nemtsov’s slaying.

“Starovoitova was gunned down in the lobby of her apartment building, shot three times in the head,” says Knight. “It was typical of Russian contract killings. This murder is more in line with that kind of action.”

Starovoitova was an outspoken member of the Russian Parliament and had declared candidate for governor of the region around St. Petersburg at the time of her death.

“A lot of people think Vladimir Putin is behind it [Nemstov’s slaying] but many also make the argument that Putin couldn’t or wouldn’t have ordered the murder because he [Putin] is currently so popular – his [poll] numbers in the 80s – so he had nothing to gain from the murder,” Knight says. “Those people don’t know Putin.”

Knight argues that Mr. Putin’s ego and perception of being personally insulted are what drives the Russian president and not political logic.

“President Putin, as evidenced in his handling of recent issues in the Ukraine, is not making a rational response but acting more out of a sense of personal offense and, in the case of the Ukraine, a sense of inferiority to the U.S,” Knight explains.

She adds that Nemtsov had a way of tweaking the nose of the Russian President in his YouTube videos, which Knight says is a sure way to draw fire, literally, in Russia.

Knight points to one video in which the very fit Nemtsov is working out while ridiculing Putin’s diminuative size. “He was a big, handsome man, Boris Nemtsov and in that particular video he is working out and talking about how Russian dictators like Ivan the Terrible, Lenin, Stalin and Putin all have small physical stature in common.”

In another video, published on YouTube the day before his murder, Knight points out that Nemtsov took Putin to task on issues citing numerous, well researched examples to chip away at the presidential image.

“I don’t think it’s a coincidence that he was murdered the day after that video posted, the day before the rally,” Knight says. “Boris Nemtsov was just so astute in his observations, always finding out all of the shenanigans Putin was up to and made fun of Putin. Yes, he [Nemtsov] was in great danger.”

Asked if the truth about who murdered her colleague will be known, Knight is pessimistic: "I don't believe the truth about who ordered the murder will come out until after Vladimir Putin is out of power. There may be some scapegoats dragged forward to take the blame, but the truth will not come out."

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