If the track record is anything to go by, Russians may never find out who gunned down liberal activist Boris Nemtsov on a bridge beside the Kremlin last Friday, or why.
Mr. Nemtsov, who served as deputy prime minister under Boris Yeltsin, is by far the highest ranking official to meet such a fate. But he is only the latest of well over a dozen high-profile Russian politicians, human rights activists, and journalists who've been murdered over the last two decades in similarly professional style and almost certainly for political reasons.
And those are just the figures whose deaths made international headlines, such as investigative reporter Anna Politkovskaya and human rights worker Natalya Estimirova, and it doesn't begin to illustrate the breadth of political assassinations in post-Soviet Russia. A compendium of journalists from across Russia's 11 time zones who've been slain in the line of work since 1993, prepared by Russian non-governmental groups, runs to well over 300 names.
Not a single one of those major cases, and very few of the lesser-known ones, has ever been fully solved. Even as tens of thousands of Russians gathered in downtown Moscow Sunday to mourn Nemtsov, the few people who keep track of such things were marking the 20th anniversary of the gangland-style murder of Vladislav Listyev, one of Russia's most celebrated political journalists and chief editor of Russia's public TV network. In terse remarks to reporters, spokesman for the Kremlin's Investigative Committee – the same body charged with hunting down Nemtsov's killers – insisted that Mr. Listyev's case is not closed and "investigative measures are under way to uncover the mastermind of this crime and every accomplice."
Oleg Orlov, chair of Memorial, Russia's largest human rights network, says this dismal record is the main reason most Russians shrug and say they doubt Nemtsov's murderers will ever be found. "Law and order is just on the surface; underneath there is no control. Nemtsov devoted himself to struggling for a law-governed state, but he fell victim to this reality," he says.
The reasons for the failure of Russian justice to get to the bottom of such cases may be complex, but ultimately authorities just don't want to discover the truth, says human rights lawyer Sergei Davidis, a member of the board of Solidarity, an opposition movement.
"Some murders might involve some measure of official complicity. I don't mean to suggest that Putin ordered Nemtsov's death, or anything like that, but the fact that it happened right under the Kremlin wall indicates a high degree of confidence on the part of killers that they wouldn't get caught in that place," he says. "Even if some connection to power isn't present in the crime, investigators will fear that it may be and not want to risk the consequences of uncovering it. In short, that's why we get investigations that consist mainly of foot-dragging and window dressing."
The demonstration effect of Nemtsov's murder is hard to miss. The photos of his dead body, beamed around the world, all showed the iconic spires of Red Square's St. Basil's Cathedral as the backdrop. And he was shot on a newly-minted holiday ordered by Putin to honor Russia's Special Forces. Experts say that bears similar earmarks to the 2006 slaying of Ms. Politkovskaya, who was gunned down in the lobby of her apartment building on Putin's birthday.
"It was clearly a political murder and a provocation. It's just hard to discern who may have done it and what they were trying to provoke," says Nikolai Petrov, a professor at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow. "We should watch what follows from this very carefully, and especially the reactions of the Kremlin."
Echoes of Stalinist murder
Some observers are likening it to the 1934 assassination of Sergei Kirov, a highly capable and charming Communist apparatchik who was the chief rival to Soviet leader Joseph Stalin. The full truth may never be known, but it seems likely that Stalin's secret police covertly orchestrated the killing, which was blamed on the opposition and used as a pretext for a wave of murderous purges that wiped all traces of dissent. There's a chilling hint of that possibility in a weekend statement from the Investigative Committee, noting that one theory they're looking into is that the anti-Kremlin opposition may have "sacrificed" Nemtsov to create a liberal martyr.
"Important events can follow murders like this. I think that with Borya's [Nemtsov] death some awful process has begun," says Leonid Gozman, chair of the Union of Right Forces, an opposition movement started by liberal tycoon Mikhail Prokhorov. "We are heading toward catastrophe."
But others argue Nemtsov's slaying will simply join the already swollen list of unsolved murders that briefly roiled Russia's political waters, and then were largely forgotten.
"It's good that huge numbers of people turned out to honor Nemtsov on Sunday, and declare that such things are unacceptable. It shows that Russian society has a normal soul," says Alexei Mukhin, director of the independent Center for Political Information in Moscow. "But these things have always blown over in the past. I give it a week, tops, and everything will go back to usual."