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They've Done It Again: Killings Cast Pall Over Post-Soviet Russia


"They" have done it again -- and a "normal" Russia may be farther away than ever.
"They" have done it again -- and a "normal" Russia may be farther away than ever.

Editor's Note: We are rerunning this article, originally published on March 1, 2015, in recognition of the fourth anniversary of the assassination of Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov on February 27, 2015.

In the early morning of March 2, 1995, I headed home after a long day at the UPI bureau in Moscow and told my sleepy wife the stunning news: "They killed Listyev."

Almost exactly 20 years later, former U.S. Ambassador Michael McFaul posted this short sentence on Facebook: "I am in total shock that they killed my friend, Boris Nemtsov."

The third-person plural: They.

An AP photographer used it on October 7, 2006 -- President Vladimir Putin's birthday -- when we were reporting on a basketball match in Moscow between the former Soviet Army squad and an American NBA team, and he was urgently called away to cover an entirely different story: "They killed Politkovskaya."

ALSO READ: 'We Must Free Russia From Putin' -- RFE/RL's Last Interview With Nemtsov

TV host and executive Vlad Listyev, investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya, and opposition leader Nemtsov were shot dead in Moscow, within a few kilometers of the Kremlin -- and yet the Russian authorities have not established ultimate responsibility for any of the three killings.

But it's clear who "they" are: The bad guys. The people who do what Putin often accuses the West, and particularly the United States, of trying its hardest to do: hold Russia back. Contain it. Prevent it from developing into what dozens of the Russians I met before and after the Soviet collapse of 1991 desperately wanted it to become: a normal country.

In different ways, Listyev, Politkovskaya, and Nemtsov each played a part in efforts to achieve that goal. Nemtsov's killing showed it may be more distant than ever.

The magnetic, mustachioed host of a Russian copy of the U.S. game show Wheel of Fortune, Listyev was the genial face of at least one version of normalcy -- a place where you could forget about politics and dream of getting rich quick, or just watch TV without being force-fed ideology.

Listyev, 38, was shot dead in his apartment building on the evening of March 1, 1995. Nobody has been tried for his killing, which many believe was motivated by a struggle for the enormous advertising revenue or the colossal political influence of state-run ORT television -- or both.

Politkovskaya, 48, was a dogged reporter and dedicated rights defender who exposed corruption in the government and appalling abuses in Chechnya, where Putin -- as he does today -- relied on the oppressive tactics of strongman Ramzan Kadyrov to keep Russia's most unruly region in check.

She, too, was gunned down in her apartment building -- a popular site for attacks of all kinds, from beatings to shootings, on government critics and probing journalists across Russia, from the capital to the provinces, for the past quarter-century.

After two trials, five defendants including the alleged triggerman were convicted of Politkovskaya's murder. But her children, lawyers, human rights activists, and Western governments say justice will not be done until the person who had her killed is identified, tried, and convicted -- something many fear will never happen because, they suspect, the trail of a true investigation would lead too close to the Kremlin.

Similar suspicions were swiftly voiced after Nemtsov's killing. They were immediately deflected by Putin, his spokesman, and federal investigators whose long list of possible culprits -- from Islamist extremists and government opponents to business or personal rivals -- pointed in every direction other than at the Kremlin, looming a few dozen meters from the body bag on Bolshoi Moskvoretsky Bridge.

Two days after his death, at 55, nobody knows whether Nemtsov's killers will be tried.

What is clear is this: "They" are at it again.

Listyev, Politkovskaya, and Nemtsov are only three names on the long list of prominent Russians whose killings have become milestones on the country's troubled post-Soviet path.

Each killing belongs to its own era: Listyev's to the ruthless competition for money and power in the 1990s, Politkovskaya's to a period when Putin was striving to strengthen his grip on the country and the North Caucasus in his second term.

Nemtsov, his allies say, was the victim of a hysterical atmosphere of hate they charge Putin with whipping up as he dragged his country into conflict in Ukraine and confrontation with the West.

But one thing the three killings have had in common was a stunned sense, among many people living and working in Russia, that it was the last straw -- that things could not get any worse.

And each murder has shown that they can.

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    Steve Gutterman

    Steve Gutterman is the editor of the Russia/Ukraine/Belarus Desk in RFE/RL's Central Newsroom in Prague and the author of The Week In Russia newsletter. He lived and worked in Russia and the former Soviet Union for nearly 20 years between 1989 and 2014, including postings in Moscow with the AP and Reuters. He has also reported from Afghanistan and Pakistan as well as other parts of Asia, Europe, and the United States.

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