Scoundrel Time

Because They Could: How We Are Not Russia


On February 27, 2015, a stone’s throw away from the ominous fishbone of the Kremlin’s Spasskaya Tower, they killed the charismatic and universally beloved leader of the Russian political opposition, the former Russian First Deputy Prime Minister, Boris Nemtsov, with four bullets to the back. Effortlessly friendly and quick with a smile, altogether brilliant (one of the country’s most talented young physicists, in another lifetime), Nemtsov was the very soul of the country’s opposition movement. They killed him because they hated and feared and envied him, to be sure, but mainly they did it just because they could.

Who were they? We know who carried out the assassination: people who had arrived to Moscow from the autonomous republic of Chechnya, with indirect connections to the ruler of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov. We do not know for certain who ordered it. It did not have to be Vladimir Putin. It did not have to be Ramzan Kadyrov. We do not know if it was them, directly. But it was, nonetheless, the universal, eternal, timeless Russian them.

They could, and they did.

“We have a lot of killers, got a lot of killers. You think our country’s so innocent?” Donald Trump shot back at Bill O’Reilly in a FOX News interview that aired before the Super Bowl. O’Reilly, at a loss for words, spread his arms in a helpless gesture.

Before they killed Nemtsov, they—the same faceless themkilled, in a similar matter-of-fact fashion, in an equally quiet and cowardly manner, a large number of other disagreeable individuals of public renown: independent journalists, human rights activists, members of the political opposition, and other such excessively eager truth-seekers. Anna Politkovskaya, Sergey Magnitsky, Aleksandr Litvinenko, Sergey Yushenkov, Yuri Shchekochikhin, Paul Klebnikov, Natalya Estemirova, Mikhail Beketov, Nikolai Girenko, Valentin Tsvetkov, Stanislav Markelov and Anastasiya Baburova—those would only be the most notable names of those they killed. They killed them because they were angry with them, of course—but, again, first and foremost, they killed them because they could. They could, and so they did. They could—and they still can, and even more so than before.

Is this the Russia Trump loves?

“You think our country’s so innocent?”

Them. The names are not important. They are them: those in or close to power, convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt that their lives are infinitely more important than ours or anyone else’s; those willing to do anything to anyone standing in the way, however obliquely, of their constant self-enrichment. They are them, and they are there. Our country—the one led (if not quite represented) by Donald Trump at this point in history—certainly is not “so innocent,” but they, those them, cannot do anything they want to whomever they want here. That is still the crucial difference between here and there.

Memory takes me a good thirty-plus years back, to the old USSR. In addition to being an unsuccessful applicant for an exit visa to the US and a former engineer-cum-security guard at the Leningrad Central Park of Culture and Leisure (charged with guarding the city’s only roller-coaster, or “American Hills,” in Russian), I was then a member of the Leningrad underground samizdat literary community. They—essentially the same timeless themwere in the full bloom of their supreme power in the country. They were personified on two particular separate (and equally insignificant) occasions by two identical sets of faceless hulking hoodlums freelancing for the Leningrad KGB, who quickly and expertly and dispassionately beat the old crap out of immaterial little me in front of my apartment building late at night, aiming half-heartedly for my vital internal organs so as not to leave visible marks on my face or on my body, apparently, for being disrespectful and irreverent and too cute by half, when I politely (I’d thought) turned down their routine “offer” to cooperate with them by informing on my fellow samizdat writers. They had me pummeled for the same simple reason: because they could.

They wanted to punish me for my reckless insolence, and so they did. “Next time we’re gonna fucking kill you,” one of those massive faceless gentlemen with broken noses, former boxers gone to seed, said nonchalantly in a flat nasal voice over his shoulder after the second of those beatings, as the two of them walked away unhurriedly from my crumpled little form, prone on the ground. They laughed good-naturedly, understandably pleased with themselves, because their effortless, quick work on me was done, and they had more cases just like mine waiting for them on a constant basis. Life was smiling on them.

But I didn’t get killed next time. Much to my surprise and understandable relief, there was no next time. They didn’t kill me: I just wasn’t worth it, in their estimate—a lightweight, a total nobody. Had I, on the other hand, been somebody perceived by them as someone even a little peskier, more bothersome and somehow, tangentially, threatening to their clear designs on life—well… Mind you, they didn’t decide not to have me killed because, all of a sudden, they took pity on me. That would indeed be a laughable assumption. They could have me killed with the batting of an eyelash, but to them I wasn’t worth the effort of batting an eyelash.

Boris Nemtsov, however, was an entirely different matter, thirty-plus years later, two years ago. He did represent an existential threat to the eternal, timeless them. He made them feel bad about themselves, and he significantly complicated the process of their constant self-enrichment. So they had him killed. They could always do anything to anyone there. They still can. And everyone there has always known as much: that one is always living on borrowed time and in occupied territory. “They can do anything to anyone there.” I keep repeating this so as not to forget that simple mind-boggling truth. There is no hiding from them anywhere, while one is still within their reach.

Two years ago, they killed one of Russia’s best and brightest, noblest and most fearless people. They did it because they could. They could—and they did.