The assassination of Boris Nemtsov shows that in Putin's Russia, anything is permitted

The west can do very little to intervene as Putin hunkers down.

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In Crime and Punishment, Dostoevsky explores a concept that doesn’t translate easily into English. In Russian, it is vsedozvolennost. Dictionaries usually give “permissiveness” but that isn’t quite right. Literally, it means “everything-is-permitted-ness”, closer to “impunity” but on a global scale. It is a word perfectly suited to describing Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

This is a world in which a man such as Boris Nemtsov, an opposition politician armed only with opinions, can be gunned down and the investigation into his death be overseen by his fiercest political rival – the president. It is a world in which Andrei Lugovoi, the suspected killer of Alexander Litvinenko, sits as a member of the Russian Duma while a London courtroom is shown compelling evidence of his guilt.

Political murders did not start under Putin. There were many under Boris Yeltsin. But it was Putin who approved laws authorising the security services to eliminate “extremists” anywhere in the world and who defined “extremist” as anyone who defamed the Russian authorities.

Russia has decayed into such a morass of illegality and corruption under Putin that I found myself longing, during the huge memorial rally in central Moscow on 1 March, for the mourners to rise up and descend on the Kremlin – just a hundred metres from the murder scene – to kick out the clique that has brought the country to its knees. It is an idle dream. Russian history tells us that change, when it comes, is more likely to originate from within the Kremlin than on the streets. The reformers – Khrushchev, Yeltsin, Gorbachev – were all produced by the system that they set about dismantling once they gained power.

All the more poignant, then, to remember that there was a time when it was far more likely that Nemtsov, not Putin, would become Boris Yeltsin’s successor. In 1997 Yeltsin appointed Nemtsov as deputy prime minister, with a brief, as Nemtsov told me that summer, to root out government corruption and break up state monopolies. For a while, he was the country’s most popular politician but he lost his job in the wake of Russia’s 1998 financial crisis – just at the moment when his rival, Putin, was cementing his own position as the head of the FSB secret police.

This was the point at which Russia’s westernisers were outmanoeuvred by the statists, those who hankered after Russia’s “glorious” past. It was Putin whom Yeltsin appointed as prime minister in 1999, shortly before handing him the presidency. Nemtsov wasn’t strong enough to stay afloat but his instincts were right. He opposed the war in Chechnya, as he did the illegal annexation of Crimea, and campaigned ceaselessly against the corruption of the Putin kleptocracy. Now Russian TV sheds crocodile tears over the death of a man it had banned from the screens, and attempts to blame western secret services, Muslim extremists, Ukraine, the family of Nemtsov’s girlfriend – anyone but the Kremlin.

The plain fact is that Putin has been in power for too long. However popular he may once have been, in any normal democracy he would have been replaced long ago. Russia is ossified, as it was under Leonid Brezhnev. There is no innovation, the economy stagnates, the opposition is hounded and foreign threats are exaggerated to create a sense of danger: the only atmosphere in which Putin can survive.

In some ways, it is worse than under Brezhnev. Putin does not control the country as the Communist Party did. Rather, he has set processes in motion that have taken on a life of their own. It seems unlikely that Putin personally ordered Nemtsov’s murder but he did create the atmosphere of hate in which any dissident is branded a traitor and any “patriot” feels empowered to kill. Anything is permitted.

The west can do very little. The Soviet Union collapsed not because of western interventions but because of internal contradictions and the emergence of a reforming leader – Gorbachev – who undermined the system from within. The west’s posturing (informed, as a recent House of Lords report showed, by a lamentably poor understanding of Russia) only makes things worse. Putin hunkers down, bolstered by a siege mentality.

There are potential successors, democrats, waiting in the wings but probably the last thing they need is western “promotion”. It is worth remembering, too, that Gorbachev, the west’s one-time darling, is today reviled in Russia. “Our” choice is not always Russia’s choice.

Angus Roxburgh is a former BBC Moscow correspondent

This article appears in the 06 March 2015 issue of the New Statesman, How Islamic is Islamic State?