Even before Boris Nemtsov was murdered in the middle of Moscow one year ago, Russia was no stranger to shocking assassinations.

A friend of mine once confessed that he smiled less often after the murder in 1998 of Galina Starovoitova, one of the best-loved liberal politicians of the Boris Yeltsin era. Bookstores in Europe and the United States have shelves heavy with books by or about Anna Politkovskaya, the investigative journalist killed in the entrance hall to her apartment building in 2006.

But those two murders have not lingered in the country’s mass consciousness. They are forgotten by most Russians and have not changed the way the nation thinks about itself.

The murder of Nemtsov on February 27, 2015, did not jolt Russia into a change of direction. It was no “inflection point,” as many predicted in the days after Nemtsov’s death. But it did effect one big change: it opened wide a schism in Russian society, which was supposed to be strongly united.

After Nemtsov was killed on the bridge near the Kremlin, the part of the public that constitutes Russia’s genuine “civil society” split away from the state. Its members did not protest loudly, they just fell silent. It was a silence similar to that of the man in the old Soviet-era joke, who defiantly scatters leaflets on Red Square. When the police pick up the leaflets they find he’d left them completely blank because what he wanted to say was so obvious.

It was in this spirit that the big public march commemorating Nemtsov was held in deliberate silence.

Russia’s leaders have lost their export market in a whole series of commodities, but they have made up for it by selling threats instead. On the domestic market, one of the cheapest and most widely available brands for sale is the idea of a “fifth column” of traitors seeking to undermine Russia from within. The famously pro-Western Nemtsov was part of that brand. Some especially zealous clients bought it and he was killed.

A year on, the trail of the investigation into the killing has become a thicket, while the language of Chechen president Ramzan Kadyrov, who personifies the hatred of the “fifth column” and of Nemtsov has grown even more ferocious. We are back in the era of Stalin, when war was declared on “cosmopolitans” and “enemies of the people.” What’s worse—the televised meeting between President Vladimir Putin and Kadyrov meant that the Chechen leader’s hateful language received the blessing of presidential legitimacy.

The beginning of this new schism in Russia can be dated back two years—to March 18, 2014, and Russia’s takeover of Crimea. At that moment, the nation divided into patriots and traitors. But you could also say that the split began earlier, when the government passed a package of restrictive and repressive legislation, including laws expanding the powers of intelligence agencies, banning adoptions by foreigners, and restricting the rights of foreign organizations. Or perhaps we could name the fall of 2003, when oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky was arrested and pro-democratic parties were defeated in parliamentary elections.
What is certain is that the process peaked with the Crimean takeover and ended with the killing of Nemtsov one year ago.

How long will this particular authoritarian Russian era last?

The majority of the society, which supports the current political order, is well consolidated. The minority, which adheres to democratic values, is even more alienated and has no representatives in public politics or protectors in the mainstream media. This state of affairs allows the authorities to continue to freely market the notional threats posed to Russia by Barack Obama, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, or former prime minister Mikhail Kasyanov. This can continue at least until the next presidential election of 2018.

But the longer this process lasts, the bigger the requirement of the authorities to defend themselves against imaginary threats and therefore to double down on repressive measures to combat them. This is even more likely in the probable scenario that by 2018 many Russians will have grown tired of the diet that the television is feeding them and become more disappointed by the lack of proper food in their fridges.

It is quite possible that both the society and the ruling elite would prefer an “inertia scenario” in which nothing much changes. But the societal dynamics that have governed Russia since the murder of Nemtsov make that impossible.

History does not have a subjunctive tense, but it does present us with alternative courses of action. Few in the younger generation know this, but in the 1990s Boris Nemtsov represented just such an alternative for Russia. He was one of the few men to make a success of public office in the exceptionally difficult times that followed the collapse of socialism—first as governor of Nizhny Novgorod and then as deputy prime minister. He was popular and Boris Yeltsin considered him as a possible successor.

But history has followed a different path, with a different set of leaders. Under a different set of circumstances, the man who was shot on the bridge near Red Square a year ago could have been president of Russia. Yes, in Russia these historical forks in the road tend to be too strongly associated with personalities—but that is the kind of country Russia continues to be.

  • Andrei Kolesnikov