Conspiracy TV

Nobody in Russia Is Buying Putin’s Nemtsov Lie

As conspiracy theories abound in Russian media about the death of Kremlin protester Boris Nemtsov, the most popular theory—that Vladimir Putin had a hand in his death—is seemingly not allowed. But almost nobody in Russia is biting.

Maxim Shemetov/Reuters

When Kremlin critic Boris Nemtsov was gunned down in Moscow on February 27, he was two days away from appearing on one of Russia’s state-controlled television networks the only way he could: as the target of a hit piece against the opposition. NTV, which specializes in especially crude and sleazy propaganda smears, was set to broadcast a prime-time “investigative report” titled “The Anatomy of Protest 3.”

The first two specials, shown in 2012, used blurry hidden-camera video, dubious audio and voice-overs, and spliced footage to paint that year’s mass protests as orchestrated by paid agents of anti-Russian foreign interests.

“The Anatomy of Protest 3” was scheduled for Sunday, March 1—not coincidentally, the day Nemtsov was to lead a rally billed as the start of a springtime revival.

The promo on NTV’s website offered a taste of the latest installment, starring Nemtsov, exiled ex-tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, and anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny: “How is the ‘Russian Maidan’ being prepared? Why do our revolutionaries make trips to Switzerland? What are they learning from their instructors in Kiev, and why do they meet with foreign diplomats in strictest secrecy?”

Then came the news of Nemtsov’s shocking murder, a mere hundred yards away from the Kremlin.

Hours later, the promo was pulled from NTV’s site and the program itself vanished from the TV lineup. As the official media scrambled for damage control, Nemtsov, the reviled “fifth columnist,” received a quick posthumous makeover as “the good dissident”—the better to spin his tragic death as the likely work of Russia’s enemies.

This week, amid growing doubts about the official story of Chechen killers seeking revenge for alleged insults to Islam, Russian TV punditry seems to be doubling down on speculation that Nemtsov’s murder was masterminded by the West or by its proxies in Ukraine.

Early on, the March 1 weekly news wrap-up on the Rossiya-1 channel offered the perfect blend of panegyrics and paranoia; it was delivered by anchor Dmitry Kiselev, known for theatrical anti-Western diatribes including an infamous on-air boast that Russia could turn the United States into “radioactive ash.” This time, Kiselev waxed downright poetic in his eulogy, against a backdrop of flattering photos of Nemtsov.

“A man of winning charm … charismatic, energetic, straightforward. An artistic orator with a sharp tongue. A real guy (muzhik) who loved extreme sports such as ocean surfing. Never implicated in corruption scandals, even though he lost his way in life,” he said. “Boris will be missed, like a spice which, even in a small dose, makes everything more flavorful.”

But that was a mere prelude to an indictment of the West for using Nemtsov’s murder to “demonize Russia and its leader”—and probably engineering it in the first place.

The mediagenic Nemtsov, Kiselev explained, was far more useful to the West as a dead martyr than a live activist—he was far too insignificant to pose a threat to Putin, and the protest he was going to lead had “fizzled out before it even started.”

(“Fizzled out,” in this case, is code for “was denied a permit downtown and banished to the boondocks.”)

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On the other hand, said Kiselev, a dead opposition leader and “blood on the bridge by the Kremlin in the night light of the ruby stars” makes for a compelling image: “Blood, red stars, Nemtsov, bullets—those are the associations they want.”

Evening with Vladimir Solovyov, а popular weekly political talk show on the Rossiya-1 channel, devoted a total of six hours to Nemtsov, his murder, and its fallout in the first two days after the killing: two specials on February 28, in the afternoon and the evening, and a regular Sunday night edition on March 1.

Solovyov, a blunt-talking journalist but also an unabashed Putin partisan, opened the first program by averring that he and Nemtsov had once been close friends and had remained cordial despite political differences. He hailed the slain activist as a “straightforward, courageous, cheerful man” who “did a great deal for the country.” High praise for Nemtsov was echoed by numerous guests—not just token dissidents such as former Nemtsov aide Boris Nadezhdin and human rights attorney Henry Resnick, but Kremlin “patriots” of various stripes.

Alexander Rutskoy, formerly Boris Yeltsin’s vice president who had drifted into the communist/nationalist camp after falling out with his boss, also claimed Nemtsov as a longtime friend. He spoke of him as a bright, talented, honorable public servant, even lamenting that such people were too often “tossed overboard” by the government and driven into opposition.

Mostly, though, Solovyov and his guests had come not to praise Nemtsov but to discuss who could have killed him and why.

And they wanted to stress, repeatedly, that if there was anyone with no reason to kill Boris Nemtsov, it was Vladimir Putin and the Russian government.

Motives stemming from a personal dispute were quickly dismissed as implausible given the time and place of the murder. The token dissenters tried to argue that Russia’s current climate of hate toward the liberal opposition could have goaded a radical nationalist to strike at Nemtsov; Resnick was especially outspoken, openly blaming this climate on Putin and his talk of “national traitors.”

But such heresies, usually neutralized by a snappy comeback from Solovyov, had little impact on the overall conversation. For most of the panelists, the only question was whether the “political provocation” of Nemtsov’s murder was the work of the SBU, Ukraine’s federal security service, or of their CIA masters.

“A staged murder,” declared defense analyst Igor Korotchenko, comparing Nemtsov to “the Malaysian Boeing”—Flight MH-17, which, in the virtual reality of Russian TV, was shot down by Ukrainian forces to frame the pro-Russian insurgency and the Kremlin. Former Duma speaker Gennady Seleznyov (erstwhile patron to creepy neo-fascist guru Alexander Dugin, who began his political career as Seleznyov’s adviser in 1998) agreed.

“It was the same special services that organized the Maidan,” he said.

On March 1, Solovyov’s lineup featured a guest whose presence could be seen as a masterstroke of only-in-Russia black humor: Duma member Andrei Lugovoi, former KGB operative and prime suspect in another high-profile death of a Putin critic—Alexander Litvinenko, the ex-KGB defector poisoned with polonium in London in 2006. (А week after his appearance on the show, Lugovoi received a medal of honor from Putin for “services to the fatherland.”)

Naturally, Lugovoi blamed the Nemtsov murder on “special services,” confidently stating that it must have been planned a year ago—around the start of the revolution in Ukraine.

“Why are we so afraid of conspiracy theories?” Lugovoi asked at one point. Whom he meant by “we” wasn’t entirely clear, since nearly everyone in the studio—except for the evening’s token voice of dissent, moderate opposition activist Dmitry Nekrasov—seemed to embrace such theories with gusto. In the oddest twist, one panelist, political analyst Evgeny Satanovsky, claimed that the Nemtsov murder “bears the handwriting” of Khodorkovsky and his team—and that U.S. ambassador John F. Tefft might be next.

There was still plenty of love for Nemtsov, as well as unanimous praise for the march honoring him earlier that day—or rather, for a virtual-reality version of that march. At the actual event, anger at the Kremlin was as prominent as grief, and one of the most common signs was, “Fight on”; at the Solovyov version, Muscovites had come to mourn a slain public figure with no regard for politics and with mostly apolitical slogans. Nemtsov himself was piously credited with helping thwart evil designs to turn the march into “a radical extremist event” or even “the start of a Russian Maidan,” by virtue of his personal charm and nobility (“the looks of a Don Juan and the soul of a Don Quixote,” gushed one pundit) and his non-radical style (“He fought but only by legal means, with no excesses,” noted federal senator Yevgeny Tarlo).

One would never know from these plaudits to the virtual Nemtsov that the real one had been repeatedly arrested at protests and had been an ardent supporter of Ukraine’s Maidan revolution.

It was much the same on the other major national channel, TV-1. On February 28, a special edition of the political show Time Will Tell began with a moment of silence to honor Nemtsov, at the suggestion of host Petr Tolstoy. Nemtsov was roundly praised as a man of courage and conviction, whether or not one agreed with his beliefs—beliefs for which, Tolstoy was careful to note, “no one persecuted him.”

There was, of course, no mention of the time Nemtsov’s apartment was raided on the eve of a protest march, or the time he was jailed for 15 days after an arrest at another protest. Or the time his illegally recorded phone conversations were leaked to a pro-government “news” site. Or the many times he was physically harassed by Kremlin-nurtured “youth activists.”

On March 1, TV-1 offered its own sanitized version of the march in Nemtsov’s memory. Plenty of flowers and Russian flags were visible—but no placards or slogans, other than the giant banner that read, “Heroes don’t die” and “These bullets were aimed at all of us.” Of the three people interviewed for the brief segment, two emphasized that they were not Nemtsov supporters. One said he had not planned to go to the original protest rally but had joined the march because “people die and that’s regardless of Nemtsov or Ukraine.” Another curtly explained that he had come to “pay my respects to a murdered politician, even though, to be honest, he was no political idol of mine.”

By the next weekend, things had taken a new turn with the arrest of several suspects—Chechen men who, according to the official story, had organized and carried out the murder in revenge against Nemtsov’s criticism of radical Islamists after the Charlie Hebdo shooting in January. On the March 8 edition of Kiselev’s News of the Week, the report on the Nemtsov case contrasted “the work of the special services in Russia and in the West.” In France, the Charlie Hebdo shooters “are dead and there’s no way to find out who stood behind them. On the other hand, the suspects in the Nemtsov case have been arrested and are already giving evidence.”

But the official story quickly turned out to be shaky—and to raise inconvenient questions about who “stood behind” the alleged killers, at least one of whom had close ties to Chechen strongman and Putin loyalist Ramzan Kadyrov.

On the mainstream radio station Govorit Moskva (Moscow Speaks), 82 percent of listeners said they did not believe the suspects had acted on their own.

On Tuesday night, the TV-1 show Structure of the Moment promised a discussion of the arrests and the various versions of the Nemtsov murder. There was quick and general agreement that the “freelance jihadists” scenario was extremely unlikely. From there, the program quickly degenerated into a freak show of conspiracy theories and shrill anti-Western rhetoric.

“It didn’t have to be the CIA,” said one of the guests, the Russian parliament’s evil clown Vladimir Zhirinovsky.“The American ambassador in Kiev could have simply given word to someone.”

At one point, presumably to demonstrate that the United States was more than capable of engineering Nemtsov’s murder, TV journalist Maksim Shevchenko asserted that Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 911 “conclusively proves” that George W. Bush and Halliburton plotted the September 11 attacks—which would come as a surprise to Moore himself, since the film makes no such claim.

There were also requisite diatribes about Ukrainian “genocide” against ethnic Russians and frenzied attacks on liberals—including the panel’s liberal whipping boy, Leonid Gozman, who showed remarkable sangfroid. At one point, Zhirinovsky said that regrettable though Nemtsov’s murder was, the things he said in his final interview on Ekho Moskvy hours before his death were so horrific as to justify his arrest.

“What next?” asked host Valentin Fadeyev toward the end of the one-hour program. One might have expected predictions for the Nemtsov investigation. Instead, another panelist, Andrei Karaulov, launched into a mouth-frothing rant promising that, come May, America would be astounded by the might of Russian weaponry displayed at the Victory Day parade in Red Square.

By then, Nemtsov was almost completely forgotten, and it was all about the West’s war on Russia—business as usual on Putin TV.