The announcement by Russia’s Federal Security Service head that two suspects from ‘Russia’s North Caucasus’ region had been arrested in connection with the murder of opposition politician Boris Nemtsov was to be expected, given the long and sordid history of the Chechen boogeyman in the Russian psyche.
Renowned criminologist Kathryn Russell-Brown once wrote that in American society, the black male is oft depicted as a “symbolic pillager of all that is good”. When Susan Smith tearfully found a fall guy in the archetype of the black carjacker before coughing up to the murder of here two small children over two decades back, what was laid bare was less an example of personal bigotry, and more a sociological manifestation of a small-minded and emotionally challenged young woman grasping at the one straw her culture offered her. If not me, then whom? In much the same way, from petty street crime, sexual harassment, religious extremism, and murder, Russia has its own perennial patsy: the Caucasian, and more specifically, the Chechen.
In the West, the racial taxonomy of the 18th/19th century German anthropologist Johann Friedrich Blumenbach is the reason why those of European descent are known as Caucasians. In his words, the Caucasus, a mountain system between the Black and Caspian Seas on Russia’s southern flank, is home to “the most beautiful race of men…” But while Caucasians (in Blumenbach’s example, Georgians) became the archetype for “the white race”, in a coup of irony, Slavic nationalists deride Caucasians with the ethnophaulism “black asses.”
There is not enough time to venture into Russia’s long and complicated relationship with the region. What’s important about Saturday’s announcement by Federal Security Service Head Alexander Bortnikov, which pinned the crime on two suspects from the North Caucasus, is that it should surprise no one. Less than a day after Nemtsov was shot dead on Moskvoretsky bridge in ‘the shadow of the Kremlin’, Russian state media began publishing images of a car allegedly commissioned in the murder of the former deputy PM. The car, unsurprisingly, had Ingush license plates.
Following the pacification of Chechnya, neighboring Ingushetia has become the drainage ditch for unexpended militant rage which, barring a defiant attack in December, was mostly stamped out in Kadyrov’s fiefdom. Combined, Chechnya and Ingushetia have just under 1.7 million people. Moscow, in contrast, officially has a population of 12.1 million, though some estimates have put that number as high as 17 million. That two contract killers would drive their getaway car 1,000 miles (from the country’s most restive region to the heavily surveilled heart of Russian power), and then use that very same car to commit the most high-profile assassination in Russia’s post-Soviet history, seems highly problematic to say the least.
The speed with which the car was recovered and the convenience of the license plates had many corners of the internet appropriating the catch phrase of the Kremlin’s chief propagandist and favorite TV host Dmitry Kiselyov:
‘A coincidence? I don’t think so.’
But the coincidental nature of the killers’ alleged nationality is doubly telling, given that both Russia’s infinitesimal opposition and Kremlin apologists alike are critically on the same page in one respect. Just as Junior Soprano hired two black and ultimately incompetent hit men to whack his cousin Tony in an ineffectual attempt to cover up his own tracks (the professional hit as street crime is a well worn device), few on either end of the political spectrum believe that Chechens are both the puppets and the puppeteers in Nemtsov’s death. Thugs, terrorists for hire, yes. But the brains behind the trigger, no.
For those committed to muddying the waters of reality on behalf of the Kremlin, apart from a a slender minority who are seriously proposing that Chechen militants actually gunned down Nemtsov for his position on the Charlie Hedbo shootings in Paris, the rest entertain the notion that Russians national enemies, both internal and external, have commissioned the Caucasian hit men to besmirch Putin’s reputation. Ukrainian intelligence, the CIA, the negligible opposition, some exiled anti-regime businessman, take your pick or even a combination of the above.
For the opposition, the Chechen killers were merely a gun deployed by Putin himself, siloviki acting with or without the Russian president’s tacit consent, or rogue nationalists acting as the golem that Putin created to shore up his power but then lost control over. Nemtsov, of course, is not the first thorn in the government’s side to have allegedly died at the hands of Chechen killers.
The 2004 murder of Forbes journalist Paul Klebnikov and the 2006 assassination of Anna Politkovskaya were both chalked up to alleged Chechen contract hits. In Klebnikov’s case, Russian prosecutors initially accused Chechen rebel leader Khozh-Akhmed Nukhayev of planning the attack. Three Chechens were later tried and acquitted in the killing, though no mastermind was ever fingered. In May of last year, five men, including three Chechen brothers, were found guilty of killing Politkovskaya, though the orchestrator of the crime was similarly never identified.
Unlike Klebnikov and Politkovskaya, however, Nemtsov’s connection to the Caucasus was virtually non-existent, partially explaining the particularly flimsy Charlie Hebdo motive to have surfaced in the aftermath of his death. But domestically at least, a flimsy motive will likely be sufficient, in so far that the government has a strong motivation to obfuscate some of the more likely culprits (far-right nationalists with a connection to rebel forces in eastern Ukraine or independent actors who have taken the talk of fifth columnists and national traitors seriously.)
From the government’s position, the Chechen scapegoat is deeply satisfying, both because the population is already primed to believe that a great many social ills stems from this much maligned minority, and because it deflects attention from the government’s incitement of nationalist forces, which it very well might be losing control over. What’s more, in lieu of an actual investigation where the actual organizer of the hit will actually be found (history teaches us otherwise), the Chechen exists as a template, where by the public can project whatever motive they want onto it without the government actually having to identify a mastermind.
That Chechens can be portrayed as mere puppets of Ukrainian fascists or US intelligence is merely icing on the cake. One is living in very strange times indeed to draw a line between those disparate threads; a stitched up frankenstinian monster in every sense of the word. But in a country willing to believe that dead bodies were packed onto a plane and then shot down over eastern Ukraine to discredit Russia, practically nothing is beyond the pale these days.