Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Echoes of the Kirov Murder

To Our Readers

The Moscow Times welcomes letters to the editor. Letters for publication should be signed and bear the signatory's address and telephone number.
Letters to the editor should be sent by fax to (7-495) 232-6529, by e-mail to, or by post. The Moscow Times reserves the right to edit letters.

Email the Opinion Page Editor

It sometimes makes a painful impression to watch Russia Today. In recent days, it has presented the state position on Litvinenko: that he was poisoned by Berezovsky or the British secret services. In classic KGB style, someone is found to claim that the British tried to recruit him into the Litvinenko-Berezovsky circle of agents.

It is the sort of thing that has an almost comic effect when presented in the West.

Inside Russia, perhaps this kind of broadcast sounds normal. After all, the state controls all the major television media, and Russians have a natural patriotic wish to believe the message -- particularly when the media insist that the government had no role whatsoever in the murder.

But in the West, this sort of stuff would not pass the smell test. It reeks of trying to shift the blame -- projection of blame, to use the psychiatric term.

It also reeks of what could be called "the Syrian defense." Each time a leading anti-Syrian figure is killed in Lebanon, Syrian leaders say the opposition forces in Lebanon did it in order to embarrass Syria and harm its international standing. It is as if they are copying from President Vladimir Putin's book, or vice versa. These lines become standard fare in the controlled media at home. In reality, the anti-Putin forces in Russia and London are afraid of getting knocked off by Putin, not by Berezovsky.

Is Russia sinking to the Syrian level?

Russia's political culture leaves a lot to be desired. It should be setting its standards much higher. Moscow portrays itself as a Christ-like victim with a God-like omnipotence that the opposition aggressively tries to besmirch by convoluted and demonic scheming.

It is possible to sink even lower. The whole episode reflects a culture buried deeply in the KGB tradition. In the Soviet era, anyone remotely tied to the opposition was forced to confess to the crime of undermining the country's progress.

This became a systemic practice beginning in 1929. After the prominent early Bolshevik leader, Sergei Kirov, was murdered in 1934 at Stalin's behest, Stalin claimed that the opposition was guilty of the crime. Stalin used the killing as a pretext for a mass purge and murder of literally millions of Soviets.

The Litvinenko killing has certain echoes of the Kirov murder. In both cases, the real evidence is ignored or covered up, while the state becomes preoccupied with finding a scapegoat.

Most of the moderate and liberal forces -- from Kremlin spin doctor Gleb Pavlovsky to former Prime Minister Yegor Gaidar -- wanted to stay on good terms with Putin. They supported the official Kremlin line: It was Putin's enemies who killed Litvinenko. The only difference was that they said it was Putin's hard-line political enemies from the conservative wing who did it, not liberals like Berezovsky. Did they hope to prove their loyalty and escape Putin's wrath?

Russia's response had its own bizarre logic. For months, the authorities were ambiguous as to who should be labeled as the killer. But when Britain demanded former security services officer Andrei Lugovoi's extradition, Russia went on the counterattack, organizing a standing-room-only Lugovoi press conference that was broadcast in detail on the government-owned television stations.

Some Russian commentators have already risen to an even higher level of conspiracy theory, seeing in this whole episode a British plot to rally Europe and the United States against Russia. At the same time, they urge Russia to use the old Soviet geopolitical strategy of trying to drive a wedge between Europe and the United States.

While Russia relies on the "Syrian defense," China in turn has started using the "Russian defense." Faced with multiple product-contamination scandals, China has executed the head of its food and drug regulatory agency. More important, it has gone on a public relations campaign, attacking U.S. exports for their health defects and citing misleading statistics to argue that the U.S. record is equally bad. China complains that it is a victim of unfair treatment and "double standards." It's the exact same complaint the Foreign Ministry has made about the British for demanding Lugovoi's extradition while refusing to extradite Berezovsky back to Russia for a trial. "Double standard" is what we hear from the Russian elite any time there is any criticism of Russia about anything.

In these ways, the authoritarians of the world have found a common defense that close themselves off, airtight, from facts and criticism. They can kill their enemies and blame it on those same enemies. They can claim that their enemies must have committed the murder, since the resulting international scandal led to bad publicity for the regime. They can complain of the "double standards" of the Western media and of anyone who makes the rather logical assumption that the regime itself is a prima facie suspect.

For the authoritarian regimes to make themselves seem like big-time victims, however, they have to insert a further premise: that the Western media wield enormous global power, one far more terrible than regimes that might kill an odd opponent here or there. It is an argument that could warm the heart of U.S. conservatives and neo-conservatives, who, faced with incessant disagreement from the media and intelligentsia, have also created a high level of criticism of the power and prejudices of the intellectual class.

This media criticism, however, is a poor substitute for open thinking and debate about the issues raised in the media. Governments that let themselves be guided by it have a disturbing tendency to insulate themselves from facts, lose the benefits of media checks and balances, and go off the deep end.

Conservatives in the modern West tend to be more sober. They know when they are exaggerating for the sake of politics and cherish the same free media that they love to criticize. Cruder regimes, however, such as the counterrevolutionary, fascist and Nazi movements of the last century, don't want to merely complain and vent their paranoia about the media and intellectuals. They want to act on the paranoia.

The Putin regime has been prone to act on its paranoia and on its seemingly unquenchable hatred of individuals and institutions that have crossed it. The damage to Russian institutions has been slowly accumulating over the years since 1999. Unfortunately, it could go much further.

Ira Straus is U.S. coordinator of the Committee on Eastern Europe and Russia in NATO, an independent NGO.