The History of Violence against Russian Opposition

The 2015 Nemtsov assassination was the latest violent act against critics of Putin's government.

Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov
Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov was killed in 2015
Source: AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko

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On Feb. 27, 2015, Boris Nemtsov was shot and killed in Moscow. Nemtsov had been a vocal critic of Russia's Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, and most recently, of the war in Ukraine. Putin condemned the killing and promised to lead the investigation into Nemtsov's death. Nemtsov was the most prominent opposition leader to be killed during Putin's presidency. The incident sparked outrage and protests, including tens of thousands marching through Moscow in the days after the assassination.

However, Nemtsov was not the first Russian opposition leader or activist to be assassinated. Here's a look at other Putin critics who have been imprisoned, exiled, or killed in recent years.

Mikhail Khodorkovsky

Currently living in Switzerland, Russian exile Mikhail Khodorkovsky was the wealthiest man in Russia in 2004 with an estimated $15 billion fortune. A business owner, he became extremely wealthy in the mid-1990s by taking control of several oil fields in Siberia under the company name Yukos. In 2003, Khodorkovsky was arrested and charged with fraud. Putin's government froze Yukos' assets, causing the company's share price to collapse.

In 2005, Khodorkovsky was found guilty and sentenced to nine years in prison. While serving his sentence, he was also found guilty of money laundry and embezzlement. The new charges extended his sentence and Khodorkovsky wrote several letters to the European Court of Human Rights. The way in which Khodorkovsky was tried and convicted attracted international attention. Many believed that his sentences were politically motivated and that he did not receive due process.

In 2013, Putin pardoned Khodorkovsky. After his release, Khodorkovsky fled Russia to Switzerland where he now lives. In 2014, Khodorkovsky relaunched Open Russia, a movement he first started in 2001. Open Russia's goal is to unite Russians in an effort to challenge Putin. As far as his future, Khodorkovsky said this to Le Monde in 2014, "I would not be interested in the idea of becoming president of Russia at a time when the country would be developing normally. But if it appeared necessary to overcome the crisis and to carry out constitutional reform, the essence of which would be to redistribute presidential powers in favor of the judiciary, parliament and civil society, then I would be ready to take on this part of the task.”

Anna Politkovskaya

A journalist and human rights activist, Politkovskaya made her name reporting on the situation in Chechnya. In 2004, she published Putin's Russia, a political commentary about modern life in Russia. In the book, she accused Putin of promoting corruption and suppressing civil liberties. Before her murder, Politkovskaya received numerous death threats. The same year that Putin's Russia was published, she became violently ill after drinking poisoned tea. Many suspected the involvement of the Soviet secret services poison laboratory.

Two years later, on Oct. 7, 2006, Putin's birthday, Politkovskaya was found dead. She had been shot four times at the entrance of her apartment in Moscow. Putin denied any involvement of the Kremlin in her killing. In 2014, five men were sent to prison for her murder, but who ordered her death remained unclear. According to Russian authorities, an unidentified man paid Lom-Ali Gaitukayev $150,000 to kill Politkovskaya because of her reporting on human rights violations and other offenses.

Alexander Litvinenko

On Nov. 1, 2006, two years after Politkovskaya fell ill from poisoning; Alexander Litvinenko was hospitalized with radioactive polonium-210 poisoning. He died 23 days later, becoming the first known victim of polonium-210 acute radiation syndrome. On 24 November 2006, a posthumous statement made by Litvinenko was released, in which he named Putin as the person behind his poisoning. Many theories surrounded Litvinenko's death, including a British investigation that had Russian Federal Protective Service (FSB) member Andrey Lugovoy as the prime suspect. The United Kingdom demanded that Lugovoy be extradited, but Russia refused, causing tension between the two countries.

Litvinenko had been an officer in the Russian FSB, where he focused on organized crime. In 1988, along with other several other FSB agents, he accused his superiors of ordering an assassination on Russian businessman Boris Berezovsky. Litvinenko was arrested after making the accusation and charged with exceeding authority of his FSB position. Immediately after his charges were dismissed in 2000, he fled Russia for London. While in London, he wrote two books, accusing the Russian secret service of various terrorist acts as part of an effort to bring Putin to power. Litvinenko also accused Putin of ordering Politkovskaya's murder. Litvinenko still lived in London when he was poisoned. Litvinenko's widow began the Litvinenko Justice Foundation on his behalf. A public inquiry into his death began on Jan. 27, 2015.

Boris Berezovsky

On March 23, 2013, Berezovsky was found dead, hanging from a noose in his home in the United Kingdom. The coroner's office could not conclude whether his death was a suicide or not. In a phone interview, Putin said that foreign secret services could not be ruled out in having a role in Berezovsky's death. However, he said, there was no evidence of their involvement either.

A billionaire businessman, Berezovsky had opposed Putin since Putin's 2000 election. That same year, Berezovsky was ordered by the Russian Deputy Prosecutor General to appear for questioning. Instead, Berezovsky moved to the United Kingdom and was granted political asylum there by 2003. Back in Russia, he had been convicted of embezzlement and fraud. Russia wanted Berezovsky extradited. Britain refused, creating another source of tension between the two countries.

Alexei Navalny

A Russian lawyer and activist, Navalny received international attention for being a critic of Putin's and of corruption within the Russian government. He used his blog, Live Journal, to attack Putin. His description of United Russia, the ruling party, as a "party of crooks and thieves," during a radio show, became a popular phrase.

Navalny had been arrested several times and accused of charges such as embezzlement and fraud. In 2013, he was convicted of embezzlement and sentenced to five years of hard labor in prison, only to be released the next day. The following year, Navalny and his brother were prosecuted on embezzlement charges. Navalny was placed under house arrest for three and a half years, while his brother was sent to prison for the same amount of time.

Natalya Estemirova

An award-winning human rights activist, Estemirova was kidnapped at her home in Gronzy, Chechnya in July 2009. Later that day, her body was found near a village in Ingushetia. She had been shot several times. At the time of her death, she was working on human rights abuse cases in Chechnya.

European leaders were outraged over her death. Russia's Memorial Human Rights Center blamed government-backed death squads for her murder. Investigations into Estemirova's death led to militant rebel Alkhazur Bashayev as her murderer. According to the investigation, Bashayev, a member of the Islamic Jihad Union, was trying to frame the Chechen Republic leadership and was upset over Estemirova's work as an activist and writer. Many human rights activists were unsatisfied with the investigation's results, calling it a cover-up.

Anastasia Baburova, Stanislav Markelov, and Sergei Magnitsky

In Jan. 2009, human rights attorney Markelov was gunned down by a masked man in Moscow. Russian journalist Baburova was also shot and killed while trying to intervene, although investigators could not rule out the fact that she may have been a target as well. Markelov was known for his work on Russian military abuse cases in Chechnya. Just hours before the shooting, Markelov had held a press conference, opposing the early released of Col. Yury Budanov, who was in prison for strangling a Chechen teenage girl.

Magnitsky, a Russian auditor and accountant, was jailed in Moscow after his allegations that Russian officials had sanctioned and led a large-scale theft operation. Magnitsky's imprisonment received international attention, in part for human rights violations. On Nov. 16, 2009, Magnitsky died in prison after serving 358 days. He was scheduled to be released seven days later. A human rights investigation found that he hadn't received medical care for various health issues and that he had been beaten just prior to his death. The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists uncovered information in 2013 that Magnitsky had linked 23 companies in his investigation to a $230 million tax fraud in Russia.

Nemtsov's assassination in Feb. 2015 was only the latest violent act against those who have opposed Putin's government. Just hours before he was killed, Nemtsov said in an interview, "Due to the policy of Vladimir Putin, a country with unparalleled potential is sinking, an economy which accumulated untold currency reserves is collapsing." According to fellow opposition leader Ilya Yashin, Nemtsov had been working on a report on the Russian military's involvement in Ukraine at the time of his death. Many believed that Putin and his government were involved in Nemtsov's assassination. Meanwhile, the Kremlin blamed his death on Russian enemies who were looking to create more political tension within Russia.

Sources: Memorial Human Rights Center, Le Monde, International Federation for Human Rights, International Consortium of Investigative Journalists

—Jennie Wood
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