NEW YORK – In his play Murder in the Cathedral, T. S. Eliot describes the murder of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket, as a silently ordered hit. The English king, Henry II, did not need to give a direct order; his knights knew what to do with somebody seen to be undermining the state.
Eliot may have set his play in twelfth-century England, but he wrote it in 1935, barely two years after Adolf Hitler had come to power in Germany. So it is, at least in part, a cautionary tale about the rise of fascism in Europe. Sadly, it has lost none of its relevance. Today, Eliot's masterpiece can be read as a warning about the path being taken by Russia, where politics under President Vladimir Putin has been growing murderously medieval.
One by one, Putin's critics have been eliminated. In 2006, the journalist Anna Politkovskaya was gunned down in an elevator, and Alexander Litvinenko, a former KGB agent who had been critical of Putin, died of polonium poison while in exile in London. In 2009, Sergei Magnitsky, a lawyer campaigning against corruption, died in prison after being denied medical care for life-threatening conditions. The same year, another lawyer, Stanislav Markelov, a champion of human rights, was shot following a news conference.
The murder last week of Boris Nemtsov, a leading opposition politician and a former deputy prime minister under Boris Yeltsin, should come as no surprise. But it should come as a shock – and as a wake-up call for those Russians who until now have tolerated a culture of lawlessness and impunity, unseen since the darkest days of Stalin's personal rule in the Soviet Union.