The Battle for Russia

PARIS – When I heard the news about the assassination of the Russian politician Boris Nemtsov in Moscow, I was reminded of a conversation I once had with a Soviet dignitary before the fall of the Berlin Wall.

We were walking alone in the park at Versailles, talking in general terms about the twentieth century and its tragedies when my Soviet guest suddenly uttered something that has stayed with me ever since. “Russians have suffered more in this century than any other people,” he said. “During the First and Second World Wars, no other country suffered as many deaths as we did. But it was Soviet power, through a combination of purges and forced famines, that killed more of its children than all the enemies of Russia combined.”

The tragedy of Russia is that it poses as great a threat to itself as it does to its neighbors. As Europe faces off with Russian President Vladimir Putin over Ukraine, a larger and ultimately more important battle is taking place within Russia itself, one that pits the country’s rich culture against the cruel mendacity of its politics.

Given the nature of Putin’s regime, we will likely never know the truth behind Nemtsov’s murder. But it is impossible to contemplate the case without thinking that somehow, directly or indirectly, the path to assassination started near the Kremlin’s door.