Mark MacKinnon reports from Russia on the immediate aftermath of the February 27th assassination of Boris Nemtsov, who had been an outspoken critic of the Putin regime.

Getting Started

Appropriate Subject Area(s):

Social studies, history, current events

Key Questions to Explore:

  • What reasons are offered for the killing of Boris Nemtsov and what do these tell us about the political climate in Russia today?

New Terminology:

Kremlin, Duma, insinuation, Pravda, Maidan, kleptocracy

Materials Needed:

Globe article and, minimally, the Internet. Time required: one class period

Study and Discussion Activity

Introduction to lesson and task:

The recent assassination of Boris Nemtsov, widely regarded as the key vocal critic of President Vladimir Putin, launched massive demonstrations in Russia. Mr. Putin ostensibly enjoyed broad public support among Russians as he organized the invasion of Crimea and ultimately reclaimed it for Russia. Russians also appeared to enthusiastically support Mr. Putin’s incursions into East Ukraine, where thousands have been killed and fighting continues amid occasional, unsuccessful, ceasefires. Mr. Putin claims the Russian military is not involved and any Russians who are fighting in Ukraine are doing so privately, on their own time, and not as part of an official policy. However, NATO photographs clearly show Russian tanks within Ukrainian borders, rendering these claims false.

Mr. Nemtsov has been a steadfast opponent of Russia’s incursion into Ukraine, calling it “madness.” Although his supporters number in the thousands, they have remained a relatively small group, which, along with Mr. Nemtsov, has been effectively marginalized by the mainstream government-owned Russian media. Mr. Putin’s popularity notwithstanding, there is no question that the Russian economy has been seriously damaged by sanctions imposed by many western nations, including the USA and Canada. As well, the collapse of oil prices has seriously affected not only the Russian economy, but also the fortunes of the many very wealthy Russians who have prospered under what some have called an institutional “kleptocracy” (Wiki: “a form of political and government corruption where the government exists to increase the personal wealth of officials and the ruling class…”) under Putin’s regime.

The full consequences of the assassination of Mr. Putin’s most prominent critic remain to be seen, but the mass demonstrations indicate they will be significant. The murder may generate more social upheaval and anti-Putin support but it may also drive any anti-government movements underground as it is now clear that anti-government activists will fear for their lives.

In this lesson, students will work in groups to examine and critique the article by Mark MacKinnon, demonstrating their ability to find evidence for and against various hypotheses for who might have committed the murder and for what reasons.

The situation remains fluid, and new stories will likely appear daily, but as an exercise in critical analysis and thinking, the current article should still serve well.

Note: for a relevant lesson plan on the collapse of the Soviet Union and the history of the cold war, click here.

Action (lesson plan and task):

Start by determining whether or not students have heard about the assassination of Boris Nemtsov or of the recent uprisings in Ukraine. If not, use the short backgrounder from the lesson plan cited above to provide more background.

Although it is a fairly long article, you might start by having volunteers read it aloud to the class, to ensure they understand the key terms.

Next, provide them with the following set of tasks which they will undertake in groups. They are to discuss the following questions and prompts and then come to a consensus, if possible, on the question: Based on the information, are you able to form an opinion on who was behind the assassination and why? Point out that this is an exercise in forming an opinion based on a careful examination of the available information—in this case, restricted to the article itself. It may well not be possible to take any position, due to insufficient information, in which case that is also a desirable outcome. It can help them learn to reserve judgment pending more information.

Assignment (allow 20 minutes or so):

Elect a group leader to moderate your discussion. Then work through the following questions and tasks. Take notes and be prepared to make a brief oral presentation when you are finished.

  • What is the official Russian line of investigation about the crime and what, perhaps obvious, aspect is not even being considered?
  • Why might you guess that this stance may be self-serving for the government?
  • What do those attending the memorial march on Sunday, March 1, think about the government’s position? Why do you think would they say, “these bullets were meant for each of us”?
  • Mr. MacKinnon claims that the Kremlin had no good motive to do this. Why?
  • How might the Russian media have played a part, according to Mr. MacKinnon? Who owns these media? Would this make you suspicious—why or why not?
  • How might there be a connection between the assassination and the “with-us-or-against-us atmosphere” in Russia? Why might this kind of policy tend to foment violence against dissenters?
  • Mr. Putin called those who disagree with his government’s policy on Ukraine and with his contention that Russia is surrounded by enemies, “action by a fifth column, this disparate bunch of national traitors.” What is meant by a fifth column? How serious is a charge of treason, typically? Could he be telling the truth?
  • Mr. MacKinnon suggests the assassination may have been carried out by a “hard-core nationalist.” Why?
  • What is the nature of the “hate” that opposition politician Gennady Gudkov mentions as a key to changing Russia, one way or the other?
  • Why would the location of the assassination lead to a greater likelihood of the killer or killers being apprehended more quickly? Does the location itself make you suspicious? Why or why not?
  • Does the nature of the assassination support the hypothesis that it may have been personal, something resulting from Mr. Nemtsov’s private life?
  • Why possible motives could a Ukrainian or an Islamic radical have to commit this crime? How credible do these suggestions seem to you and why?
  • What is meant by “sacred victim” as described by Sergei Markov? How might it ignite more violence and to what ends? How might this characterization be useful to Mr. Markov?
  • What is the prevailing view on the reasons for tracing the assassination “all the way to the top in Russia”? Describe this view and see if you can explain why it is popular?
  • Do you think “These are only the first six bullets?” Why or why not?
  • Do you think it is reasonable, based on this article, to suggest who and what was behind this assassination? Do you think Mr. MacKinnon leans toward one theory more than to another, and if so, which one? Give reasons.
  • Finally, our own Canadian government is currently working on anti-terrorism legislation that is based on the claim that Canadians are at risk from threats and dangers from both inside and outside Canada. What is your view on this? Do you think we should be legitimately afraid, or is this, in part, perhaps, playing politics to score points in the next election?

When students have completed their work, review the list of questions and see if any groups achieved consensus on them. If so, see if other students or groups care to challenge them on their positions.

Consolidation of Learning:

  • Oral presentations of groups reports at the end of the class.
Success and Additional Learning

Success Criteria:

  • Students opinions appear to be based on the information and not just on any preferred bias or “gut feeling.” Or, students are unable to come to an informed opinion based on the information.

Confirming Activity:

  • Have students follow this story in the media and report to class. Note when subsequent information shows support for any views students expressed in class.