Authoritarian, corrupt or rogue regimes, their leaders, and their beneficiaries often behave in similar ways in different countries. They fear their democratic opponents and rely on the secret police to keep themselves in power through monitoring, intimidating, jailing and sometimes killing those who may challenge their repressive rule. Although Poland of the 1980s and today’s Russia are not exactly alike, there may be enough similarities worth exploring between the 1984 murder of a Catholic priest in Poland and the assassination of Russian opposition leader and former Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov in Moscow last week.
In 1984, a young priest, Father Jerzy Popieluszko, was kidnapped, tortured and killed by three officers of the Polish internal secret police. They were enticed to murder by one of their superiors, Colonel Adam Pietruszka, who assured them he had received approval from the highest state authorities. The plan was to eliminate the priest who had become a vocal critic of the regime and served as a chaplain for the opposition Solidarity trade union in communist-ruled Poland. Colonel Pietruszka promised his subordinates the killing would never be revealed and they would enjoy complete immunity.
Various plots were discussed, including throwing Father Popieluszko from a fast moving train or inducing a heart attack. One unsuccessful attempt on his life involved throwing a rock at the windshield of his car. In October 1984, the officers stopped his car for a fake traffic check. He was beaten, strangled and his body dumped into a reservoir.
The murder could not be hidden, as originally planned, because the priest’s driver managed to escape and alerted the Church authorities. U.S. -funded Radio Free Europe and the Voice of America and other foreign media reported on the kidnapping. The regime’s leader, General Wojciech Jaruzelski, promised an investigation. When it led to his own secret police and the discovery of the priest’s body, he expressed surprise and horror at the brutal murder.
The three killers and Colonel Pietruszka were eventually convicted by the communist regime’s court and sentenced to various prison terms, only to be all released after serving only parts of their original sentences. Later attempts to try some of Colonel Pietruszka’s own superiors for instigating the murder were unsuccessful. They were acquitted. There was not enough evidence to try for the priest’s murder other communist leaders close to Jaruzelski or Jaruzelski himself.
But according to the Polish Institute of National Remembrance, in the 1980s Polish communist leaders, including General Jaruzelski, discussed various ways of silencing pro-human rights priests. Some of their comments were about police intimidation through physical attacks. At the same time, the regime’s journalists published false accusations against Catholic priests and lay leaders of the opposition. One such particularly vicious attack on Father Popieluszko was republished in the Soviet Union. Several other Polish priests were killed under mysterious circumstances.
Those looking for a plausible scenario which led to Boris Nemtsov’s murder should study the investigation of the killing of Father Popieluszko. Polish secret police officers were sloppy. Their car was noticed near the church where the priest was visiting the day of his kidnapping.
In many ways, however, the assassination of Boris Nemtsov seems both more brazen and more sophisticated. He was shot dead within the sight of the Kremlin. His killers are still at large. No one should be excluded from scrutiny, especially not President Putin, his secret police and his close advisers and supporters.
Vladimir Putin, an ex-KGB officer, promised an investigation. He would be well advised to investigate his own circles, including his former KGB associates and current FSB officials, but instead the Kremlin is putting out disinformation trying to suggest that Muslim fundamentalists or some unspecified Ukrainians may have been behind the murder. Unfortunately, quite a few Western media outlets, confusing balance with objectivity, report such disinformation without asking any questions.
The difference between General Jaruzelski in the 1980s and Vladimir Putin is that Jaruzelski had very little support outside of the Polish communist party and the regime’s functionaries. While Jaruzelski controlled official domestic media, outside of the country U.S.-sponsored Radio Free Europe and the Voice of America were then well funded, well-managed and able to reach more than 70% of the population with uncensored news and opinions.
That is not the case in today’s Russia, where Putin’s media spread hatred toward domestic dissidents and the United States without much challenge, and does the same abroad through RT (formerly Russia Today) TV and web platforms. Vladimir Putin’s near total control of the Russian media, KGB-style attacks on the opposition, annexation of Crimea and military intervention in eastern Ukraine allow him to stay in power and to enjoy apparently high approval rating at home.
In a new digital media environment, the Voice of America and Radio Liberty lack resources and ability to deliver radio and satellite television programs to attract a mass audience in Russia. To help the Russian opposition uncover the instigators of Boris Nemtsov’s murder, the United States must invest more in its international media outreach, as well as in its reform, to make U.S. taxpayer-funded media outlets more effective in responding to Putin’s propaganda and disinformation.
In the 1980s, the Reagan Administration provided strong support and funding to Radio Free Europe, Radio Liberty and the Voice of America. Without their broadcasts, which helped opposition leaders and the population stay informed, the murder of Father Popieluszko may have remained unsolved and the Jaruzelski regime could have stayed in power much longer. The same will happen to Russia and to the Boris Nemtsov murder investigation unless the United States does more to help get out the truth and to keep up the pressure on the Kremlin.
Ted Lipien was in charge of Voice of America radio broadcasts to Poland. He covered Vice President George H.W. Bush’s visit to Warsaw in 1987 during which George Bush lay a wreath at Father Popieluszko’s grave and met his parents. Ted Lipien is a co-founder and co-director of the Committee for U.S. International Broadcasting (CUSIB – cusib.org), an independent NGO supporting U.S. media outreach to countries without free press.