Staunton, July 2 – Twenty years ago today, General Lev Rokhlin was killed; and although his wife was convicted of the murder, it is widely believed that he was killed for attempting to organize a military coup against Boris Yeltsin. (For that view, see versia.ru/kak-voennye-gotovili-perevorot-v-rossii.)
But in a commentary on the Republic portal today, analyst Oleg Kashin argues that Rokhlin was not trying to organize any coup but rather was the wrong man in the wrong place and was chosen by the Kremlin for elimination to send a message to the Russian elite that while the top leadership was weak, it could still do something (republic.ru/posts/91358).
In the wake of Rakhlin’s death, Kashin continues, many accepted the version successfully advanced by prosecutors that his wife Tamara had done him in; “but domestic traditions of prominent murders do not allow for confidently saying that it was his wife who killed Rokhlin” on the night of June 2-3, 1998.
“In our Alice in Wonderland world,” he says, “very often a precise official version of a prominent crime serves at a minimum as an indirect sign that in fact not everything is as described in the investigation and in the sentence; and the Rokhlin case is an indisputable example of exactly that principle.”
Because that is so, Kashin suggests, the case has continued to attract attention; but many things about it remain unclear to this day, something that has opened the way for the kind of conspiracy thinking that dominates much of Russian commentary and thought. And that has another consequence as well.
“Even if Tamara Rokkhlin had been photographed on a video shooting her sleeping husband and this had been shown on television, the death of the general from this would not have become less mysterious because the entire political career of Lev Rokhlin – less than three years -- was so arranged that almost from the beginning it was clear there’d be a bullet at the end.”
In the course of his time on the public stage after emerging as a hero of the Chechen war, “the systemic political too quickly became extra-system, and his unpredictability in combination with his membership in the military corporation,” Kashin says, “made him, as people say now, toxic.”
Elected to the Duma on the slate of the then-ruling party Our Home is Russia, Rokhlin made the mistake of allowing himself to become the head of the parliament’s defense committee. The party corrected itself in 1998 and removed him from that post “several weeks before Rokhlin’s murder.”
As a result, “he met his death as an ordinary deputy, not part of any fraction but having his own extra-parliamentary political force in the form of the Movement for the Support of the Army. That arrangement has convinced many that his Movement was a front for the planning of a military coup against the Kremlin, all the more so because without him that body collapsed.
If one assumes that Rokhlin “really was planning to lead the army against the Russian powers that be of that time,” the Moscow commentator says, “this testifies only about his naivete and lack of political sophistication and not about any danger for the state.”
“The Russia of 1998 was one of three changes of government, a permanently ill president, railroad wars and miners on the Gorbaty bridge, default and a general sense that everything wasn’t about to collapse but had already done so and that life was beginning again on the ruins.”
People didn’t have any doubt that the government lacked the capacity to rule; they doubted that it even existed anymore. And understanding that, Kashin says, explains why the Kremlin eliminated Rokhlin: it was a “show murder,” a sign to everyone that “we are weak but we can still do something.”
The general was in the wrong place and killing him was not about stopping his eighth army corps but about sending a message to “that part of the nomenklatura which had already buried Yeltsin and his Kremlin.” Sending that message, Kashin says, was the solution to the “main political problem” of the regime.
In the fall of that year, “against the will of the Kremlin, Yevgeny Primakov headed the government, Kremlin officials Sergey Yastrzhembsky and Andrey Kokoshin left to work for Yury Luzhkov and there began to be organized that alternative nomenklatura center” that was prepared to challenge the Kremlin in 1999 elections.”
According to Kashin, “it is no exaggeration to call this period the most dramatic for the Russian authorities after October 1993. A dramatic period with dramatic versions of events. In the summer of 1998, the Kremlin needed to show that it was still capable of something,” if only killing a naïve but charismatic politician.
And hence the Moscow analyst concludes, the general’s murder was “connected not with the false threat of a military coup but with a real split within the nomenklatura which had to be minimized with the assistance of the most unexpected act of deterrence.” The important thing for the Kremlin was that this worked and set the stage for the events of 1999.