The brutal murder of Russian opposition figure Boris Nemtsov might be understood in the context of Russia’s controversial new Oscar-nominated film “Leviathan.”

People light candles in memory of Boris Nemtsov, image behind, at the monument of political prisoners 'Solovetsky Stone' in central St.Petersburg on Feb. 28. Photo: AP

The gangland-style murder of Russian politician Boris Nemtsov in the center of Moscow – just steps away from the Kremlin and just 36 hours ahead of a major opposition march in the city – is not only appalling, it is also unfathomable to the Western psyche. Perhaps the way to understand such a provocative act is within the context of Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Oscar-nominated “Leviathan,” which portrays the corruption, moral decay and raw power at the heart of modern Russia.

The film – a two-hour portrayal of a Leviathan state ruled by corruption, graft and absolute power – has been called “a political statement about the nature of contemporary Russia - about a terrifying Leviathan, a corrupt government without honor or conscience, where the Church protects the government and Christ has been essentially privatized by gangsters.”

How else to explain how a murder in cold blood in late winter could have taken place in the center of Moscow?

One scene in “Leviathan” especially stands out. Having decided that the system no longer works – that the Russian legal system is just a façade to protect the power of the local authorities  a middle-aged Moscow lawyer (played by Vladimir Vdovichenkov) goes head-to-head with the mayor of a northern provincial city by resorting to the one threat that is universally understood everywhere in modern Russian: the threat of a more powerful sponsor, backed by the release of kompromat.

Leviathan - Official HD Trailer (with English subs). Source: YouTube / PalaceFilms

All of this takes place under the watchful gaze of a portrait of Vladimir Putin in the mayor’s office. The point made by Zvyagintsev is chilling: “You may threaten me now with all of your laws and kompromat, but I am protected by a higher power.”

“Leviathan” makes clear that raw power only respects raw power. Raw power believes that it is possible to take what is desired by any means possible and that it is allowable to preserve power at all costs. In the film, everyone’s in on the action – the local militia, the police, the church, the courts and the mayor’s office. The only way to break the power of this system is by threatening to release compromising materials that are devastating enough to force a realignment of the power structure. And, even if this proof exists, it only matters if you are able to prove that your sponsor is more powerful than your opponent’s sponsor.

And, this, unfortunately, is what the current murder case of Boris Nemtsov may be all about – his purported plan to divulge secrets about the Russian military presence in Ukraine. This was the ultimate kompromat and for this, some say, he was murdered. One of the most recognizable young liberal reformers in Russia in the 1990s and now a leading Kremlin critic, Nemtsov is reminiscent of the Moscow lawyer in the movie trying to go head-to-head with the Leviathan. In life, as in the film, the ending is brutal, senseless violence that leaves everyone with an inescapable sense of hopelessness.

The only way this gangland murder of Nemtsov could have occurred is if some higher authority had given the signal that this was allowed, that this murder had been sanctioned. And that raises a whole host of uncomfortable scenarios. The highest authority in Russia, of course, is the Russian President Vladimir Putin, and this appears to be the person that many – including former U.S. ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul – are pointing to when they say, “I cannot believe they have killed my friend, Boris Nemtsov.”

But there are plenty of other scenarios that are within the realm of possibility. It is almost impossible to believe that the order to murder Nemtsov came from the Kremlin. If they did not do this to Alexey Navalny, another prominent opposition leader and vocal critic of the Kremlin, how could they do this to Nemtsov? “They” could be rogue Russian nationalists. “They” could be members of the opposition who ordered the murder to create a martyr. “They” could be external actors – either from Ukraine or the Caucasus – intent on destabilizing the Russian state. Yet these scenorios sound like conspiracy theories that are far from the truth

A more likely scenario – described by Kremlin critic Mikhail Khodorkovsky just days before in a speech to the Chatham House think tank – is that there will soon be a winner-takes-all battle between rival clans in Moscow. In Russian terms, the “vertical of power” controlled by Putin is now facing a threat from another “vertical of power.”

In Western terms, it is a “turf war,” plain and simple. A murder steps away from the Kremlin is the equivalent of an upstart power attempting to show the Leviathan that he is more powerful. It is raw power vs. raw power, one “boss” against another “boss,” just like in the American gangster movies. Either Putin finds and breaks the parties responsible for this heinous crime – or the forces arrayed against Putin may launch a more daring attack against the state, with the whole world watching. At the very least, it is a sign that the Russian elite has broken ranks.

As in the film “Leviathan,” there will be a succession of steps before the final denouement, all of them cloaked in all the courtesies and slogans of the West, as both sides attempt to find out who is stronger. The call for “justice” in Moscow today – as in the film – is high-minded but the ending is more likely to be “vigilante justice” than any form of justice recognizable by leaders in Western capitals.

This is not a system that Putin created, but one that he inherited from the collapse of the Communist state, and that the Communist state inherited from the Tsarist state. If you do not show that you are strong, people will think you are weak. This has always been the inexorable logic that has guided Russia. If this is indeed a struggle between the Russian elite and the Russian opposition, or between different clans of the Russian elite, then we are all in trouble.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.