Boris Nemtsov, 55, was gunned down below the Kremlin walls Friday night doing something no prominent Russian politician has done in nearly 20 years: He was walking through Moscow as a free man.
Nemtsov had refused to join the clan of privilege and power. In a country where elections are predetermined and political campaigns are virtual, members of Russia’s nomenklatura limit public appearances to speeding black limousines and slick TV studios. When Vladimir Putin was inaugurated to his third presidential term in May 2012, downtown Moscow was swept clean of people and traffic to avoid the chance of any spontaneous human interaction.
The Nemtsov I knew as a reporter was always on his feet and always in a crowd. Nemtsov was a fixture at any opposition gathering, no matter how small—tall, pushy, and loud. Banned from the airwaves of state-run television, he was out on the street, talking and walking and talking some more. Sometimes Nemtsov’s steps seemed ridiculously small, but he placed enormous importance on taking each one.
In 2009, the Kremlin allowed Nemtsov to run for mayor of Sochi, the town of his birth, in farcical elections including candidates such as a fading ballerina from the Bolshoi Theater and a media baron with a KGB past. Everything was rigged to favor an oafish, out-of-town apparatchik whom even the local Putinites despised. Yet Nemtsov took his futile campaign to the dusty streets and ramshackle dachas of the future Olympic city, lambasting environmental damage, the displacement of residents, and the billions that were being stolen. Not to anyone’s surprise, Nemtsov came in a distant second, with less than 14 percent of the vote.
Nemtsov’s earthiness often translated into a lack of manners, and he could come across as brusque and impatient. I can still hear his voice. It was resonant, accusatory, and penetrating. He wasn’t the most gifted speaker, but you could never help noticing the guy.
Nemtsov was known to have been charming to women, but he never charmed me. I admired him because he was tireless and tenacious. His vision was of a Russia as a rightful member of Western civilization, with democratic institutions, an active citizenry, and a foreign policy that wasn’t at odds with the rest of the world—the mirror image of Putin’s Russia.
I don’t believe that Nemtsov thought that he would one day replace Putin or even become the mayor of Sochi. Although he had shot to political prominence in the 1990s as the reforming governor of the Nizhny Novgorod region and a deputy prime minister under President Boris Yeltsin, Nemtsov had become a latter-day dissident by the time he was killed. When anti-government demonstrations broke out in Moscow three years ago, a new generation of Russian liberals didn’t exactly embrace Nemtsov but gravitated instead to the charismatic anti-corruption blogger, Alexei Navalny.
The city of Nizhny Novgorod, where Nemtsov grew up and studied, was known as Gorky during Soviet times. Dissident Andrei Sakharov was banished to the industrial city in the 1980s, and the young Nemtsov met him several times as the communist system came crashing down. By denouncing Putin’s war in Ukraine, Nemtsov inspired the same hatred in government circles as Sakharov had with his criticism of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979.
“With all due respect to the memory of Boris Nemtsov, he didn’t pose any political threat to the current government or Vladimir Putin,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told Kommersant FM hours after the shooting. “If you compare Putin’s popularity level—and the government’s as a whole—Boris Nemtsov’s was slightly higher than the average citizen’s.”
Peskov’s disdain was reminiscent of his boss’s words after the 2006 murder of opposition journalist Anna Politkovskaya. Putin belittled Politkovskaya as having had little influence on Russian society and said that her murder was more damaging to his government than her publications had been. A few days before the 2012 presidential elections, as anti-government protests reached their peak, Putin warned darkly that foreign powers were seeking a “sacrificial victim” among opposition leaders to besmirch his government.
In the aftermath of Nemtsov’s murder, state-run Channel One reported that Putin considered the killing of being “exclusively provocative in nature.” In other words, the only possible political motive for Nemtsov’s death was to whip up anti-Kremlin sentiment.
In the Russian-speaking world, designating any uncomfortable or challenging information as a provokatsiya is the standard response of people who refuse to take responsibility for their words or actions. They think in provocations and counterprovocations, conspiracies and plots. Your opponent is even more cynical than you. There is no honesty, no honor, and no dignity, because everybody is splattered in shit and blood.
The answer to all the world’s provocations is a question: Komu vygodno?, or “Who stands to gain?” When Nemtsov published reports on official corruption, he was accused of being an American stooge—instead of prosecutors taking his allegations seriously. After a Malaysian Airlines plane was shot down over eastern Ukraine in July, Russian state television dissected every possible conspiracy theory, including the Ukrainians mistaking MH17 for Putin’s plane, while omitting the most likely version: a stray anti-aircraft missile fired by pro-Russian rebels at a Ukrainian warplane.
Russia’s Investigative Committee has already released a list of possible motives for Nemtsov’s murder. The first version cites Putin: “A provocation to destabilize the political situation in the country as Nemtsov could have become a sacrificial victim for those who don’t shirk from any means to achieve their political goals.” The second lead involves Islamic extremists, as Nemtsov had shown his support for the journalists of Charlie Hebdo. None of the motives under investigation take into account his role as a prominent government critic.
The Kremlin held a rally last weekend in Moscow to denounce the Maidan protest in Kiev that ousted the pro-Russian government of Viktor Yanukovych a year ago and unleashed Putin’s wrath on Ukraine. Some demonstrators held up a sign reading “The enemies of Russia need the Maidan,” others a picture of Nemtsov with the words “Maidan organizer.”
The violence that is sweeping over Russia is not only physical. It is the daily verbal violence that pours out of millions of TV sets about the genocide of Russians in Ukraine and the treacherous fifth column funded by Washington.
Nothing is what it seems anymore. Not war, not peace, not political murder.