Russian opposition leader and former Vice Premier of the Russian Federation Boris Nemtsov was publicly executed in Moscow shortly before midnight on Friday while crossing the Moskvoretskiy bridge several hundred feet away from the Kremlin. He was shot while strolling home from dinner with his Ukrainian girlfriend after having spoken on the independent radio Echo of Moscow in support of a planned opposition march and protest against the economic crisis and the war in Ukraine. The gunmen fired seven or eight shots at Nemtsov’s back, with four bullets meeting their mark, destroying his inner organs on impact and killing him instantly. The killers then evaporated effortlessly into the eternal Moscow traffic jam in a white vehicle bearing North Caucasian license plates.
The killing was cinematic in a rancid way: Nemtsov died beneath the glimmering domes of St. Basil’s Cathedral and was covered in a black body bag after having his buff torso exposed to the pitiless gaze of the television cameras by the responding officers at the scene. Sunday’s rally drew between 50,000 and 100,000 Russians to a march in his memory despite the climate of acute ultra-nationalism now prevalent in the country. It is the most significant political assassination to take place in a decade and perhaps in the 25-year history of the Russian Federation.
The former first deputy prime minister was youthful, brave, nimble, and possessed of curly haired good-looks. He also had a quality rarely found in Russian politics: dash. The lurid finish of his story was a calculated rebuke to a glamorous life lived in the public eye, which despite its myriad failings symbolized a transitory epoch of Russian political life. Boris Yeltsin’s protégé, Nemtsov was a gifted politician and former scientist, tasked with the reformation of the energy sector. He had once been groomed as a possible successor to the presidency. He had been a kinetically hyperactive governor of Nizhny Novgorod and a deputy speaker of the Duma before being ousted from parliament in 2004. By necessity he had originally taken a stance of tepid accommodation toward Vladimir Putin when he had first come to power at the turn of the millennium. (At the time Nemtsov co-authored a New York Times op-ed that now makes for heartrending reading for its complete lack of judgment.) Putin’s increasing authoritarianism led Nemtsov to join up as a standard bearer and leader of the liberal opposition.
The audacious killing of a famed and charismatic figure has left Russia’s embattled liberals struggling to interpret the meaning of the symbolic public execution. Bernard-Henri Lévy told Tablet that with Nemtsov’s death we have lost “the anti-Putin. The bright side of Russia—Putin being its dark side, as well as the honor of the Russian people and the true heir of Sakharov and of the spirit of dissidence.” Nemtsov’s friend Garry Kasparov wrote that “Boris Nemtsov was a tireless fighter and one of the most skilled critics of the Putin government, a role that was by no means his only possible destiny.” The Anglophone world’s most learned Kremlinologists, Russia hands, and Slavic scholars are currently engaged in an arcane debate comparing the killing to the 1934 murder of Leningrad Communist Party leader Sergei Kirov. That December assassination of the Bolshevik leader was the pretext for setting off the Great Purges of the late 1930s that precipitated Joseph Stalin’s consolidation of ultimate power over the Soviets. A historically minded minority instead compared the killing to Mussolini’s expunging of Italian Socialist politician Giacomo Matteotti in 1924. Whether the murder does indeed augur a repetition of history by presaging a wider culling of the Kremlin’s opponents remains to be seen.
Nemtsov was a vivacious character and an unrepentant playboy in comparison to whom the only other politicians of his generation who might be described as noble—the economist Grigory Yavlinsky and the army Gen. Alexander Lebed—were plodding characters. Of the smooth and sleek young reformist politicians of his generation he was probably the smoothest and sleekest, the closest to being a Russian variant of a Clinton-Blair-style third way. Nemtsov is certainly a martyr of the Russian liberal opposition whose death will “change everything,” just as a thousand op-eds have already prophesied. Yet the actual policy prescriptions of his Neoliberal reformism and its effects on ’90s-era Russia have been understandably elided by the communal response to his killing. The Neoliberal doctrine of shock reforms was carried out with brazen disregard for Russia’s most vulnerable citizens and did incalculable damage to the social fabric of the country. Mark Ames’ typically acerbic and raucous appraisal of Nemtsov’s tenure as the handsome liberal face of Yeltsin’s government is a rare dissenting view that bears careful study. It is a necessary corrective to the never-ending multitude of slavish panegyrics to the man penned by confused liberals who in their own countries would be defenders of Nordic-style welfare state-ism.
The habitually cavalier and occasionally squalid privatization schemes that Nemtsov and his ideological cohort of liberal anti-corruption activists had administered were dubious affairs of invidious power politics that likely would have been carried out in similar fashion by whoever had come to power in the ’90s. In a country without large or indeed any reserves of capital, the concepts of value and prices were largely meaningless. The arbitrary distribution of colossal amounts of Russia’s communally held assets to a few private individuals for what amounted to a pittance could not have been anything but radically unjust. Nemtsov’s complex and belligerent political relations at the time with Boris Berezovsky bubbled over into personal friction over the privatization of a massive telecommunications firm.
This led to a personality clash in which he was handily outgunned by the more transparently brutish Berezovsky. In turn, Berezovsky’s infamously impudent putdown of Nemtsov’s presidential ambitions was proffered via pithy wordplay over their shared liability of bearing Jewish patronymics in Russian politics: “It seems to me that Mr. Nemtsov has a purely genetic problem,” Berezovsky said at a 1997 press conference. “He is a Boris Yefimovich, at times he is a Boris Abramovich, but he wants to be Boris Nikolayevich (Yeltsin). You don’t become a president, presidents are born.”
Though the impious Nemtsov had been baptized by his Russian grandmother at an early age, Berezovsky’s observation was as correct as it was cruel. Nemtsov and his cabinet were sacked, and his presidential aspirations were finally derailed by the August 1998 Russian financial crisis and debt default.
In hindsight, the mundane-seeming Putin’s ascent to power over such opponents as Foreign Intelligence Service Director Yevgeny Primakov and the rough-hewn Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov seems to be both over-determined and bizarre at once. But Stalin too seemed to have been the lesser of all his opponents until he finished them all off.
It was not until he was firmly ousted from power as the face of establishmentarian Russian reformism that Nemtsov began transforming himself into the quixotically noble figure that he is remembered as today. Ardently opposed to the Sochi Olympics, which he viewed as a debacle for his home town, he ran a doomed campaign and was trounced in the city’s 2009 mayoral elections. In 2013 he returned to electoral politics having won a regional election on the Yaroslavl regional city council—which is a significant step down for a former vice prime minister.
The Kremlin’s response to the assassination was self-exculpatory to the point of self pity. Putin’s powerful Press Secretary Dmitry Peskov gave a testy and dismissive interview during which he characterized Nemtsov’s assassination as “a contract job that bears an exclusively provocational character.” Provocational here being a paranoiac euphemism for a “set up.” That widely reported proclamation of victim-blaming was followed up with the much less reported but infinitely more brazen comparison of Nemtsov’s and Putin’s “ratings,” which proved that “all in all Boris Nemtsov was only slightly more important than the average statistical citizen.” This carried the jarring reverberations of Putin’s analogous debasement of crusading journalist Anna Politkovskaya as “politically insignificant” in the wake of her own 2006 murder.
Myriad defenders of the Kremlin quickly stepped forward to assert that there had actually existed no rational reason whatsoever for Putin to eliminate Nemtsov. The crime could only have been committed by crazed Caucasian Islamists, lone operators, or by the martyr-hungry liberals cannibalizing one of their own. A firm defender of Ukraine and embattled President Poroshenko, Nemtsov had begun meeting with families of Russian soldiers killed in Ukraine. The Kremlin’s proxies wasted no time fomenting rumors that his killing was somehow related to dalliances with aggrieved shadowy Ukrainian forces. Another version claimed that he was killed by a jealous lover of his 23-year-old Ukrainian girlfriend Anna Duritska, whom he had allegedly recently flown to Switzerland for an abortion.
The day after the killing, Poroshenko made public claims that Nemtsov had planned to reveal official Russian links to the East Ukrainian separatists. Many liberals, such as Nemtsov’s friend and close collaborator Ilya Yashin, insist that he was eliminated at the moment that he was preparing a damning report with extensive documentation of the presence of Russian troops in Eastern Ukraine. Only the most crude or transparently cynical commentators placed the blame on a perfidious Ukrainian complot carried out by the CIA. Putin personally took the reins of the investigation and appointed the head of the Investigative Committee domestic law enforcement agency Alexander Bastrykin to lead the investigation: Bastrykin is widely beloved by liberals and journalists alike for threatening to have a journalist killed in the woods.
Nemtsov had confided his private dread to his friends and had recently spent several semi-concealed months in Israel and complained to police of having received social media threats. Eventually he had become lucid—and perhaps desperate—enough to admit fearing for his life in an interview earlier this month with the Sobesednik newspaper. He continued to rely, perhaps blithely, on the unwritten compact of reciprocal imperviousness enjoyed by former high-ranking Russian government officials. There are many who compare his murder to that of crusading journalist Politkovskaya, but the comparison unduly minimizes the fact that Nemtsov was a former deputy prime minister, and as such ostensibly untouchable. That Politkovskaya, too, was murdered on Putin’s birthday—a “gift from the intelligence services”—is something that Russian liberals whisper to each other. The day before the killing, Putin had signed a decree declaring that Feb. 28 be celebrated in Russia as Special Operations Forces Day.
On Monday Vedemosti published the final posthumous interview in which Nemtsov speaks of Putin as “a completely amoral person. He is Leviathan.”
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