I visited Boris Nemtsov in his home city of Nizhny Novgorod in 1995, just after his election as governor of the region. It was an exciting time as Russia was making the difficult transition from communism to democracy and market economics. Nemtsov was riding high; his policies were beginning to pay off with growth and new job creation.
Nizhny Novgorod had been home to the Soviet Union’s military-industrial complex. Now defense industries were being transformed. We toured one weapons manufacturer that was producing golf clubs with titanium previously used in anti-tank missiles. We drove by an old Ford plant built in the 1920s. It was operating again, producing trucks and farm equipment.
Nemtsov was proud of the changes his administration had inspired. But he knew that breaking up and privatizing farm cooperatives would be controversial and that he would face major opposition. He explained how he was about to proceed and jokingly told us that he might end up dead in the process. He was pitted against powerful interests. But this young, newly elected governor believed he had a mandate from the people. He wasn’t about to be deterred.
Nemtsov stood up against powerful people his entire life. He rose to the position of vice premier of Russia and minister of energy under President Boris Yeltsin. He was a reformer inside and out of government, always willing to put his life on the line.
Nemtsov, a frequent critic of Vladimir Putin, was gunned down Feb. 27 outside the walls of the Kremlin. President Putin called the act “provocative’ and called for an investigation.
Now five Chechens have been arrested for the killing. Putin’s puppet governor of Chechnya sent an Instagram message alleging that the killing was motivated by Nemtsov’s criticism of the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris. Nemtsov supporters are quoted in the New York Times saying that this story is being spun by Putin to convince an international audience that Nemtsov’s assassination is Islamic retribution.
For what it is worth, I am convinced they are right.
Nemtsov was an active opponent of Putin and had been imprisoned three times after demonstrating against the government. He and champion chess player Garry Kasparov formed the “Laboratory of Reform” and the group called “For Russia Without Lawlessness and Corruption.” At the time of his death, Nemtsov was planning a mass demonstration against Putin’s policies in Ukraine.
A friend of Ukraine and adviser to former Ukrainian President Viktor Yushenko, Nemtsov had been vocal in his criticism of the Russian annexation of Crimea, the shooting down of the Malaysian airliner last year and the support for the rebels of Eastern Ukraine. In doing so, he stood against the tide of public opinion created by Putin’s propaganda machine. He paid the ultimate penalty for his beliefs.
Putin has appealed to Russian nationalism in blaming the West for what has happened in Ukraine. Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, the Russian propaganda machine makes claims of Western and Ukrainian aggression in Eastern Ukraine, denying that Russian military personnel and equipment have crossed the border.
Intense and persistent propaganda influences citizens in the short term, but like an addictive drug its effects soon wear off. Boris Nemtsov was preparing to use his notoriety to accelerate that process by demonstrating against Russia’s Ukraine policy. To Putin he was a clear and present danger.
Putin has promoted family values and patriotic pride in all things Russian. His popularity ratings indicate that he has succeeded in tapping into a nationalism that is intense. A large majority of Russians seem to believe that the collapse of the Soviet Union was a significant defeat that requires avenging. The challenge for Putin is that other Russian leaders see too clearly that his appeal is hypocritical.
There are more Boris Nemtsovs out there who want to end the lawlessness and the corruption. These leaders understand that murdering opponents is no reflection of “family values.”
I will always remember the optimism and the excitement of a younger Boris Nemtsov. And I will always admire his tenacity in the face of what he knew could be a very dangerous mission. May his memory sustain the democrats of Russia.
J. Brian Atwood is a global policy chair at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs. He was a member of the National Democratic Institute’s observer delegation in Ukraine.