Boris Nemtsov: The Death of a Real Russian Patriot
March 2, 2015
The cold-blooded murder of Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov last Friday against the majestic backdrop of the Kremlin and St. Basil’s Cathedral marked the further descent of Russian politics into the equivalent of Dante’s Inferno; a very dark place that seethes with hatred, deception, and violence. Boris, an almost larger than life figure, radiated love, transparency of the unvarnished truth, and peaceful resolution of differences. He stood for values completely at odds with those of Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin.
A one-time wunderkind brought by Yeltsin to Moscow in 1997 to perhaps be his successor, he embodies the road not taken by Russia since Mr. Putin succeeded Yeltsin 15 years ago. Boris may have had his flaws as a politician, and perhaps some bad luck on timing, but he carried a powerful vision for a truly democratic Russia where corruption was genuinely attacked rather than embraced by the new elite. And even when he was marginalized as a mainstream politician after 2003, he soldiered on with colleagues like Gary Kasparov, Vladimir Milov, and others in a Sisyphean struggle, always with good humor and a charismatic gleam in his eye, against the violations of the Russian government against their own people.
His final struggle was to reveal the illegal actions taken by Russian military forces in supporting the insurgency in Ukraine. Just last month he uttered the ultimate blasphemy for Kremlin ideologists by saying that Russia needed a revolution like Maidan. In the hot-house of mirrors that is contemporary Russia’s war propaganda world, Nemtsov was an appealing target for any number of recently converted zealots. Boris Nemtsov for years had been a purveyor of inconvenient truths to the Putin regime. Nemtsov was a genuine Russian patriot who sought to advance the national interest of an entire nation of more than 140 million people; not a puffed-up, bare-chested kleptocrat whose only goal is preservation of power.
A year ago on February 28th when I learned that Russia had militarily occupied Crimea, I was overwhelmed with a sickening feeling of dread. I felt in my bones that while Gorbachev and the USSR went out with a whimper, Mr. Putin and his cronies were taking Russia down a disastrous path that would cause massive collateral damage for Ukrainians, Russians, and many others. Putin’s speech to the Russian Federal Assembly cast the annexation of Crimea in the most chauvinistic Russian nationalistic terms I had read in more than 35 years of studying Soviet and Russian leaders’ speeches. And for the first time Putin cast those who opposed Russian policy as national traitors (natsionalnyi predateli). It was chilling reading, and in a testimony before the Congressional House Committee on Homeland Security on April 3rd, I urged others to read the speech “because it is possible that historians in the future may mark that moment as the tipping point of Weimar Russia into a fascist state.”
The murder of Nemtsov feels like another watershed moment, perhaps auguring a period of political violence, bloodshed, and instability reminiscent of the 1990s. Or perhaps it is designed as a message, a shot across the bow, so to speak, to any potential political/social actors seeking to cast doubt on the Kremlin’s narrative about the war in Ukraine. Perhaps it is the harbinger of far more repressive Kremlin policies to come to prevent social/political unrest resulting from the deep economic hardship now starting to permeate the Russian population. Whatever is coming, my bones tell me it feels dark, heavy, and brutal. But to honor Boris, let’s remember the Russia of lightness and charm, of analytical brilliance, integrity, and charismatic attraction—all the qualities that suffused the life he lived.
Andrew C. Kuchins is senior fellow and director of the Russia Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.
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