You could see his tall imposing frame and handsome face towering over his comrades-in-arms in the front line of anti-Kremlin demonstrations that rumbled down Moscow streets. The demonstrations would often end with riot police twisting his arms behind his back and bundling him into a waiting van, to be whisked off for his usual 15 days of “administrative arrest”.
His friends and admirers were at times discomfited by the sheer guts or recklessness of the man taking on the Russian president, walking the street like an ordinary citizen, no bodyguards, no retinue. That walk ended last Friday night on a wet pavement, a stone’s throw away from the Kremlin, when assailants from an unmarked car shot him six times in the back.
Boris Nemtsov’s meteoric rise from a quantum physics scientist to a reform-minded first deputy prime minister in President Boris Yeltsin’s administration was the stuff of Russian legend. In between, as governor, he instituted unprecedented reforms and achieved spectacular growth in Nizhny Novgorod, one of Russia’s depressed regions.
Flirted with idea of presidency
From there, he flew on the wings of success and popularity to Moscow, to join the raucous debate at the upper house of Russia’s Parliament. At one point, he flirted with the idea of presidency, but those plans were dashed against the rocks of Russia’s 1998 currency crisis and subsequent default, for which he was made to shoulder a portion of the blame.
Vladimir Putin’s deux ex machina appearance at the pinnacle of Russia’s political Olympus put a brief initial spell on Nemtsov, as it did on many Russians, disenchanted after years of state-sancitoned plunder under the oligarch-cuddling Yeltsin. In his 2000 op-ed in the New York Times, Nemtsov expressed guarded optimism about the newly anointed one: “Russia could do considerably worse than have a leader with an unwavering commitment to the national interest. And it is difficult to see how to do better.”
This optimism withered almost immediately, as Putin set about tightening the screws on Russia’s political machinery, bringing oligarchs to heel with one hand and muzzling independent press with the other. It was made clear to Nemtsov and his liberal, pro-western ilk, that from then on their political role in Russia would be confined to the margins and their life and limb put at risk. Not one to be cowed and refusing to be hounded into exile, Nemtsov embarked on a crusade against Vladimir Putin’s Leviathan, which he viewed, without mincing words, as a kleptocratic, rent-seeking mafia state.
He seemed to relish pushing his luck of a survivor in an increasingly despotic environment by provoking Putin repeatedly. In 2004, he threw his support behind Ukraine’s Orange Revolution, which included a stint as President Viktor Yuschenko’s (who claimed to have been poisoned by Putin’s emmisaries) adviser. He wrote scathing reports investigating corrupt dealings at Russia’s energy monopoly, Gasprom.
We may never know with certainty who shot the politician as he was walking in central Moscow ... hours after giving a radio interview where he urged Moscovites to come to the anti-war rally he was planning this Sunday.
In 2011, he helped organise some of the largest demonstrations in Russia’s post-Soviet history in Moscow, protesting against the fraudulently held legislative elections. As a native of Sochi, he spoke out against holding the 2014 Winter Olympics in that sub-tropical city, calling it “Putin’s personal project” and an “unprecedented thieves’ caper”, alleging that tens of billions of dollars had been siphoned off in sweetheart deals involving Putin’s cronies.
After Russia’s annexation of Crimea, it was inevitable that Nemtsov would find himself at the forefront of the barricades protesting Russia’s aggression against a fraternal nation, branding it “Vladimir Putin’s war”.
He had stood with the protesters on Maidan, as he now stood with the Ukrainians in their struggle to keep their country together in the face of Moscow’s stealth invasion of its eastern provinces. Sometimes I disagreed with the man on the methods, as during a heated debate at a Ukrainian talk show this past June, but I admired his resolve and his principled defence of Ukraine’s right to exist as a sovereign state, free of Russia’s interference.
That defence did not come easy during the last year, following the Crimea adventure: In order to justify and simultaneously conceal his actions in Ukraine, Putin ordered an unprecedented media campaign branding the war there as a NATO-orchestrated proxy attack on Russia.
Those daring to disagree publicly with the official position by protesting Russia’s naked aggression were branded 5th columnists and traitors, their effigies burned at Nazi-style rallies and their names trampled on in public lavatories. True to form, Boris Nemtsov was the primary bogeyman of this “righteous” public wrath.
We may never know with certainty who shot the politician as he was walking in central Moscow with a Ukrainian lady friend, hours after giving a radio interview where he urged Moscovites to come to the anti-war rally he was planning this Sunday. His friends and allies are pointing to a recent interview Nemtsov gave where he spoke of his 87-year-old mother’s fears that “Putin would kill her son” for his audacity. Ilya Kashin, Nemtsov’s close friend, spoke of a report the politician was preparing that would seek to prove Russia’s military involvement in Ukraine.
Meanwhile, state-controlled media have gone into overdrive with their expected insinuation that the murder was a nefarious plot by Russia’s enemies to discredit Putin and sow chaos. The essential truth about this crime may forever remain a muddle, or at least for as long as Putin remains on his throne.
One thing is clear, though: The stage for this crime was set a long time ago, with the daylight murders in mid-2000s of journalists Pavel Khlebnikov and Anna Politkovskaya and the poisoning of the security agent-turned whistleblower Alexander Litvinenko in London. Their sin and the sin of Boris Nemtsov was to speak truth about Putin’s power.
Peter Zalmayev is director of the Eurasia Democracy Initiative, an international non-profit organisation dedicated to the promotion of democracy and rule of law in post-Communist transitional societies of Eastern and Central Europe, the Caucasus and Central Asia.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.