It was a sweltering summer day in July 2013 and dozens of reporters were pushing and shoving to get into a tiny courthouse in the provincial Russian city of Kirov. Boris Nemtsov rocked up, tall and tan, his light shirt unbuttoned one button too many, as was his customary style. He tried to push through. Everyone wanted to be inside when Alexey Navalny, the man who had shot to the forefront of Russia’s wobbly opposition, delivered his final words to the court seeking to silence him.
Nemtsov used his broad shoulders to try to muscle his way through. We pushed back. Who was Nemtsov, anyway? In the 1990s he was a star. One of the youngest mayors of post-Soviet Russia, he managed to turn Nizhny Novgorod, one of Russia’s biggest cities, into a place where the factories ran, the paychecks cleared, and the economy grew despite the poverty and chaos engulfing the country. He was that rare thing in those days — a popular politician. Boris Yeltsin tapped him for his cabinet in 1997 and appointed him deputy prime minister.
But this was July 2013. Nemtsov had been out of power for more than a decade, ousted from the cabinet after the ruble collapse of 1998 and pushed out of parliament five years later. Since then he had implanted himself firmly in the opposition, warning of President Vladimir Putin’s growing authoritarianism, penning op-eds in Western papers, shouting from stages to those who would listen. And even then, when Moscow rose up in protest for real after Putin announced his intention in late 2011 to return to the presidency after four years as prime minister, he was surpassed by people like Navalny, who was younger, more charismatic, and less tarnished than Nemtsov, with his reputation as a man who cared just as much for women (so many women) and fine dining as he did for politics.
But Nemtsov was in on the joke. As he continued to try to push his way through the crush on the courthouse steps, a reporter shouted, “Why should we let you through?” Nemtsov flashed a smile — a rare thing in Russia, rarer still on the steps of a provincial courthouse — and said, “Because I’m Nemtsov!” And then he laughed, and the journalists laughed with him.
And in his solidarity with Navalny, Nemtsov had become something rare in even the most selfless protest movements. For years, Russia’s embattled counted just a few dozen souls. They would come out to the same square in Moscow on the last day of every month (they called it “Strategy 31”) and demand their constitutional right to assembly. Sometimes 60 people would show up. If 150 did it was considered an outrageous success. Nemtsov was among their leaders. He had an outsized personality and carried it around with a swagger, looking down over his glasses at the riot police who would be trying to arrest him, looking beyond and almost through the dozens of people who were protesting alongside him.
When Navalny came onto the scene — you could say out of nowhere, but it was really out of the internet, where he had amassed a huge gathering, the likes of which no opposition leader had seen before — it could’ve gotten ugly. Opposition politics in authoritarian states is often a lot messier from the inside than it looks from abroad and that holds for Russia. There are petty jealousies and bureaucratic rivalries. The leftists fight with the uber-leftists and this activist refuses to even sit next to that one. Nemtsov could easily have put up a fight. He loved attention and he was used to it. But as Navalny’s popularity grew, Nemtsov stepped aside and fought alongside — instead of against — him. He ceded way for the next generation.
He still appeared on stage at opposition rallies, and issued reports outlining things like corruption at the Sochi Olympics. His colleagues said Friday night, in the wake of his brutal murder in the shadow of the Kremlin, that his upcoming report was devoted to Russia’s war in Ukraine.
Inside Moscow opposition circles, there was shock and confusion. No one really understood why they had gone after Nemtsov. (“They” always means the Kremlin, but then comes the questioning: what if it wasn’t the Kremlin? There’s always a part that wants to believe it wasn’t.)
To outsiders, the shock might seem surprising. Russia is a place where things like this happen. Opposition murders are to be expected. To be surprised is naive.
But the shock comes every time — after the murder of Anna Politkovskaya (shot in her elevator), of activist Natalia Estemirova (abducted from her home in Chechnya and shot), and now after the murder of Nemtsov. It’s not about belief, that he lived in a system that would protect him or that he didn’t take great risks by being politically active in Russia. It’s just that he was there with us a minute ago, smiling on the stairs.
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