Looking back at Boris Nemtsov ‘Meduza’ reviews the career of one of Russia’s most influential oppositionists
On the evening of February 27, opposition politician Boris Nemtsov was shot and killed. The murder took place in central Moscow, on the Bolshoy Moskvoretsky Bridge, just minutes from the Kremlin. Nemtsov was shot several times from a passing car. He was 55 years old.
By about 1 a.m., police had roped off the crime scene at the Bolshoy Moskvoretsky Bridge. Getting past the barricade tape wasn’t hard, however. Beyond the police line, just a few feet from a bunch of cars with license plates belonging to the Interior Ministry and the Investigative Committee, there was a man lying on the ground, his shirt removed. Police soon carried him away in a body bag.
Boris Nemtsov was killed at roughly 11:15 p.m., not long after leaving Red Square, as he was returning to his home south of the Kremlin with a young woman. According to official reports, Nemtsov was shot between four and seven times, killing him instantly. His female companion, who’s thought to be a Ukrainian citizen, survived unharmed. She’s been taken in for questioning by police. Reporters have yet to speak with her.
Before long, former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov, another official who left the government to join the opposition, was standing at the police line. “This is a reprisal,” Kasyanov told Meduza. “I can find no other words to rationalize this murder that’s taken place only a few steps from the Kremlin.” Standing next to him was Ilya Yashin, one of the leaders of Nemtsov’s political party, Republican Party of Russia–People's Freedom Party (RPR-Parnas). Yashin said relatively little, mostly holding his hands up to his face. “This has nothing to do with his work in Yaroslavl,” Yashin said, when asked about Nemtsov’s role as a member of the Yaroslavl regional parliament. “This isn’t about what he was doing there. Nemtsov could only have been killed for the investigatory work he did on Ukraine and the Russian military’s role in destabilizing that country.”
Journalists, many of whom were well acquainted with Nemtsov personally, soon gathered at the scene of the murder, not hiding their tears. After some time, an officer gave a brief statement. “Mr. Nemtsov was fatally wounded, and a team is now investigating the scene of the crime. We are taking every necessary measure,” said Yelena Alekseeva, the Russian Interior Ministry’s official spokesperson. Based on her remarks, it seems Nemtsov was shot in the back from a moving car. At least four bullets found their target, killing Nemtsov on the spot.
Russia’s top police official, Interior Minister Vladimir Kololkotsev, also visited the crime scene. “I can’t comment on anything. I don’t know any more than you do,” he told reporters, who pressed him to say more about what police were doing. Kolokoltsev promised that his office would use every resource at its disposal.
As a mix of rain and snow started to fall more heavily, police removed Nemtsov’s remains in a black body bag. Yashin left for the PRP-Parnas office, saying only “I need to have a talk and collect myself.”
A few days before his death, Nemtsov published research claiming that 133 members of Russia’s parliament underpay their taxes. The arrears, going as high as a few hundred thousand rubles (roughly $8,000), weren’t astronomical. But his colleagues had another report in mind—an investigation that should be published any day now, where Nemtsov presents evidence that Russia’s so-called “volunteers” fighting with separatists in eastern Ukraine are in fact acting on orders from the Kremlin.
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Boris Nemtsov was born in Sochi in 1959, before moving with his family to what is currently the city of Nizhny Novgorod, where he went on to study radiophysics at Gorky State University. Before the fall of Communism, Nemtsov worked in several research institutes, writing more than 60 academic papers on quantum physics, thermodynamics, and acoustics.
With the beginning of Russia’s post-Soviet era, Nemtsov left science for politics. In 1990, he was elected to Russia’s Congress of People's Deputies, which was the country’s supreme government institution, until President Boris Yeltsin dissolved it in the 1993 constitutional crisis. Back in 1991, Yeltsin made Nemtsov head of the Nizhny Novgorod region, and in 1995 Nemtsov was elected to this post, winning 58.9 percent of the popular vote.
Nemtsov was one of the most visible governors of the 1990s. Even then, his face was a familiar sight on televisions across the country. He was an active debater, and one of the first governors in Russia to allow farmlands to be traded on the open market (a policy that bordered on revolution, in those days); the Communist majority in the federal parliament equated it with high treason. Soon, however, other regions throughout Russia began following Nizhny Novgorod’s lead.
Nemtsov never served out his second term as governor, as he was appointed first deputy prime minister in 1997, charged overseeing issues concerning housing, welfare, the Transportation Ministry, and the Energy Ministry. Before the start of 1998, Nemtsov was a more popular presidential candidate for the 2000 election than Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov, who nearly defeated Yeltsin in 1996. But the Russian default of 1998 destroyed Nemtsov’s popularity. He and former Prime Minister Sergey Kiriyenko resigned together. After exiting their offices for the last time, Nemtsov and Kiriyenko stopped to drink some vodka with a group of miners who were then demonstrating in Moscow.
After working in the Yeltsin Administration, Nemtsov became leader of the Rossiya Molodaya (“Young Russia”) movement. In 1999, he and two allies led the party list for Union of Right Forces, winning a seat in the Duma, where he served as vice speaker. In November 1999, like most liberals at the time, Nemtsov supported Yeltsin’s decision to make Vladimir Putin his successor, calling him the worthiest of all the potential presidential candidates.
In the 2003 and 2007 elections, Union of Right Forces failed to clear the 5 percent barrier, losing its seats in the Duma. Many still remember a campaign ad from that era, perhaps one of the biggest public relations disasters in Russian political history, where Nemtsov and two colleagues lay out their election platform while lounging on board a private jet.
It was around this point that Nemtsov transformed into what might be called a hardened oppositionist. In February 2008, he coauthored a report with opposition politician Vladimir Milov, titled Putin: Results. Over the next few years, several similar reports followed, tackling issues like Putin’s activities, government corruption, and more.
In December 2008, Nemtsov joined the leadership of the Solidarnost (“Solidarity”) movement, becoming one of the main sponsors of the opposition, along with Garry Kasparov. In 2012, Nemtsov, Mikhail Kasyanov, and former Duma First Deputy Chairman Vladimir Ryzhkov became the co-chairs of RPR-Parnas.
In what turned out to be the final years of his life, Nemtsov participated in elections (he ran for mayor of Sochi in 2009, winning only 13.6 percent of the vote, and was elected to the Yaroslavl regional parliament in 2013) and in street protests (regularly attending the Strategy 31 free speech demonstrations and joining the organization committee for the 2011-2012 winter protests). In 2012, he was elected to the short-lived Opposition Coordinating Council.
Sources tell Meduza that Nemtsov struggled with severe depression in the months before he was killed. He thought he deserved more than a seat in the Yaroslavl regional parliament, but he knew he had no chance of winning national elections.
Nemtsov was murdered just a day before a major opposition rally, scheduled to take place on March 1 in Moscow’s residential district of Maryino. A few hours before being shot, Nemtsov appeared on the radio station Echo of Moscow, where he called on citizens to come to the demonstration.
Early on Saturday, February 28, protest organizers canceled the March 1 rally in Maryino. Instead, they plan to hold a memorial for Boris Nemtsov in the center of Moscow.