Former Ambassador to the European Union and High Commissioner to Britain
For those who knew him, the photo of Boris Nemtsov dead on the Moscow Bridge, just yards from the Kremlin walls, is heartbreaking. For Russians who remember the heady days of the early 1990s when anything seemed possible, which he once symbolized as much as any single public figure, it would be a harsh reminder of how dark and dimmed those dreams have become.
But for those who still believe in Russia’s democratic opposition to one-man rule orchestrated by hyper-patriotic nationalism that had seemed to cow and marginalize a diminishing number willing to protest, Boris Nemtsov’s violent death may represent a liberating event.
The day’s mood progressed from tears to defiance. “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose,” the song goes, and the sense that there is now truly nothing left to lose was strong among the mourning marchers in Moscow and St. Petersburg streets on Sunday, many of whom carried placards reading, “We are not afraid.”
By the time the march had reached the killing bridge itself, the silent crowds had begun to chant “Russia without Putin.” The opposition movement that had become fractious and forlorn has perhaps rediscovered itself as a cause that for Nemtsov was maybe worth dying for.
Russian flags waved to dispel the lie that that such democratic opposition to Putin’s reign is anti-patriotic. It was the constant official description of Nemtsov as a fifth columnist that had made it permissible for someone to think it was OK to gun him down. “Kill off the fifth column” a pro-Putin, nationalist march proclaimed just days ago.
What does Putin think? He didn’t do it. He gains nothing from it. To the contrary, his regime looks shoddy and brutal and Russia’s ostracism deepens.
But will his immense vanity again take offense at the protests? In 2011 and 2012 he judged those who marched against his return to power in Moscow and St. Petersburg to be spoiled urban elitists out of touch with the Russian narod, the people whose pensions and pride in Russia he has brought back up to expectations. “Where’s the gratitude?” Putin seemed to ask then of the protesting thousands, before he cracked down hard on them and on their movement, including Nemtsov who was forced to the margins of political life, banned from TV, and ridiculed in the state’s yellow press.
Is there a chance Vladimir Putin retains a shred of self-doubt, enough to acknowledge it has gone too far?
The tone and words of his condolence message to Nemtsov’s mother, Dina Eydman, were personal, grieving, and unusually complimentary to her son’s work in Russian public life, as a “principled person” who “acted openly, consistently and never betrayed his views” he “always openly and honestly voiced.”
Just more cynical spin? Or a sign that this is bad for Russia and bad for Putin himself, implicitly acknowledging the possibility that Nemtsov’s role as a victim of what Putin termed a “cruel and cynical murder” had turned the tables on Putin at last?
Putin, the ex-KGB agent, was never part of the merry band of Yeltsin reformers from the days of hope, though he was, along with Nemtsov and reformer Anatoly Chubais, one of the three sharpest guys I knew there. With astonishing luck and a nose for the moment, Putin out-maneuvered Nemtsov who had at one time, before the disastrous financial collapse of 1998 when he was First Deputy Premier, been considered to be President Boris Yeltsin’s likely successor.
Oh, what might have been! The young physicist those of us who lived in Russia 20 years ago knew — handsome, charismatic, and refreshingly sardonic about the trappings that came with the office of Governor of Novgorod; charming to everyone but especially to attractive ladies — what would he have done in the Kremlin? The young iconoclast who laughed hilariously at the clunky belching ZIL limo that came with his job would not have built pleasure palaces behind high walls. The stimulating intellectual who enjoyed bantering with journalists and foreign visitors and even diplomats if they weren’t stiff and old-school wouldn’t have shut himself into a bubble of flatterers and cronies. Nemtsov was an evidence-based scientist who believed in listening.
Yeltsin is said to have decided against Nemtsov as his successor because in the end “he wasn’t personally suitable.” Read that as meaning he wasn’t into the corruption, shady deals, and total loyalty to a top-down command and control the system valued above all else. Nemtsov was capable of great loyalty — but to his principles.
So… The question is how many Russians recoil at his killing and remember him for what they have lost. Then, the question is what they are willing and able to do about it.
The jury’s out.
This death may well be known years hence as having been a decisive turn, in the long, hard slog to inclusive democracy Russians have been dreaming of since Tolstoy.