We Are All Nemtsov

Boris Nemtsov

Image courtesy of RIA Novosti/Mikhail Mordasov

We Are All Nemtsov
| published March 1, 2015 |

By R. Alan Clanton
Thursday Review editor

Russian President Vladimir Putin has recently seen his most tenacious and unbended political adversary killed. Boris Nemtsov, arguably Putin’s most outspoken critic, was gunned down Friday night—shot as close range while he walked across a bridge a short distance from the Kremlin.

The timing of his murder struck millions of Russians as more than coincidence: Nemtsov had, only two hours earlier, delivered a stinging radio interview in which he complained of Putin’s ever-expanding legacy of darkness, as well as Putin’s systematic dismantling of democracy. In the radio chat, Nemtsov characterized Putin as mega maniacal, and a vengeful architect of “mad, aggressive” foreign policy.

More importantly, Nemtsov had been in the final stages of writing a massive, detailed report on Russian intervention in the Ukrainian civil war, now approaching one year old. The war began with the forced ouster of pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych and quickly turned into a land grab for Russia, which annexed the Crimea last spring, and triggered an anti-Kiev militant movement supplied (though Moscow denies it) with Russian weapons, technologically-advanced hardware, tanks, and even—as some have speculated—Russian troops. Nemtsov planned to present his report to journalists, along with solid evidence of Moscow’s involvement and Putin’s direct intervention.

Nemtsov was also scheduled to be the headline speaker at an anti-war rally—an event meant to energize Russian opponents of the war in the Ukraine—this Sunday in Moscow. Instead, the demonstration’s organizers plan to convert the event into a day of mourning for his loss, and as homage to Nemtsov’s legacy as a reformer and progressive.

By late Friday and early Saturday, thousands of supporters and mourners were crowding around the site of his assassination, lighting candles and placing flowers, cards, and hand-made signs along the bridge. And by Sunday morning in Moscow, tens of thousands were already descending on foot to the original starting point of the rally, where they plan to march to the bridge where Nemtsov was murdered.

Outrage over his death came from around the world. German Chancellor Angela Merkel called Nemtsov courageous, and U.S. President Barack Obama said that Russia had “lost one of the most dedicated and eloquent defenders” of democracy and political and economic reform. Hundreds of other world leaders also made public statements, or sent letters of condolence to other opposition leaders in Russia.

Nemtsov was known for his speeches and writings in which he railed against corruption in business and economic policy, often in sharp tones. He was one of the first Putin opponents to express public concern and outrage over the lavish spending and massive redirection of resources used to create the 2014 Winter Olympics event in Sochi, where Nemtsov said Putin’s business allies and cronies soaked up billions in corrupt contracts and inflated costs.

Nemtsov had become a fierce political opponent of Putin and the Russian President’s inner circle of friends and allies, many of whom are among the most powerful owners of oil, gas or industrial conglomerates, and among the richest billionaires in Russia. Nemtsov has also long argued that Russia is failing as an economic democracy—its economy serving only to feed the wealthiest of the oligarchs while providing scant few opportunities for the middle classes. And Nemtsov has always been openly wary of Putin’s political motivations and his loyalty to democratic ideas, which Nemtsov often spoke of in terms of Putin’s deep roots in the KGB as a station chief and top director.

Nemtsov, who was walking across the Great Moskvoretsky Bridge over the Moskva River near the Kremlin, was shot four times in the back—one bullet striking him in the spine near his neck—by men in a mid-sized white sedan. According to witnesses, the car drove off seconds later. Nemtsov was walking with a Ukrainian woman at the time, and she escaped unhurt. Police arrived quickly to the scene, sealed off the area where the shootings occurred, and took photos and gathered forensic evidence. Bystanders and reporters say that after two hours of examination, police cleared the area and used hoses to clean off the sidewalk and roadside where Nemtsov’s blood had puddled.

By late Saturday night and early Sunday morning, flowers were heaped several feet high and forty feet wide in the area along the bridge were Nemtsov was killed. Mourners had placed candles, cards, bouquets, photos, letters, and even handmade signs that read “We Are All Nemtsov,” reminiscent of the signs crafted in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo murders in Paris.


Political opponents of Vladimir Putin have a nasty habit of going away—jailed, banished from public life, hounded or removed from office, or, in some cases, through untimely deaths.

Back in 1999, when Putin was still a relatively new face on the Russian political scene, his arch-nemesis (and the country’s top prosecutor) Yuri Skuratov suffered a total political meltdown in a carefully-engineered “scandal” which involved a Skuratov-lookalike in pristinely edited videotape footage (as if it had been filmed in a studio) frolicking naked with two $1000 per night call-girls. Putin happily showed the footage to reporters, and blamed the whole thing on “corruption.”

Few reporters or political watchers believed the video to be legitimate, and Skuratov narrowly survived the fracas until the day when Putin was being installed as President, when he quietly asked that Skuratov vanish from public life. Putin’s cronies in Moscow obliged, and the former prosecutor was forever banned from public office.

Other Putin opponents—or merely those who were immune to his charms or his leverage—were forced to leave Russia entirely: Boris Berezovsky, for example, a one-time billionaire who now lives in England for no other reason than he could not be bought or co-opted by Putin.

Investigative journalist and human rights advocate Anna Politkovskaya, who wrote eloquently of Putin’s brutalities in Chechnya and other hot spots, was assassinated in 2006 in a murder that has never been rightly solved, and only investigated cursorily. Politkovskaya reported frequently and deeply from the front lines during the war in Chechnya, and her investigative book Putin’s Russia: Life in a Failing Democracy was regarded worldwide as a clear and sober look at how the political system of Russia bends to the will of Putin and his cronies.

Politkovskaya had survived previous attempts on her life, including once reportedly being poisoned with tea laced with arsenic and other deadly compounds found in lab results after she was hospitalized. At the time, she had been reporting from Beslan, the town where a school had been taken hostage by militants. The compounds found in her tainted tea, some had said, could have only come from a top secret Russian facility where the KGB planned some of its most clandestine and dangerous operations.

Having apparently failed at poisoning, her enemies chose the less elegant but more direct method of the gun on October 7, 2006, Politkovskaya was gunned down Mafioso-style in the elevator of the apartment building where she lived in downtown Moscow—three bullets to the chest, one final shot to the forehead. Her killing was never fully solved, though two men were recently convicted of conspiracy in her murder (reporters and human rights advocates say that the men convicted are patsies, minor criminals with little, if any, connection to her murder).

About a week after she was buried, a former Russian FSB agent turned reformer, investigator of organized crime, and notable Putin opponent, Alexander Litvinenko—a man who had said publicly he would investigate Politkovskaya’s death and avenge her killing—survived what we now know was a first but failed attempt at poisoning. He would die of poisoning about a month later, in London, after massive levels of highly radioactive polonium-210 were somehow slipped into a small ceramic teapot while Litvinenko was meeting with Andrei Lugovoi and Dmitry Kovtun at a bar inside the Millennium Hotal.

Litvinenko fell ill within hours, was hospitalized, and died a very gruesome and public death—some would say courageously—in a London hospital days later. Suspicion has always fallen on Lugovoi and Kovtun because of physical evidence: traces of the radioactive material were found in their hotel rooms, a bathroom which surveillance cameras show they visited moments before tea was served, and even on the airplane seats where they sat on their flight back to Moscow.

Despite this pattern, and in spite of often demonstrable evidence, Putin remained unbended and unremorseful, often immediately spinning explanations of these grisly tales into complex and spurious convolutions, stories by which the victims were merely the sacrificial lambs of anti-Russian conspirators. Their deaths, Putin would say, were staged to disrupt and destabilize Russia.

Law enforcement officials and Moscow police this weekend rushed to concur with Putin’s judgment on Nemtsov’s murder—just as these generally pro-Putin agencies have in the past: Nemtsov’s killing was the desperate act of radical, sectarian, or pro-Western groups, and the murder was meant to destabilize Russia’s society and already struggling economy. The Kremlin called the assassination “a provocation.”

Nemtsov had expressed concern for his safety in several interviews within the last ten days, telling reporters and friends that he sensed Putin would have him killed, especially if he (Nemtsov) continued to present evidence of direct Russian intervention in the Ukrainian War.

Indeed, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko had said as much just last week, when he told a reporter that Nemtsov feared for his life because of what he knew—and what he planned to tell the world—about Russia’s land grab in the Ukraine.

Related Thursday Review articles:

Kiev Says Russian Troops Crossing Border; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; February 21, 2015.

Pro-Russian Rebels Ignore Ceasefire; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; February 19, 2015.