‘They Killed the Strongest One’

Boris Nemtsov: A life remembered, a legacy celebrated

Three years have passed since the murder of Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, but his legacy continues to inspire those who challenge Vladimir Putin’s authoritarian government in Russia.

Describing Nemtsov’s life and legacy, his close friend and fellow dissident Vladimir Kara-Murza said: “Every country, every nation has its good sides and its bad sides. Boris represented the best there is of Russia.”

Nemtsov was a governor, member of the Russian Duma, deputy prime minister, critic of the Kremlin, opposition leader, friend, and “the most decent person I’ve ever known,” said Kara-Murza, chairman of the Boris Nemtsov Foundation.

Nemtsov was shot and killed as he walked across a bridge near the Kremlin in Moscow late at night on February 27, 2015. At the time of his death, he was in the midst of research for a report to reveal the role of Russian fighters in Eastern Ukraine. He had also scheduled a march for March 1, 2015, to protest the ongoing war.

According to Kara-Murza, who has himself survived two attempts on his life, these actions were indicative of one of Nemtsov’s driving principles. To him, “the most important thing was to tell people the truth.”

“He believed that if the Russian people knew what the regime was doing, the situation would be righted,” said Kara-Murza.

This belief spoke to his faith in the fundamental goodness of people, and his integrity, said Kara-Murza. He added that though Nemtsov’s “human decency was very often detrimental to his political prospects,” it defined him and ultimately made him successful.

Kara-Murza joined David Kramer, senior fellow at the Vaclav Havel Program for Human Rights and Diplomacy in the Steven J. Green School of International and Public Affairs at Florida International University; Henry Hale, professor and co-director of the Program on New Approaches to Research and Security in Eurasia at the George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs; and Kateryna Smagliy, director of the Kennan Institute’s Kyiv office, at the Atlantic Council on February 14 to share their personal stories of Nemtsov’s life and discuss the significance of his death. Melinda Haring, editor of the Atlantic Council’s UkraineAlert, moderated the conversation.

Each of the panelists contributed to the recently published book, Boris Nemtsov and Russian Politics: Power and Resistance, which was launched at the event.

Kara-Murza worked closely with Nemtsov throughout his political career. Though a successful governor of the Nizhny Novgorod Oblast and one of the last democratically elected members of the Duma, Nemtsov began to pursue the more radical track of a political dissident after Putin assumed power in 1999. Kara-Murza said that as Putin’s kleptocratic Kremlin took hold of Russia, Nemtsov became resolute in the belief that those in power in Moscow stifled the prospects for the rest of the country. Rather than taking the easy road and supporting Putin, as did so many others, Nemtsov spoke out.

“He was absolutely certain that what he was doing was right and principled and good, and he was willing to take the costs,” said Kara-Murza.

Nemtsov’s death dealt a devastating blow to the opposition which has since been unable to unite under a single leader. According to Kara-Murza, “one of the most persistent problems of the Russian democratic opposition is that we can never unite.” Nemtsov, however, was that unifying force who empowered the Russian people to fight for participatory democracy and political change.

His charm and charisma, in combination with wit and wisdom, made him the perfect candidate to the lead the opposition against Putin. “They killed the strongest one,” said Kara-Murza.

Though at times Nemtsov was criticized as a spent force, he never lost “this internal drive that constantly made him a force in politics,” said Hale.

“If he were a spent force, he’d still be alive today,” said Kramer.

Nemtsov also played an active role in Ukraine, said Smagliy. He participated in the Orange Revolution in late 2004 and attempted to do the same during the Euromaidan in 2013. However, Smagliy said, Nemtsov was stopped at the border. This did not deter him, and he addressed Ukrainians from Moscow instead.

She described how “he talked about Ukraine as his guiding star.”

“He supported Ukraine so strongly because Ukraine’s success gave Russia a chance,” said Smagliy.

According to his friends, Nemtsov’s resolution to affect change translated to immense courage. “Under Putin, when it would be…so much safer,” to cooperate with the Kremlin, “he chose to do what he did,” and protest, said Kara-Murza. He added that Nemtsov “was ready to shelve his personal ambitions to further the common good.” Though it was this unique quality, in combination with his integrity and conviction, that made Nemtsov the focal point of the opposition rallying cry and an anomaly in the Russia political arena, it did not mean he lacked ambition. “He wanted to become president of Russia,” said Kara-Murza, “but he was not prepared to walk over people and break his own principles to do it.”

According to Kara-Murza, had he lived, Nemtsov planned to run against Putin in the upcoming president elections on March 18. “He knew he wouldn’t be allowed to win, but that wasn’t the point,” he said. Rather, Nemtsov aimed to demonstrate to the Russian people an alternative to authoritarianism.

“There is a tendency to equate Russia with Putin and Putin with Russia. That is not the case,” said Kramer. He said that Nemtsov represented the best of Russia and showed a different side of the nation.

“If he had become president, not only what a different Russia, but what a different world we would live in,” said Kara-Murza.

Though he is gone, Nemtsov’s legacy lives on in today’s Russian opposition movement. Putin’s “election” may be a foregone conclusion—Kramer called it a “coronation”—but he has faced destabilizing challenges from another opposition leader, Alexei Navalny.

“Boris paved the way for Navalny to do what he is doing now,” said Kramer.

A series of arrests later, Navalny has been barred from running in the election, but the intense crackdown on opposition “shows an uneasiness within the walls of the Kremlin,” said Kramer. He added: “This regime is more fragile than people take it to be.”

“The Kremlin is still continuing to fight Boris Nemtsov today,” said Kara-Murza. He described how leaders in Moscow will not allow a street to be named after the former politician, and flowers are stolen from Nemtsov’s memorial on the bridge where he was killed. According to Kara-Murza, “they are continuing to fight his memory, his legacy, and his name.”

This did not deter Nemtsov’s supporters and those who still believe in his ideals. On February 25, thousands marched in Moscow to honor Nemtsov and called for Putin’s ouster, a mere three weeks ahead of the election.

Though they faced resistance in Russia to officially honor the fallen leader, Nemtsov’s friends—Kara-Murza among them—and family worked with the Council of the District of Columbia to dedicate the Boris Nemtsov Plaza on Wisconsin Avenue, directly across from the Russian embassy. It was unveiled on February 27, the third anniversary of Nemtsov’s death.

The celebration took place in the United States because “it has been made absolutely clear,” said Kara-Murza, “that while Putin is in power we will not be allowed to commemorate a Russian statesman in Russia.”

However, he added: “I have absolutely no doubt that the day will come—and it will come sooner than people think—that we will commemorate Boris Nemtsov in Russia.”

Rachel Ansley is assistant director of editorial content at the Atlantic Council.

Image: From left: David Kramer, Senior Director for Human Rights and Democracy at the McCain Institute for International Leadership, moderated a discussion on “Silencing Voices of Russian Opposition” with Marina Litvinenko, the widow of murdered former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko; Vladimir Kara-Murza, a Senior Policy Advisor at the Institute of Modern Russia; and Alex Goldfarb, Co-founder of the Litvinenko Justice Foundation, at the Atlantic Council on March 15. (Atlantic Council)