February 26, 2018
Three years ago, Boris Nemtsov, one of the top Russian politicians during the 1990s and a vocal dissident throughout Vladimir Putin’s long reign, was shot dead near the Kremlin in Moscow. The death of this talented, passionate, and charismatic patriot shocked liberal and progressive communities in Russia and abroad. Tragically, Nemtsov joins a long list of political dissidents who were killed in Russia over the past two decades, including Anna Politkovskaya, Stanislav Markelov, Natalia Estemirova, and many others. Nonetheless, Nemtsov’s murder stands out from the rest because he once was a member of Russia’s political elite and his trajectory was highly unusual in the Russian context.

Having started as a provincial environmental activist, he charted an impressive career culminating in his brief tenure as the first deputy prime minister of Russia in 1998. As Putin came to power at the end of 1999, Nemtsov refused to integrate into the ruling elite in contrast to many of his formerly liberal colleagues, including Sergey Kirienko, the first deputy chief of staff of the presidential administration, and Anatoly Chubais, the chairman of the executive board of the state corporation Rosnano. Nemtsov personified radical resistance to the Putin establishment, which was based on patronage networks and personal enrichment. Despite many zigzags in his political evolution and career fortunes, Nemtsov strongly believed in participatory democracy, whether it was through collecting one million signatures against the first Chechen war or organizing rallies for fair elections. Nemtsov was assassinated not long before a major demonstration that he was leading against Russian military involvement in eastern Ukraine could be held.

As the Russian political observer and investigative journalist Oleg Kashin pointed out, Nemtsov’s death accelerated the atomization of the Russian opposition movement. Neither Garry Kasparov nor Mikhail Kasyanov, who were Nemtsov’s closest allies, are visible on the Russian political scene. Yet Kashin is right: the untimely departure of an engaging and experienced politician, who knew the Russian political machinery from the ground up and who became a prominent political figure before Putin assumed power, marks the end of a political era and the disappearance of liberal ideas in Russia.

Nemtsov’s lifelong struggle was dedicated to promoting liberal ideas, and yet he was realistic about the difficulties of doing so. In his book, Confessions of a Rebel, Nemtsov says that liberal ideas do not enjoy as much popularity in times of prosperity. His daughter Zhanna recounts that a journalist once asked him, “Boris Efimovich, do you think Putin needs you?” and he replied, “I don't care whether Putin needs me or not—our country needs me.” That was the spirit of Nemtsov. He was also committed to exposing the deceptiveness of the Russian elite, which was reflected in his posthumously published Putin.War report in 2015 and his 2013 co-authored investigation of state mismanagement of public procurement in the run up to the Sochi Olympics.

Russia without Nemtsov began to generate a toxic mixture of imperial and illiberal narratives, which are best exemplified by Zakhar Prilepin, a prominent Russian novelist, who is fighting for the Russian World (Russkiy Mir) in the Donbas. Prilepin describes freedom as a long-awaited emancipation of the mythical “Russian national spirit,” but in practice it implies subjugating others and sacrificing their lives for Russia’s imperial self-assertion. For Prilepin and his followers, Russian democracy is imbued with possessiveness toward Russia’s neighbors.

Liberal ideas aren’t popular in Russia today. Through a combination of methods, including the selective incorporation of key liberals into government and state-owned companies (Chubais and Kirienko), the marginalization of promising challengers on politically trumped-up charges (Aleksei Navalny), and the physical extermination of uncompromising opposition figures (Boris Nemtsov), liberalism is out.

Three years after Nemtsov’s death, however, we are witnessing the gradual institutionalization of his political legacy: The Boris Nemtsov Foundation, the Boris Nemtsov Forum, and the Boris Nemtsov Academic Center for the Study of Russia at Charles University in Prague have been opened. On the third anniversary of Nemtsov’s assassination, the square in front of the Russian Embassy in Washington, DC, will be unveiled as Boris Nemtsov Plaza. Activists and authorities in Kyiv are attempting to rename a street after Nemtsov to pay homage to his support for Ukraine’s democratic street revolutions in both 2004 and 2013-2014. Since 2015 numerous commemorative marches and actions have taken place in Russia and across the globe. A number of documentaries, including the Nemtsov film by Russian opposition leader and Nemtsov’s close friend Vladimir Kara-Murza, have immortalized his name as well.

This legacy leaves some with hope that Nemtsov was not the only political romantic who believed in participatory democracy in Russia. The tireless anti-corruption activist Navalny has emerged and picked up where Nemtsov was forced to stop.

Alexandra Yatsyk is a visiting fellow at the University of Uppsala in Sweden and co-editor of Boris Nemtsov and Russian Politics: Power and Resistance (Ibidem Verlag and Columbia University, 2018).

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