The murder of Boris Nemtsov, a prominent opposition activist and intransigent critic of the Kremlin, could have grave implications for both the Russian opposition and the authorities.
Flowers and a picture at a murder scene of politician Boris Nemtsov, who was shot dead on Moscow's Moskvoretsky bridge in the early hours of February 28, 2015. Photo: RIA Novosti
The murder of one of Russia’s most prominent opposition activists and vocal critics of the Kremlin, Boris Nemtsov, on Feb. 27, just meters away from Red Square, has triggered public uproar and spurred debate over the country’s political future. It has also fueled tensions between members of the Russian opposition and those who claim to fight against a “fifth column” in Russian society.
Russian politicians, public figures and journalists responded immediately after Nemtsov was shot dead after 11 p.m. on Friday in central Moscow. With conspiracy theories abounding, some blame Russian President Vladimir Putin for the murder, while others claim that Nemtsov was a sort of “sacrificial victim” of the opposition.
Experts and journalists have been more hesitant and reserved in making conclusions. While saying that there is no proof of Putin’s involvement in the murder and that he doesn’t control the situation, some of them said that the Russian president should be held accountable and responsible for creating the atmosphere of hatred in the country.
For example, former U.S. Ambassador to Russia and Professor at Stanford University Michael McFaul expressed his regrets and said in an interview to Kommersant FM that those responsible for creating the atmosphere of intolerance in Russia and spreading nationalist sentiments should be held accountable for the murder.
Anatoly Chubais, a prominent Russian politician and businessman who was responsible for privatization in the country in the 1990s and worked with Nemtsov, described him as “absolutely incorruptible” and “sincere” person who stuck to his principles. At the same time, Chubais warned against coming up with conspiracy theories, because such rhetoric fuels hatred in the country and leads to very grave implications.
“The matter is that there is demand for anger in the country, there is demand for hatred, there is demand for aggression,” he said. “If several days ago, in our city people marched with slogans “Let’s smash the fifth column” and today killed Nemtsov, let’s think over – what will happen tomorrow?”
At the same time, the Kremlin was also quick to react to the assassination of the high-profile opposition activist. Russian President Vladimir Putin expressed his condolences to the mother of Nemtsov and promised to take the investigation under personal control.
Below, Russia Direct publishes some commentaries and reactions from Russia experts and those who knew Nemtsov personally.
Gregory Feifer, former NPR correspondent in Moscow, writer, author of the book Russians: People behind The Power
Boris Nemtsov's death signifies the passing of the 1990s reform era more than anything so far.
Boris Yeltsin was a sick old man when he died. Nemtsov was a bright, brash, brave politician who was younger than his years and personified the promise of the young reformers. He represented the best of that tradition, leading protests under Communism and experimenting with chaotic but promising free-market reforms that brought him international recognition as governor of his native Nizhny Novgorod until reaching the highest levels of government to become Yeltsin's anointed successor.
After it all came crashing down in 1998, he became a tireless opposition leader who never stopped campaigning for democracy and human rights — even though he was once part of the core group of Yeltsin loyalists who put Putin in power, many of whom have since remained silent.
His reports about corruption at the highest levels would have helped bring down governments in other countries. And his humor and deserved “bad boy” image meant he was always interesting to be around.
There was no one else like him. His death is a tremendous loss for Russia — while I doubt it will affect domestic politics, it represents a very dark period in the country's history.
Although Nemtsov is the highest-profile opposition figure to have been murdered in Russia, his death is just the latest in a long line of prominent killings that continue to take place thanks to the impunity that reigns under Putin.
I certainly agree that Putin is ultimately responsible for his death in the sense that the hatred he's whipping up not only in Russia, but also in Ukraine and other European countries is poisoning a society that is sick and fast getting sicker.
Whoever killed Nemtsov and whatever the specific reason — facts we will probably never know — his death sends an unmistakable message that dissidence isn't tolerated and that no one is above the criminality that sustains Putin's rule.
Russia is a different place since his murder, not only because it lacks his voice but also because of the effect it will have on others.
I think this is indeed a turning point for Russian politics. Some would say just another turning point but I think this is the turning point.
I think that, for the future of Russia, the murder of Boris Nemtsov will mean the similar thing as the murder of Sergei Kirov in 1934 [the a prominent Bolshevik leader in the Soviet Union who was shot dead in his own office. — Editor’s note]. That murder was a trigger for the great terror of 1937.
The audience of this crime is not the Russian people. For the overwhelming majority of Russians, Boris was a very honest and straightforward guy, but he was a personification of the 1990s and the ill-manifested reforms of Boris Yeltsin. All the hatred against Yeltsin was personified in Nemtsov.
I think that the target audience for this murder is within the elites. It’s within the Russian elites who knew Nemtsov very well… and within the elites in the West — which probably is even a greater target.
What will happen next? Putin is now in a situation when he cannot avoid finding those who are to blame. I can guarantee that within two or three weeks we will see those who will be blamed.
My personal bet is that it will be somebody next to Mikhail Khodorkovsky [former Russian businessmen and most famous prisoner who is now in self-exile in Switzerland. — Editor's note], who the Kremlin really fears.
Whether it’s Putin to blame — and I agree that jumping to conclusions is never good — but I think it’s pretty obvious that it’s this regime and this system which are to blame.
Jack Matlock, U.S. Ambassador to Moscow (1987 to 1991)
I don’t know what’s going on. I think it’s a terrible thing, very shocking. And it’s hard for me to believe that law enforcement in Russia is so weak that this happened without some high level official sanction. And this is the shocking part. That’s all I have to say.
Dr. Samuel Greene, founding director of King’s College London
We are all reading the tea leaves. The problem is that it almost doesn’t matter what message was sent because we don’t know who did it. We might eventually find out or we may not. But we do know what messages have been received regardless of whether they were meant to be sent.
We know that this will be scary for those people who were on Nemtsov’s side of the ideological barricades in Russia. We know that this will be interpreted, and that Putin now will be seen within some circles of the West as governing a country where opposition leaders are killed.
I think the real risk is that these messages are received before we actually know what happened and why.
A tragedy that could serve as an opportunity for people to come together and to recognize that violence has no place in politics may instead serve to further divide people and to increase the potential for further violence. That’s what I worry about.
We probably will never know who was really behind it. But everybody will have their interpretation that is based on the way they see politics in Russia now.
I think inevitably it’s a turning point for Russian domestic politics. We’ve seen journalists and activists die in mysterious unexplained circumstances over the years. This is the first time we’ve seen a murder of a prominent opposition leader, a former deputy prime minister. This is a qualitatively new phenomenon and a very dangerous precedent.
Putin has to find a way to demonstrate what Russia can conduct a thorough, fair and honest investigation and that those who have been behind the murder have been punished.
The important thing is to make sure that this is the last murder of a political figure in Russia and not the first.
Boris was a friend. We met 28 years ago, back in the Soviet Union. He was intellectually brilliant. He had a great sense of humor.
It is a very sad and difficult story. If you read current Russian Twitter, you will see a lot of hatred towards Boris. A lot of “Russian patriots” congratulate each other with the fact that one of those whom they call “pro-American prostitutes” finally got killed. It’s the beginning of a very tragic time in my country.