Boris Nemtsov’s Untimely Death and the Ongoing Threat to Dissidence in Russia

Boris Nemtsov

(Credit: Wikipedia)

Early in the morning of February 28th, Moscow time, unknown assailants gunned down Boris Nemtsov – physicist and strong supporter of liberal democratic reforms – on a popular bridge just down the hill from the Kremlin and Red Square. This is the same bridge where, in 1993, Boris Yeltsin positioned tanks in an attempt to prevent communist hardliners from overthrowing the government.

Nemtsov was a smart, brash, and pugnacious individual. His political career exemplified both the promise and weakness of Russia’s liberal opposition movement. He was the favorite Russian politician of Margaret Thatcher and, in turn, he respected her as a fellow anti-Communist conservative. In 1997, he was made a part of Boris Yeltsin’s “dream team” of young reformers who were celebrated by Western politicians for their economic policies and support of democratic values.

Aside from the offense of expressing openly oppositionist views, Nemtsov was one of the few major Russian political figures who dared to criticize Putin’s annexation of Crimea and Moscow’s support for the separatists in Eastern Ukraine. Nemtsov also had the extraordinary temerity to attack Putin for his lavish overspending on the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. Nemtsov’s periodic reports highlighting corruption and human rights violations certainly didn’t endear him to the Kremlin, either. And just hours before his death, he was planning an opposition demonstration, scheduled for the coming Sunday, which would have been the largest pro-democracy rally in post-Soviet history.

But, as has been the fate of many anti-Putin hardliners, he was brazenly murdered. Nemtsov’s name will be added to the short but prominent list of regime opponents – such as Sergei Magnitsky, Anna Politkovskaya, and Alexander Litvinenko – who all met untimely deaths at the near peak of their opposition career. In 2009, Magnitsky was arrested after trying to bring to light a wide-ranging tax fraud. He died in prison after authorities allegedly denied him urgently needed medical care. In 2006, Politkovskaya, a strong opponent of the perpetuated conflicts in Chechnya, was murdered in her apartment building with a pistol that was, in a characteristic Russian mafia marker, left behind next to her body. Litvinenko, the former Federal Security Service (FSB) spy, was looking into the death of Politkovskaya and connections linking Spain and the Russian mafia. He was killed by radioactive polonium-210 in a hotel in London after fleeing Russia in 2000. Nemtsov’s death, coincidently, comes at the unofficial end of the Ukrainian conflict, as if to remind us all of Putin’s full capacity as quasi-Tsar.

Accrediting Putin is only one possibility, of course. However, the truth may never be established, so long as the current regime is in power. The Kremlin denounced the murder and has promised a transparent investigation. But, none of that matters. His funeral has already brought thousands of supporters to the streets of Moscow and, as was his life, Boris Nemtsov’s death will remain as a determined testament to the ever difficult and dangerous pursuit of liberty.