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Saturday, February 28, 2015
Late Friday night, while taking a quiet post-prandial stroll across the Moscow River, Boris Nemtsov, one of Russia's bravest and most vocal opponents of President Vladimir Putin, was murdered in a drive-by shooting – shot in the back by assailants in an unmarked vehicle.
Nemtsov, 55, had endured repeated and numerous death threats in recent years, but repeatedly refused all forms of protection. In a February 10 interview, Nemtsov said his mother feared for his life, given the growing tension between the Kremlin and oppositionists, against the background of war with Ukraine. Nemtsov was reportedly preparing a report that linked the Kremlin with the war.
The murder came just two days before a long-planned March 1 opposition demonstration titled "Spring," but in the wake of the killing, organizers were seeking city permission to turn the march into a commemoration of Nemtsov and change its location. The killing also came just hours after NTV announced it would broadcast a pseudo-documentary, "Anatomy of Protest," timed to coincide with the March 1 action. The documentary seeks to show how opposition leaders are trying to create a "Russian Maidan" – referring to the Ukrainian protest movement that overthrew the country's president. On Saturday, NTV announced it was delaying broadcast of the film.
The Kremlin was quick to denounce the killing as a provocation, stating that President Putin would personally oversee the investigation.
Nemtsov, a former Deputy Prime Minister under Boris Yeltsin, rose to prominence as governor of Nizhny Novgorod (1991-97), and became a nationally respected politician and economic reformer toward the end of Yeltsin's rule, as one of the founders of the Union of Right Forces. He had a zest for life and in recent years had become a tireless anti-corruption activist. In 2009 he came in second in the Sochi mayoral race, and in 2013 he was elected to the Yaroslavl regional Duma. But first and foremost he was a prominent "oppositionist." As he said in a 2011 interview:
“I love Russia and want the best for her, so for me criticizing Putin is a very patriotic activity because these people are leading Russia to ruin. Everybody who supports them in fact supports a regime that is destroying the country, and so they are the ones who hate Russia. And those who criticize this regime, those who fight against it, they are the patriots.”
In the immediate aftermath of the murder, anti-Kremlin politicians and activists were quick to label the killing as an ominous sign of the times. "There is an awful mood in Russia – that you can do anything you want with anyone in the opposition," said Irina Khakamada. "An 'anti-Maidan' aggressiveness is growing. All sorts of brutes have concluded that they can do anything and there will be no consequences."
The prominent dissident Alexei Navalny, currently in jail on a trumped up 15-day detention, wrote on his blog:
Boris came here to visit me a couple of days ago. He was his usual energetic, cheerful self, full of plans. He charmed the police, chatted happily with them, explaining how they would benefit from supporting the Spring march, and handed out brochures... I cannot even imagine that I will never see him again.
This is a terrible tragedy and a loss for us all. Boris was very good, decent man. He was a major politician and a decent man – something that is not very common... we have truly lost something that cannot be replaced.
The liberal newspaper Novaya Gazeta opined that
"Nemtsov's murder... is a point of no return, a radical destabilization of Russia's internal political situation, the consequences of which are impossible to predict. It is possible that we will see a salutory demonstration of mourning by senior government officials, followed by a witchhunt by special forces and the adoption of new extreme laws limiting civil rights. Russia has a long tradition of exploiting political murders for repressive ends, and as a means for "uniting the nation."
A friend and fellow Union of Right Forces leader, Vladimir Ryzhkov, said of Nemtsov:
"There was no difference between his public image and who he was as a person: bright, cheerful, optomistic, charming and sociable."
Nemtsov will be buried on March 3 in Moscow's Troyekurovsky Cemetery.