Assassination in Moscow

Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov. Credit: Reuters

Boris Nemtsov had warned that someone in the Kremlin might one day have him killed. He would, after all, hardly be the first. We don’t know yet why he was murdered late on Friday night, or at whose hands, but his death was no less shocking for having been foreseen.

Gunned down a stone’s throw from the walls of the Kremlin, an area well policed and covered by dozens of cameras on the Kremlin walls, his killers seemed to act with indifference to being caught. Perhaps because they had nothing to fear.

Nemtsov was a relentless critic of President Putin who had refused to keep silent about the corruption that surrounded the Sochi Winter Olympics, and is said to have been about to publish a report giving chapter and verse on Russian military involvement in Ukraine. He was to have led a peace rally in Moscow on Sunday against the war in Ukraine.

But did he, or any of his fellow opposition leaders, really pose a threat to Putin? Nemtsov himself told the Financial Times this week that they were now so marginalised that they had ceased to be an opposition and become mere dissidents. And yet the propaganda against him and others like Alexei Navalny (now back in jail) has been unceasing.

Russian policemen detain leading opposition figure Boris Nemtsov during protests in 2010. Credit: Reuters

Putin himself, last March, called them “fifth columnists” and declared open season on them in the state-controlled media. Whether this killing was ordered by the Kremlin, or carried out by nationalists who increasingly dominate politics and the airwaves in Russia, we may never know. But they all spring from the same source.

Quickly calling the murder a “provocation”, Preisdent Putin has put himself in charge of the investigation. Which is not reassuring. Stalin did the same after the murder of Kirov in Leningrad in 1934. However careful one must be about drawing parallels with the events of the 1930‘s, it’s hard not to remember that the death of Kirov was just the beginning of the blood-letting.

Nemtsov’s killing is the latest in a line that stretches back to the murder of the journalist Anna Politkovskaya in 2006 and Alexander Litvinenko in London the same year. But the death of Nemtsov hits particularly hard because he represented what post-Communist Russia might have become.

Back in 1992 I, like many foreign journalists, would travel east from Moscow to see Nemtsov in the mayor’s office in the city of Nizhny Novgorod. In Soviet times it had been called Gorky, and was closed to foreigners. Now we were welcomed to City Hall by a young, English-speaking leader who was pioneering privatisation, land-reform and the modernisation of Soviet era industries - like the city’s giant limousine factory - into something that might one day compete with the West.

Boris Yeltsin and Boris Nemtsov pictured together in 1997. Credit: Reuters

Boris Yeltsin loved him, and by 1997 had brought him into Government as a Deputy Prime Minister to bring his work to a national level. Within a year the man who had been tipped as Yeltsin’s successor was out of Government, undone by the rouble crisis on 1998. His place as the President’s favourite son was taken by a career KGB officer called Vladimir Putin, and the country was destined for a very different future.

Of that group of reformers in the 1990s some, like Anatoly Chubais, simply gave up. Some, like Vitaly Churkin, made their accommodations with the new regime - he is now his master’s voice as Ambassador at the United Nations. But Nemtsov did neither, never leaving the stage, never believing the battle had been lost. He always said that reforming Russia would take at least his lifetime, but when he made that prediction he didn’t realise how little time he had.