Hero Worship

02.27.16 9:36 PM ET

A Year After His Murder, The Specter of Nemtsov is Haunting Putin

Protests in Moscow and in the late opposition leader’s home town showed unprecedented public anger at Russia’s president.

MOSCOW—If Boris Nemtsov could see people marching in his memory in dozens of Russian cities, he would smile his huge smile, make one of his saucy jokes, and laugh. Since Nemtsov was killed in Moscow one year ago today, his smile has became an icon, and the memory of his passionate struggle for Russia’s freedom has inspired even those who never gave much thought to Nemtsov when he was alive. 

Boris Nemtsov’ s ghost is rising in Russia.  

A year ago many people were afraid to talk about their memories of Nemtsov’s democratic reforms and his reports about corruption among Russia’s elite. Today people are joining the memorial movement for the murdered politician all across the country.

One year ago tonight, the tall, handsome, charismatic Russian opposition leader was walking with his girlfriend across Moskvoretsky Bridge by the Kremlin wall. When he served inside the Kremlin as vice prime minister in the 1990s, and then during more than a decade, during his long struggle in the opposition, Nemtsov always loved to walk. He loved to be around people in public places. Openness and freedom were his passion. 

Nemtsov’s assassins arrived that night by car and shot the 55-year-old politician in the back.

Throughout this last year, people have brought roses to the place where the body of their favorite leader fell. Every day the flowers would be cleared away by the authorities, but in the morning they would be there again. Many people now call the site Nemtsov Bridge.

On Saturday tens of thousands of Russians walked across the center of Moscow in Nemtsov’s memory. Many participants put the blame for the assassination on Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“Putin killed Nemtsov! Putin should go on trial!” they shouted. Some carried banners featuring President Putin next to Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov smiling happily. “Accomplices!” they read.

People came out even in Nizhny Novgorod, Nemtsov’s home city, where authorities had tried at first to ban the march. Over 2,000 people gathered on Porovka Street at 3 p.m. waving the flags of the opposition PARNAS and Yaboloko parties. Many could not believe their eyes and ears, as criticism of President Putin grew especially sharp. 

Amazingly, the city’s mayor, Ivan Karnilin, joined the anti-Putin memorial. Together with activists he marched with a long banner that said: “We’ll never forget! We’ll never forgive!” A recording of Nemtsov’s voice played over loudspeakers in the city center, shouting, “Putin is a thief!” 

Karnilin, is the first Russian mayor to come out like this. “I knew Boris Nemtsov, worked  with him in 1994-1997,” Karnilin told the independent TV channel Rain. “He carried out lots of reforms, opened this city for foreigners, organized the first democratic elections; he brought investments to town, opened an international airport. I came to pay my tribute to Nemtsov’s memory.”

Karnilin spoke before the crowd of about 2,000 Nizhny Novgorod activists, promising to name a street after Nemtsov. 

One of the key organizers of the march, Stanislav Dmitriyevsky, told The Daily Beast, “We all had a strong sense that Nemtsov was with us, we could hear his voice and our mayor was with us today, demonstrating real courage.” 

One year ago nobody in Nizhny Novgorod could have imagined a street being named after Nemtsov. Why did authorities change their mind? 

“We went to court against the ban, we made lists of activists who were ready to be detained and spend a few days in jail just to pay our tribute to Nemtsov,” Dmitritevsky said. “We were very stubborn.”

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The Kremlin did not want the opposition to turn Nemtsov into a martyr. Police and interior minister soldiers were blocking roads all over Moscow’s center. Trucks full of uniformed officers parked on side streets. A couple of months ago Putin signed a law allowing the Federal Security Service (FSB) to open fire on crowds of activists without warnings. But people kept coming. 

Ukrainian and Russian flags were flying together over the crowd. 

It was a unique scene for today’s Russia, where the Kremlin almost never allows any anti-Putin rallies, and where any strong opposition voice is immediately condemned as someone pro-American, a traitor to Russia.

But that strategy has failed against Nemtsov’s ghost.

Walking along the boulevard, towards Sakharov Prospect, voices echoed through downtown Moscow: “Nemtsov is Russia’s hero!”