MOSCOW—An icy wind blew over the pails filled with flowers and into the faces of sleepy volunteers guarding the improvised memorial to murdered opposition leader Boris Nemtsov. The hands on the giant clock on the Kremlin’s tower crept to 23:31 (11:31 p.m.), precisely the hour and the minute that Nemtsov’s assassins shot him in the back at this exact spot on Bolshoy Moskvoretsky Bridge.
As the minutes and the hours passed in the dark long before dawn, it felt like the very memory of Nemtsov was being hunted: First a police car drove by to look at the memorial’s guards, then a shiny black car with tinted windows slowly drifted by the sad spot where a big portrait of the victim stood with a reminder emblazoned beneath: “Nemtsov was murdered here.”
Rumor has it that Sergei Kiriyenko, the first deputy head of presidential administration, ordered his minions to put an end to the day-and-night shifts by the opposition near the Kremlin’s wall. They have been here since the day of the assassination, Feb. 27, 2015, which is even longer than the Maidan revolutionaries camped out in Kiev.
Ironically, in the late 1990s then-Vice Prime Minister Nemtsov was friends with Kiriyenko. Back then, the two were considered Russia’s leading reformists.
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Viktor Kogan sipped his hot tea from a thermos and spoke with resignation but determination: “They will cleanse our memorial again tonight,” he said.
Sure enough, Kogan was right: At 4:15 am several vehicles with at least 10 officials arrived to demolish the Nemtsov memorial for the fifth time in the past 10 days. Men in uniforms rushed to grab the flowers, ignoring the protests of the volunteers.
The same day, answering a question in which Putin was described as a “killer” on Fox News, U.S. President Donald Trump said: “There are a lot of killers. We’ve got a lot of killers,” suggesting that the United States was little more innocent than Russia on that score. (A few days later ,Trump insisted in a tweet: “I do not know Putin,” although in 2014 he said he did.)
At the time of Nemtsov’s murder, President Vladimir Putin referred to the assassination as “a provocation” and personally instructed the Investigative Committee, Ministry of Internal Affairs, and Federal Security Service to investigate the shooting. Russians have been waiting ever since to hear who ordered the hit on Nemtsov.
In the United States, police do not hunt down opposition leaders, at least not yet. But in Russia the word “opposition” is associated with arrests, or worse.
A few days before the opposition march commemorating the second anniversary of Nemtsov’s murder, the Kremlin began systematically throttling the already very weak anti-Putin movement.
On Tuesday morning, police grabbed Mark Galperin, the leader of a revolutionary New Opposition movement calling for a change of power in Russia.
When Galperin heard his door being broken down, reports said, he tried to escape by jumping from the second floor of his building. But he was arrested on the ground outside.
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For the past year it has been close to impossible to get a permit for a street protest, activist Nadezhda Mityushkina told The Daily Beast.
“In November, Moscow city banned us from having a street protest against the war in Syria; every time we ask for a permit we hear nyet,” Mityushkina from the Solidarity opposition movement told The Daily Beast. As protests were forbidden, Galperin and The New Opposition supporters in 16 Russian towns organized “walks” around the streets calling for a peaceful revolution.
Russian opposition leaders described their life as a constant fight for survival.
“Putin has over 100 political prisoners. Our friend Vladimir Kara-Murza might have been poisoned; every time we call for a demonstration against Putin’s power, we receive threats or get arrested,” said Nemtsov’s friend Ilya Yashin, who is one of the key leaders of Russian opposition.
Yashin received death threats in December after he spoke as a witness at one of the Nemtsov murder hearings in Moscow district military court.
He remembers Nemtsov saying, “Expect the main threat to come from [Ramzan] Kadyrov.” Yashin recalled his conversation with Nemtsov in September 2014. “That was after Boris released a video where the Chechen security forces crossed the Ukrainian border,” Yashin added.
Nemtsov’s friends and family wanted the court to question Chechen leader Kadyrov on the murder case but so far that has not happened. Nobody in the opposition movement believed that former Chechen policemen suspected of murdering Nemtsov could commit the crime without orders from higher officials.
After Nemtsov’s murder, anti-Putin street protests grew weak. But the civil society that had emerged during mass protests of 2011-2012 continued to be active. Most participants joined civic groups helping orphans, the sick, old, or homeless people. Intellectual circles organized lectures, roundtables, festivals and conferences to discuss the most acute issues. “This is not the right time for street resistance but a great time for education,” Mikhail Zygar, a historian and founder of independent Rain TV told The Daily Beast on Tuesday.
Zygar believes that the February and October revolutions that took place in Russia 100 years ago have never ended, and everything that’s happening to Russia now was the consequence of 1916-17. Zygar’s popular Free History project shed light on the archives, published letters by Lenin, Nicolas the Second, Stanislavsky, and Tolstoy’s contemporaries.
“Whoever tries to understand Russia should know that this country is changing, every little town has volunteer movements, human-rights defenders and street journalists investigating the true story, “ Zygar, the author of the international best seller All the Kremlin’s Men, told The Daily Beast.
But the opposition leaders still believe that only persistent street protests can change the power and politics in Russia. “We plan to revive the Solidarity movements that were originally founded by Nemtsov and hit the streets again this spring, one year before presidential elections—a good time to start,” Yashin told The Daily Beast.
On Monday morning, the volunteers guarding Nemtsov’s memorial and other opposition activists brought more flowers and installed more portraits. The sign “Nemtsov was killed here” was back in its place.
“This small island of freedom on the bridge by the Kremlin wall is a unique place in Russia,” Nadezhda Mityushkina, one of the day-and-night guards told The Daily Beast. “By watching it I personally demonstrate my right for freedom of expression, for devotion, and for the memory of somebody we all respected.”
UPDATE, 4:00 pm EST, February 8, 2017: On Wednesday a Russian court convicted prominent opposition leader Aleksey Navalny of embezzling timber. Navalny, who was planning to run in the 2018 presidential elections was given a five year suspended sentence, which would disqualify him. Navalny and his supporters are planning to appeal the court decision and prove that he can still participate in the election campaign.