Boris Nemtsov Exposed Putin's Corruption—And Paid With His Life

Murdered politician Boris Nemtsov was a fearless crusader who called out Putin's corruption in Sochi—and was preparing a dossier on Ukraine.

Mikhail Voskresenskiy/Reuters

The last time I saw Boris Nemtsov, in Tallinn, Estonia in 2013, he had wanted to find a way to tack on more Putin regime officials to a U.S. law that would ban them from entering the country or freeze whatever assets they held here. The former first deputy prime minister of Russia, who was brutally shot to death within eyeshot of the Kremlin this evening, had many enemies, not least of them the president of Russia. He was handsome, charismatic and popular in the West and in Eastern Europe. “First we liberate Belarus, and then Russia!” former Belarusian presidential candidate, dissident and Lukashenko torture victim Andrei Sannikov told him on that same occasion. Nemtsov joyfully agreed. On Sunday he had planned to lead a march against Vladimir Putin’s unacknowledged dirty war in Ukraine. He was shot repeatedly in the back by several assailants emerging from a car while he walking down the Moskvoretskiy bridge with Anna Durickaya, a Ukrainian model.

Two years ago, Nemtsov and his colleague Leonid Martynyuk released a report titled, “Winter Olympics in the Sub-Tropics: Corruption and Abuse in Sochi,” which alleged that Putin had personally overseen the enormous, profligate project and was therefore responsible for the estimated $26 billion frittered away in “embezzlement and kickbacks.” They named names. Nemtsov, who was born in Sochi, and Martynyuk debunked the myth peddled by the Kremlin that the bulk of the costs for the Olympics was borne by private investors, showing that actually only two—aluminum magnate Oleg Deripaska and nickel magnate Vladimir Potanin—were the private financiers of the world’s most expensive Winter Games.

Moreover, they showed how brothers Boris and Arkady Rotenberg, childhood friends of Putin, were awarded 15 percent of the money controlled by Olimpstroy, the state company created to finance the Olympics; and that the bulk of this percentage was spent in awarding no-bid sweetheart contracts. They also suggested that Vladimir Yakunin, the chairman of the state-owned Russian Railroads, who along with Putin helped found the St. Petersburg Ozero Dacha Cooperative, commanded 20 percent of the Olympstroy budget and then purchased property which, according to his official declared income, he simply could not afford.

“Putin is part of a mafia,” Nemtsov told me and my colleague Olga Khvostunova, in an interview about his report. “They do not turn in their own. He gave his friends an opportunity ‘to earn some cash.’”

The U.S. government agrees. Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the Treasury Department has sanctioned the Rotenbergs and Yakunin for being cronies of Putin, and echoing much of the dollar amounts Nemtsov and Martynyuk disclosed in their well-trafficked corruption expose. Nemtsov, according to one of his close friends and comrades Ilya Yashin, was preparing a new document that purportedly established Russia’s military presence in Ukraine.

The murder of a former government official in central Moscow would be disturbing enough without the characteristic creepiness that has attended this tragedy. LifeNews, which is clearly a Russian intelligence-run media arm, was one of the first outlets to confirm Nemtsov’s death and also to produce CCTV footage of the alleged car used by the perpetrators. This same clearinghouse of disinformation has also said it was either over the abortion of a love child by his "Ukrainian girlfriend" (which made a third party jealous) or over money from his "Ukrainian sponsors."

Furthermore, Putin, who is normally so reticent about high-profile killings in Russia that he rarely mentions the victims by name, wasted no time in announcing that he would be personally overseeing the investigation into this crime. His spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters that Nemtsov's assassination had “all the hallmarks of a contract job and bears an exclusively provocational character.” In other words, this was a conspiracy hatched by enemies of Putin designed to inculpate him. Thus does the impartial hunt for justice begin…

In December 1934, Bolshevik leader Sergei Kirov was assassinated at his office in the Smolny Institute, leading Joseph Stalin to say much the same about that crime. Kirov’s murder, in fact, ushered in a period of systematic persecution of opponents to Stalin’s reign—chiefly Trotskyists—known as the Great Purge. Sovietologists from Robert Conquest to Amy Knight have persuasively argued that Stalin personally ordered the assassination to justify a political dragnet. (One of the best anti-Stalinist novels ever written, The Case of Comrade Tulayev, by Victor Serge, was about the notorious frame-up.) This historical touchstone was not lost on Russia observers this evening.

Also worrying is the fact that Alexander Bastrykin, the head of Russia’s Investigative Committee—and a man who once threatened to behead a journalist in a forest—has ordered the investigation that Putin will oversee. According to Vadim Prokhorov, Nemtsov’s lawyer, “Several months ago, Boris was threatened by some thugs on social media. One of the thugs wrote to him directly: ‘Soon, I will take you out.’ However I do not believe that a person envisioning a murder would make such loud statements. We passed on the threatening statement to law enforcement, but there was no news since then. One thing is clear: no one from Boris Nemtsov’s circle or his colleagues can feel safe. I’m sure that this has a political motive, at that, the murder could have been committed by someone returning from conflict zone in south-eastern Ukraine.”