MOSCOW—The leader and driving force for the Russian opposition, Boris Nemtsov, 55, was shot dead on Friday night on Moskvoretskiy bridge, a few meters away from the Kremlin. A gunman fired at Nemtsov’s back at least six times from the open window of a white vehicle.
The politician, who is not related to the author of this story, was walking home with a female friend after speaking on a live radio show for Echo of Moscow. Nemtsov’s voice on his last radio show was just as emotional and as critical of the authorities as usual: the politician accused President Vladimir Putin of covertly starting and commanding the war in Ukraine, as well as for “committing a crime” by the annexation of Crimea.
Nemtsov’s strong, tall body was sprawled on the ground under the falling rain with the Kremlin towers in the background. The scene became symbolic of Russia’s modern history. His friends and partners in the opposition condemned the murder as political and one that was ordered to terrify all critics of President Vladimir Putin.
“Bastards, you killed my friend in the center of Moscow, by the Kremlin wall," Nemtsov’s partner in the opposition, former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov, wrote on his blog. "Demonstratively with four bullets, to make the point to all of us free-thinking people of today’s Russia. Could we imagine yesterday that the leader of our opposition would be shot by the Kremlin wall? No, we could not. The country is rolling down the cliff.”
In that last radio interview with Echo of Moscow, Nemtsov called on Muscovites to join an anti-war rally on March 1st. “Our march can sober the Kremlin up. If 100,000 people come out, it could turn the Kremlin around, it will be an absolute shock for them,” Nemtsov said, pointing out that opposition volunteers had distributed half a million fliers advertising the rally.
“Why do you lie, Mr. Putin, commander-in-chief?" Nemtsov demanded on air. "You renounce your soldiers, who die right now in Ukraine," he charged, alluding to the fact that Russian soldiers serve there, are killed there, and when their bodies return to Russia are buried in secret. Nemtsov condemned the president for not paying compensation to Russian soldiers fighting in Ukraine. He also noted that in the recent Minsk ceasefire accord, endorsed by Putin, the rebel factions agreed to pull back Tornado-S multiple rocket launchers that exist only in the hands of the regular Russian military or those it supplies, a fact seen by many as yet another obvious example of duplicity about Russian support for the insurgents.
The politician explained to his radio listeners how to get to the rally, which he nicknamed “Spring,” by taking the metro to the Maryino district of Moscow, the area where permission for the event was granted. Authorities did not allow the opposition to rally in the center of Moscow. But after Nemtsov’s murder, his partners in the opposition cancelled the Spring march in Maryino; instead, they will hold a mourning procession in Nemtsov's memory, and they appear intent on demanding that the authorities allow it to be held in the center of Moscow.
Russia will always remember Nemtsov, a former deputy prime minister, former minister of fuel and energy, and former parliament deputy, as the country’s most passionate speaker and its most courageous activist. He believed that the change in Russia could be achieved through street protests. He personally came out to lead activists to every big rally in Moscow and provinces; and if no one joined him, he stood with a banner alone on a single picket line.
In an interview this month with Sobesednik newspaper, Nemtsov said: “I am afraid that Putin will kill me.” Death threats frequently arrived in his email inbox and via social media. But neither threats nor police arrests ever stopped the energetic activist from participating in street rallies.
In 2013 Nemtsov won a regional election and until his last day worked as a Yaroslavl regional legislator. But even as an official he remained a prominent critic of Putin’s politics and he was persona non-grata on Russian state television channels. As with most critics of state politics, he was often criticized as “the fifth column.”
One of Nemtsov's close partners in the opposition, parliament member Dmitry Gudkov, spoke with him the day before his murder. He remembered Nemtsov being in a good mood, as usual, full of energy and plans for their opposition struggle.
“We blame officials who create the hostile atmosphere of hate in the country—they should feel guilty today for this cold murder," said Gudkov. "Even today I heard from ... members in the parliament that we, the opposition, are ‘the fifth column,’ agents of the USA. We deal with such unprofessional [conduct] from the parliament and its meaningless accusations on a daily basis."
Like Nemtsov, Gudkov has received threats on social networks: “Now that Boris has been killed, none of us opposition leaders can feel safe—we should be more serious about criminals threatening us,” Gudkov said.
Meanwhile, the Kremlin’s official web site has said that Putin has ordered the heads of all Russian law enforcement agencies to personally take responsibility investigating Nemtsov’s “ordered” (i.e. contract) murder. Putin’s Press Secretary, Dmitry Peskov, called the murder “a provocation” against the authorities.