Russian intellectuals, opposition leaders, oligarchs, and state bureaucrats rarely meet in one place. But they gathered Tuesday in Moscow to offer a last tribute and say a few words in memory of Boris Nemtsov, the reformer, true democrat, and fearless opposition leader who was murdered in sight of the Kremlin on Friday night. Several speakers addressed Nemtsov’s 86-year-old mother and his four children as they stood by his coffin, asking them for forgiveness for not protecting Nemtsov enough in his dangerous struggle, for not being there when he needed them most.
This week, locals lined the main street of his hometown of Nizhny Novgorod with portraits of Boris Yefimovich, as he was known—or to close friends and family, just Borya. “I Am Nemtsov” was written at the bottom of the portraits. In Moscow on Tuesday, the line of people waiting to mourn the politician at the Sakharov Center stretched for hundreds of meters and several hours. It was a historic day in Russia, when state television channels covered the Nemtsov news in prime time, when ordinary Russians remembered the most passionate critic of President Vladimir Putin’s rule.
As has been traditional at past funerals of assassinated Kremlin critics, friends and supporters pledged to wake Russia up and find out the truth behind the tragedy. Nemtsov did just that, when he was alive. Back in October 2006, he attended the funeral of Anna Politkovskaya, the brave reporter who was gunned down on the doorstep to her apartment building in downtown Moscow. Along with more than 3,000 people, Nemtsov accompanied Politkovskaya on her final journey. “It takes Russians a long time to wake up, but they will wake up. The entire world is in shock. The Kremlin should pay attention and make conclusions,” Nemtsov said that day.
But after Politkovskaya’s murder, the list of assassinated journalists, politicians, human rights activists, lawyers, and religious and educational leaders continued to grow, until Nemtsov himself joined their number. What must be done to stop the political terror in Russia? One of the speakers at the funeral, billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov, remembered that he and Nemtsov had become friends after Nemtsov served as deputy prime minister, oil minister, and Duma deputy. “We were really close friends, spent time together—this is a big personal tragedy for me. The most important thing I feel keenly about it right now is that this atmosphere of dividing people into ‘ours’ and ‘not ours’ is the cause of such tragedies. It must be stopped, urgently. First and foremost, everybody should start respecting different opinions,” Prokhorov said.
Nemtsov’s mother, a fragile old woman, looked attentively at every visitor who entered the room that held her son’s coffin. In one of his last interviews, last month, Nemtsov said his mother was very worried that “Putin might kill me.” Nemtsov’s mother did not see Russia’s president on the day of her son’s funeral, nor did Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev come to bid farewell. But several high-profile officials, including Deputy Prime Ministers Sergei Prokhodko and Arkady Dvorkovich, brought flowers to the coffin. Once upon a time, Nemtsov himself was deputy prime minister, under President Boris Yeltsin.
Alexei Kudrin, a former minister of finance who is now advising Putin on how to deal with the current economic crisis, took his turn at the microphone. “I would like to stress that Nemtsov’s murder is a dramatic page of Russian history, because we’ve seen an opponent stopped by...a bullet,” he said. “This is a new reality. The authorities have a responsibility to prevent this kind of dialogue, this kind of dispute, involving illegal means.”
During the funeral, Nemtsov’s colleagues in the opposition discussed who could be that violent opponent so eager to stop the politician. Alexei Navalny, who is serving a 15-day prison sentence and was not allowed to attend, blamed the Russian authorities, and Vladimir Milov came up with arguments on his LiveJournal page that he said proved the special services had murdered Nemtsov. All were in agreement that the politician was killed by those who hate the so-called fifth column, or a strong opposition. Unfortunately, even on the day of Nemtsov’s funeral, Moscow was still a hostile place. Outside the Sakharov Center, as journalists discussed the murder, the prominent independent journalist and blogger Ksenia Sobchak received a death threat. “A man approached me and said, ‘Keep in mind that you’ll be next, Ksenia,’” Sobchak tweeted later.
Last April, after the president’s annexation of Crimea, a banner featuring the faces of prominent Putin critics alongside the words “strangers” and “fifth column” appeared on the side of a building on Novy Arbat, a Moscow avenue. Soon after, a number of activists lined up on the same street wearing T-shirts that read: “I called for sanctions against my own people. I lost my face.” Nemtsov’s face was on those T-shirts, as were those of Sobchak and the rocker Andrei Makarevich, among others. Nemtsov’s friends remembered that at the time, he was in Israel undergoing medical treatment. Many advised him to stay abroad, but he brushed off the idea. He was convinced that he was needed in Russia. He saw his role as a key critic of Putin’s policies. During the funeral, Nemtsov’s friends gave their word that the bullets that stopped him would not scare them away, that the opposition would continue his struggle.