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Boris Nemtsov: More than a Putin foe

Boris Nemtsov at a rally in Moscow. Nemtsov was shot dead in Moscow on Friday. Photo Credit: Зураб Завахадзе

Boris Nemtsov at a rally in Moscow. Photo Credit: Зураб Завахадзе

Boris Nemtsov was more than a Kremlin critic, as he is posthumously portrayed in the Western media. His rich and varied legacy must be remembered and commemorated in disassociation of Vladimir Putin – for what he believed in, not just what he opposed.

Nemtsov personified an unfulfilled dream of a democratic Russia conceived in the turbulent nineties. He embodied the fleeting but promising era of liberal ideals – a multiparty system, unfettered media and wild capitalism – long before Vladimir Putin sauntered into Russia’s political scene.

Nemtsov’s meteoric rise in the ’90s during the Boris Yeltsin era from a quantum physicist to a potential successor to the president and his shocking demise under the Putin regime exemplify the tragic trajectory Russia took in its 25 years of statehood.

No one rose so high and fell so low, as Mikhail Fischman eloquently put it in an article published in Nemtsov did with “a remarkable dignity and love of live; he was equally cheerful and happy when he worked with high-ranking officials like Chernomyrdin, Potanin and Chubais as when he sat on the tarmac of the Bolshoi Kamenskiy Bridge with [activists] Udaltsov, Yashin and Navalny.”

A lot has been said about Nemtsov’s life. In the 1990s, he was ubiquitous and influential.  A young energetic governor of Nizhniy Novgorod in the early 1990s, Nemtsov was quickly spotted by Yeltsin and transferred to Moscow to become the first deputy prime minister.

In his first memoir, Yeltsin noted that with his “presence alone, (Nemtsov) promised to provide the government with a new source of confidence and create a completely new climate in the country.”

Nemtsov lived a life of principles. The same ideals he championed under Yeltsin guided his political activity as an opposition leader – this time not from the halls of power and national TV channels but from makeshift street tribunes and beleaguered opposition radio stations.

Under Yeltsin, he proposed a bold decree to demonopolize the electrical energy, gas, railway and communications industries. In 2003, Yeltsin admitted that under Nemtsov’s initiative, he signed a decree aimed at adding transparency to the public procurement process. He was the one who convinced Yeltsin not to appoint governors but elect them through popular vote – the same principle he defended when Putin arbitrarily terminated the popular election of governors in 2004 in the aftermath of the deadly attack on Beslan.

In 1996, Nemtsov collected over a million signatures against the war in Chechnya. Almost two decades later, he became one of the fiercest opponents of Russia’s military encroachment on Ukraine. Nemtsov was reportedly preparing to release a report titled “Putin and War,” chronicling Russia’s backing for separatists in Ukraine.

When the Russian government and its mouthpieces claim that Nemtsov enjoyed the rating of an “average citizen,” they’re purposefully distorting Russian history. Back in the 1990s, Nemtsov commanded a real influence meeting with international politicians and serving as the right hand to Boris Yeltsin, steering the latter toward a liberal, democratic direction.

Nemtsov retreated from mainstream politics after bearing the full brunt of public wrath following the 1998 default. Shortly afterward, he along with Anatoly Chubais and Irina Khakamada formed the Union of Right Forces (“SPS”), one of the most dynamic players in Russia’s short-lived multiparty system.

The predominant narrative is that Nemtsov’s political star faded in 2003, when SPS did not pass the electoral threshold of five percent, and Nemtsov was confined to political obscurity. But the reality is that his putative fading was part and parcel of the systematic and aggressive dismantling of democratic institutions that took place under Putin.

What made Nemtsov different from the other “Young Reformers” of the 1990s is that he persisted in politics whereas everyone else fled. He did not strike a tacit deal with the government or retreat into business in exchange for safety, like Chubais and many others did. He did not leave the country in self-exile but stayed put and persevered to later become just another “Putin opponent,” the “fifth columnist” and “traitor” in Russia’s public parlance.

Social scientists posit that memory is essential to sustaining national identity and state formation. But it is exactly which bits and pieces of collective memory one chooses to preserve that defines what type of nation or society state identifiers seek to build. Belittling Nemtsov and his era falls into the government’s overarching strategy of molding a docile generation of uncritical thinkers, who readily consume state propaganda. But remembering his legacy and examining it in its fascinating fullness years before the name of Putin emerged is critical to forging and sustaining a pro-democracy movement in Russia.

The events of the past months, with the brazen annexation of Crimea, military encroachment on a sovereign territory and the ensuing sanctions and self-penalizing bans, defy logic. Putin’s propaganda-spewing media apparatus feeds mind-boggling conspiracy theories to Russian citizenry and fuels the sense of national beleaguerment and hatred. But before all of this frenzy engulfed Russia wiping away the political and economic strides of the 1990s, there was a man among a handful of others who firmly believed in democracy, transparency and human potential.

Nemtsov’s goal was not recognition or acceptance in Russia’s rampantly corrupt system. He did not fear to appear rogue or remain a lone soldier. He took the heat for the traumatizing reforms of the nineties and was scorned by the older, more conservative generation who still harbor memories of the Soviet Union. He was equally disliked by the young generation of uncritical masses who formed their views watching Putin’s jaundiced channels.

Nemtsov’s loss leaves an irreparable void in Russian politics, completing Russia’s circular route to authoritarianism. Remembering Nemtsov in relation to Putin solely does not do justice to Nemtsov’s legacy, the principles he defended as an anti-war activist exposing Putin’s belligerent policies, a provincial Yaroslavl deputy battling corruption in local administration or Yeltsin’s right hand leading the country through monumental economic transformations.

The forthcoming generations of Russians, molded in the spirit of Putin’s rabid information wars may never realize the full imprint of Nemtsov’s legacy on Russian history. But the best homage one can pay to Boris Nemtsov is to remember him for what he adamantly believed in, not what he opposed.



Ilyana Ovshieva

Ilyana Ovshieva is a digital journalist and writer who works as a senior editor for a Washington DC-based news edition that covers North Africa. She contributed to Tunisia's first English-language news site after the revolution, Tunisia Live. She also freelanced as an Arabic translator and researcher for the UNDP and the UN Volunteers. Her writing on Tunisia's hip-hop music, identity and activism appeared in the Middle East Journal of Culture and Communication. She also published for and the World Policy Journal.
Ilyana holds an MA in Arab Studies from Georgetown University.

Follow Ilyana on Twitter: @ilyana_ov