Analysis of international affairs and current crises
Saturday, February 28, 2015
The Wall Street Journal
Advocate for Russia and Its People
By Robin Wright
Boris Nemtsov, the charismatic Russian opposition leader assassinated Friday night just blocks from the Kremlin, has been an inspiration for a generation. He just refused to give up, defying the growing odds against him and despite the murderous assaults on other opposition leaders.
Back in the 1990s, after the Soviet Union’s collapse produced a different world order, I searched the globe for new leaders who would shape emerging trends. I called them the “Nine names of the Nineties.” The first person I set out to interview was Nemtsov.
By the age of 25, Nemtsov was heralded as one of the country’s leading physicists. By 32, he was mayor of Gorky, which he returned to the pre-Soviet name of Nizhny Novgorod and designed an imaginative economic reforms to convert the military-industrial complex in Russia’s third largest city.
Under Nemtsov, factories for nuclear submarines, MIG warplanes, armored vehicles and radar were sold off or converted into plants for vacuum cleaners, cars, appliances and televisions.
“The most important result is making people believe they can themselves achieve results they want,” he told me in 1997. “We are proving that Russians are not some sort of lost people without hope. We are showing they are worthy of a better life and can have it.”
By 37, Nemtsov was named deputy prime minister and put in charge of directing Russia’s transition to a market economy, under President Boris Yeltsin. He was often mentioned as a possible successor to Yeltsin.
Then Vladimir Putin came to power.
In gutsy rebukes, Nemtsov relentlessly challenged Putin’s government. He alleged mass corruption over the Olympics in Sochi, his hometown. He contested the fairness of elections. In 2011, he was jailed for 15 days after participating in public protest – against restrictions on public protests. He was scheduled to lead a protest Sunday against Russia’s role in the war in Ukraine.
The BBC reported that Nemtsov’s last tweet was an appeal for Russia’s fragmented opposition to come together for protest against the war in Ukraine. “If you support stopping Russia’s war with Ukraine, if you support stopping Putin’s aggression, come to the Spring March in Maryino on 1 March,” the tweet said.
He bravely ridiculed Putin on media both at home and abroad. “This is a country of corruption,” he told Anthony Bourdain on CNN’s Parts Unknown. “This is the system.”
The impact of his loss has been quickly felt both at home and abroad too.
Former U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul tweeted Friday, “Nemtsov was a real patriot, who believed in the possibility of Russia's greatness. I cry now both for his family & the country he so loved.”
President Obama, who met Nemtsov in 2009, called him a “tireless advocate for his country, seeking for his fellow Russian citizens the rights to which all people are entitled.” Obama called on Russia to hold a “prompt, impartial, and transparent investigation” into the murder. Nemtsov was shot as he was walking across the Bolshoy Zamoskvoretsky Bridge, with the Kremlin in view.
Secretary of State John Kerry said he was “shocked” by Nemtsov’s brutal murder. “Nemtsov committed his life to a more democratic, prosperous, open Russia, and to strong relationships between Russia and its neighbors and partners, including the United States…In every post, he sought to reform and open Russia, and to empower the Russian people to have a greater say in the life of their country,” Kerry said in a statement Friday night.
When I looked back at the story I wrote about Nemtsov two decades ago, one quote really struck me. “For all the things we have achieved today [in ending communist rule],” he said, “history will say that the real success was changing the consciousness of the people.”
Russia has lost a hero who was committed to raising that consciousness and betting Russian lives.