He was the most outspoken and vocal among the Russian opposition. He was straightforward and the toughest critic of the Kremlin and Putin personally. He never minced his words. He was always ready to lead protests and marches, to speak at rallies, to blast, to call, to engage, to lead. He was the best rally organizer. He was warm, honest, candid, funny, sometimes naïve like a kid, and so reliable in his friendship. He was a unique person—the former Deputy Prime Minister of the Yeltsin government responsible for oil and gas and demonopolization. He could have been the richest guy in Russia had he chosen to go down that path. He simply could have become rich like nearly all other members—with a few notable exceptions—of past and present Russian governments. But Boris chose another way—to be a street fighter and a leading opposition figure.
Boris Nemtsov chose to be a politician at a time when politics in Russia were over, crushed and erased by Putin’s formal return to the presidency in May 2012. He chose to fight when only the street was left for political struggle. He went to the street numerous times, facing serious risks. And then the Kremlin took from the opposition even the street—those who placed themselves in danger merely by showing up often found themselves in violation of the “laws” as interpreted by the authorities. Boris served 15 days in prison ostensibly for speaking at a protest against Putin in late 2010.
His face was well-known in Russia and abroad, and as an ardent and outspoken critic of Putin, he was viewed suspiciously by the Russian president’s supporters. He did not care. He walked down the streets; he took the subway. He lived his life by refusing to let the “them” make him apprehensive or scared; he refused to change his ways. Not Boris! He was gunned down in the heart of Moscow, walking near the Kremlin, the most secure area in Russia, constantly guarded and monitored by Russian security forces.
This was the most crude and blatant political murder. Even if not directly ordered by the Kremlin or one of the Kremlin’s “Towers”, he was killed by the Besieged Fortress that the Kremlin has turned Russia into. He was killed in an environment in which the use of war has become the instrument for popular mobilization. He was killed by hatred generated by the Kremlin and its puppet TV, which for a long time has been telling the public that anyone who was against the Kremlin was Russia’s enemy—the “Fifth Column“, as Putin himself has described it.
Nemtsov’s murder marks the latest, and this time tragic, proof that Russia has moved into a new chapter of its history—a dismal time of decay and rot, a time of anger and frustration, a time of growing grapes of wrath. Russia is entering a period during which loyalty to the Kremlin is displayed in many forms, including murder. This is sadly natural for a country at war not only with its neighbors but with the entire outside world, for a society that has become so inured to bloodshed that it ignores death, which, no matter the victim, becomes just a matter of everyday life.
Boris Nemtsov paid the ultimate price warning us of what has become of Russia and the direction in which Russia was heading. The key question now is whether Russians—and those in the West—finally are ready to hear his warning. On Saturday, thousands of Russians went to the scene of the murder with flowers and candles. Close by stood a young man holding a sign with the words: “I am next.”
This piece was originally published at The American Interest.