Boris Nemtsov (1959–2015) was a Russian politician who eventually left the government and became a public critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin and his circle of confidantes. An engaging and popular spokesman for democracy and government accountability within his socialist homeland, Nemtsov published numerous reports detailing corruption and gave suggestions for meaningful reforms. One night in February of 2015, he was gunned down and killed while taking a walk near the Kremlin.
Boris Nemtsov was a bright young political star in the 1990s, when Russian leaders were reshaping the country's government in the wake of glasnost and more open trade relationships with the world. For most of the 20th century, Russia had been the locus of power within the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (U.S.S.R.), a country under the autocratic leadership of the head of the communist party. The republics that comprised the U.S.S.R. were said to be “behind the Iron Curtain” and cut off from the free world. With the disintegration of Soviet-style communism and the rise of new leadership in the 1980s, communication with the west reopened, trade resumed, and the best and brightest young talent found opportunities to make a difference. Nemtsov's murder, which occurred 15 years into the presidency of communist hardliner Vladimir Putin, was viewed by many as another sign that Russia had reversed political course.
Boris Yefimovich Nemtsov was born on October 9, 1959, in the city of Sochi, Russia, to Yefim Davidovich Nemtsov, deputy director of a state-owned building firm, and pediatrician Dina Yakovlevna Eidman Nemtsova. Although he was Jewish on his mother's side, Yefim's mother, a Russian Orthodox Christian, had the boy baptized in her faith. Nemtsov had a sister, Julia, and a brother, Yuriy, before his parents divorced when he was five. Although he made little about his private life public, he eventually married Raisa Ahmetovna, with whom he would have three daughters and a son.
Careerwise, Nemtsov attended college at N.I. Lobachevsky State University in Gorky from 1976 to 1981, earning a degree in physics. He then pursued a doctorate in physics and mathematics, achieving this, at age 25, in 1985. He was hired as a research fellow at the Radiophysical Research Institute, publishing extensively in quantum physics, acoustics, and thermodynamics. Nemtsov applied his knowledge of these disciplines to design acoustic lasers and an antenna for use in space.
Winning the seat, Nemtsov went immediately to work as Gorky's newly elected representative. Reform was on his mind, as it was for many in the wake of the March 7, 1990, declaration dissolving the U.S.S.R. into autonomous republics. The Soviet system, while in theory, a worker-led collective form of government, actually empowered a corrupt authoritarian regime which stifled free speech and enterprise. Leadership changes at the highest level of the Communist Party had set in motion a move toward freer markets and new opportunities, but much work remained to remove corruption at the local level. Nemtsov advocated for agricultural reform and the further liberalization of trade, and in doing so he caught the eye of the Supreme Soviet's chairman, Boris Yeltsin.
Yeltsin had been among Gorbachev's supporters as the Soviet president set about dismantling the old Soviet system. Frustrated with the slow pace of change and the resistance of the Old Guard, he resigned from his post, shocking Gorbachev and the members of the Communist Party's Central Committee. Allowed to speak his mind before this group, Yeltsin criticized Gorbachev and offered to resign from the other key posts he then held. Party leaders were frustrated and demoted him, eliminating his role in decision-making. Yeltsin remained an active voice for reform over the next few years, advocating for a higher standard of living for the Russian people, which he felt should equal that of the United States.
Yeltsin returned to power in 1991, the result of a coup against Gorbachev staged by Soviet hardliners. Troops surrounded the Russian parliament building in Moscow and President Gorbachev was detained in Crimea by coup leaders. Yeltsin had by now been elected president of the Russian Federation. beating Gorbachev's favored candidate, and he sensed a political opportunity. He rushed to the seat of power in Moscow, where thousands of protestors made it clear they did not want the coup to succeed. Once the troops supporting the old-style Soviets saw that popular sentiment was with reform, many defected to join the protest. Yeltsin climbed atop one of the Soviet tanks at the site and gave a stirring speech in which he supported reforms and the expansion of freedom. Among those at his side and shouting his support was 32-year-old Nemtsov.
After succeeding Gorbachev in power, Yeltsin rewarded Nemtsov's loyalty by appointing him head of administration, or governor, of the Nishny Novgorod region. Yeltsin drew young men such as Nemtsov from the ranks, recognizing their ability to popularize reforms and push them through politically, but he could make or break a young politician at will. Nemtsov was particularly independent-minded, however, and soon announced that Nishny Novgorod would be a “laboratory of reform” for a capitalistic free-market economy.
Nemtsov leaped enthusiastically into his new role, referring to himself as a “governor” in the style of Western (European and American) democracies. A darling of the media, he was appreciated for his Hollywood good looks and charismatic style. With very little in the way of factual information regarding the implementation of the reforms he wanted to make, Nemtsov looked to the West as an example of Russia's future, citing the progress that could be made via free trade, the open exchange of people and ideas, and democratic governance. He welcomed Western trade in his district, issuing promises to pay in the form of chits that could later be exchanged for rubles (Russian currency). The chits came to be called “Nemtsovki.”
As Russia transitioned its government during the 1990s, Nemtsov played a positive role, gaining a reputation for honesty and relentless hard work on Russia's behalf. He introduced an anti-corruption law for government purchasing and played a part in ending illegal exports of raw materials. In an atmosphere of social unrest, with Russia waging an unpopular war with Chechnya, and historically low oil prices (a major segment of the Russian economy), he helped steer the country on a stable course. Although he supported Yeltsin, who was a heavy-handed autocrat, Nemtsov envisioned a future Russia with true parliamentary democracy. Emboldened by his popularity, he began to challenge Yeltsin directly, collecting over a million signatures in protest of the Russian president's resumption of the war in Chechnya after two years of peace.
As the 1990s played out, power struggles continued to roil the Russian government. As a parliamentary system, the government could be dissolved and re-formed by the president, and Yeltsin eventually did just that. After Nemtsov lost his deputy prime minister post, he was elected to the lower house of Parliament, becoming deputy speaker. As Yeltsin's hold on power lessened, Vladimir Putin, a former agent of the KGB (the Soviet secret police), came up through the ranks and emerged as acting president at Yeltsin's resignation on December 31, 1999. While Putin worked to consolidate his power, he also quietly rolled back many of his successor's democratic reforms.
While serving as deputy speaker, Nemtsov was elected chairman of the Union of Pro-Rightists (SPS). The SPS was a coalition party, an unstable mix of similarly minded idealists and a pro-Kremlin faction led by pro-free market politician Anatoly Chubais. When elections in 2003 gave the SPS less than 5 percent of the vote necessary to hold their seats in Parliament, they were pushed out of power. Although Chubais remained, Nemtsov resigned from the party in January of 2004. He moved into the private sector, accepting a job as chairman of the board of a prominent oil company, Neftyanoi, and later of that company's bank. He was also invited to advise Viktor Yushchenko, the newly elected and pro-Western president of Ukraine.
Nemtsov now became a vocal critic of the Putin regime, writing protest papers and speaking out against the authoritarian rule, cronyism, and corruption clearly evident in the new administration. In 2014, he co-authored a paper addressed to Putin's supporters, warning them of what appeared to be a developing dictatorship. Meanwhile, Neftyanoi Bank was accused by the Putin government of corruption and Nemtsov resigned to help minimize political damage to the organization.
Together with former chess champion Gary Kasparov and others, Nemtsov formed a party, Solidarnost (or Solidarity) in December of 2008, hoping to unite the varied parties then opposing Putin's regime. Under this party, he ran for election as mayor of his hometown of Sochi but was soundly defeated. His defeat was not because of his politics, however: Nemtsov had been an outspoken opponent of the plan to hold the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, arguing that, as a subtropical location, it did not receive sufficient snowfall. In the wake of this international sporting event, 5,000 Sochi citizens were displaced by the construction of Olympics facilities and billions of rubles were siphoned away from construction funds through corruption.
Nemtsov's relentless work against Putin, which included petitions, papers, and party-building activities, met with decreasing success over time. Arrested in 2007, 2010, and 2011 while attending rallies against the government, he was treated with increasing harshness by law enforcement. After being held in one instance in a small stone cell with no furniture and little light, he filed a complaint with the European Court of Human Rights, which agreed to hear his case. For his friends and those who joined his protests, associating with Nemtsov came with a cost: their business might suffer or they might lose their job. Although realizing that hundreds of critics of the Putin regime had been marginalized, imprisoned, or met violent ends since 2000, Nemtsov persevered, continuing to speak out against the government's abuse of power and perhaps calculating that he was too well known to be subjected to reprisals.
By 2014 Nemtsov's concerns had expanded to Ukraine, specifically to Russia's annexation of a part of Ukraine called Crimea, with its port city of Sevastopol. With Ukraine's president deposed in February of that year, masked troops took over Crimea's supreme council and a new, pro-Russian government was installed in Sevastopol shortly thereafter, ostensibly with the consent of the locals. Although Putin's government vehemently denied any involvement, the well-armed and unmarked military forces now positioned in Sevastopol were obviously Russian. In a newspaper editorial published on September 1, 2014, Nemtsov called out Putin for the violence. In a subsequent radio broadcast, he announced plans to hold a peace rally outside of Moscow on March 1, 2015, to protest the war in Ukraine as well as the current financial crisis in Russia.
During the following months, those near to Nemtsov became increasingly fearful, and his mother feared that he would soon be killed. Close to midnight on February 27, 2015, Nemtsov and a friend were walking across the Bolshoy Moskvoretsky bridge in Moscow when a car pulled up behind them and he was shot in the back four times, dying instantly. Putin immediately sent condolences to Nemtsov's family, praising the murdered man and vowing to locate his killers. Friends and colleagues, along with global leaders and activists, were appalled and outraged. Although in June of 2017 a Russian jury pronounced five men from Chechnya to be guilty of the murder, Nemtsov's family dismissed the trial as a cover-up.
Jamestown Foundation PRISM, April 18, 1997, Yelena Dikun, “Portrait of Boris Nemtsov: Russia's Newest First Deputy Prime Minister.”
New Yorker, February 26, 2016, Joshua Yaffa, “The Unaccountable Death of Boris Nemtsov.”
Fox News, http://www.foxnews.com/world/2015/03/04/crossing-kremlin-nemtsov-latest-in-long-line-putin-critics-towind-up-dead.html (March 4, 2015), Malia Zimmerman, “Crossing the Kremlin: Nemtsov Latest in Long Line of Putin Critics to Wind up Dead.”
Guardian (London, England), https://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/mar/01/boris-nemtsov (March 1, 2015), Jonathan Steele, “Boris Nemtsov” https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/jun/29/gunman-found-guilty-murdering-russianopposition-leader-boris-nemtsov (June 29, 2017), Alec Luhn, “Nemtsov Family Dismisses Verdict as Five Found Guilty of Murder.”
National Review, October 31, 2017, David Satter, “Who Killed Boris Nemtsov?”
Washington Post, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/europe/russian-opposition-leader-boris-nemtsov-reportedkilled-in-moscow/2015/02/27/ (February 28, 2015), Michael Birnbaum and William Branigin, “Putin Critic, Russian Opposition Leader Boris Nemtsov Killed in Moscow.”□