Boris Nemtsov: Alive in Death

03/02/2015 07:09 am ET | Updated May 02, 2015
Kommersant Photo via Getty Images

I met Boris Nemtsov in April 2000.

It was soon after the second Chechen war.

I had come to Russia to interview Igor Ivanov, Russia's minister of foreign affairs at the time.

I took advantage of the trip to see, at the offices of an association of mothers of soldiers, a man who was then only a former governor of Nizhny-Novgorod. He had long been the presumed heir of Yeltsin but was overtaken in the home stretch by Putin the KGB man.

At the time Boris Nemtsov had not yet become the embodiment of the democratic opposition in Russia.

But he had the charm, the charisma, and -- behind the handsome face of a stubborn, wary boxer -- the hypnotic intensity of those who have, even if they are not yet fully aware of it, decided to devote their life to a cause greater than themselves.

And I recall the calm, almost logical, anger with which he described some of the bloodiest episodes of the fall of Grozny the month before. Such radical independence was not common in a democratic camp contaminated by Great Russian nationalism, which persists to this day even in a man like Khodorkovski, and it made of this reasonable yet fervent young man the most lucid and above all the most complete opponent of the new "red-brown" tyranny that was raining on Russia.

Those who killed him on February 27, 2015, on the great stone bridge just outside the Kremlin knew that.

They knew that they were eliminating the man who, from Chechnya to the immense exercise in corruption that was the Sochi Olympics, and passing through his uncompromising defense of press freedom, was the most consequential of the nation's opposition leaders.

They knew that the man they gunned down, who, for more than ten years had never stopped denouncing the mafia-like quality of Putin's tyranny, was about to make public (as he had announced) a report proving the direct involvement of the Russian military in Donbass.

They could not have been unaware that their target that night was the soul and the conscience of the party of choice of the growing number of people who understood, even in Moscow, that the war in eastern Ukraine was madness -- not only criminal but suicidal and apt to end with Russia on its knees.

In short, in the manner of the assassins of Anna Politkovskaya in 2006, the killers of Sergei Magnitsky and Stanislas Markelov in 2009, and others, they killed the man whose resounding voice -- a voice that even when stifled never went silent -- was the honor of the Russian people, whose highest values Vladimir Putin is doing his best to betray.

Boris Nemtsov was the anti-Putin.

Whereas one self-identifies with Stalin and the worst czar in Russian history, Nicholas I, the other was the heir to Sakharov, Solzhenitsyn, and the dissidence of the Soviet era.

And it is obvious that his death is a harsh blow for the truly great Russia, the Russia that is great not through arms but in spirit and in that insatiable yearning for freedom that extends from the Decembrists to Pasternak, embracing Pushkin's and Lermontov's odes to "Circassian liberty," which Boris Nemtsov may well have had in mind at the time of our meeting 14 years ago.

As I write, no one knows who ordered the crime.

And we can rely on the devious Putin to produce, at just the right moment, the ideal perpetrator whose personality and affiliations will reinforce the fanatical conspiracism that he feeds his people.

But what we already know is that such a horror was possible only in a Russia that has suffered from two decades of unpunished state-sponsored violence.

What is sure is that Boris Nemtsov would still be alive and leading Sunday's anti-war demonstration, a call to which he issued on the Ekho Moskyy channel just three hours before his death, if Putin's Russia had not spent the last 20 years hunting down opposition figures and methodically dragging through the mud and suppressing anyone professing democratic values.

Nemtsov's murder resembles that of Jean Jaurès in the sense that history recalls less clearly the direct perpetrator than the ill wind that made the murder possible, a wind that, in Jaurès's France, had been blowing for years through the far right, nationalistic, and anti-Dreyfus press.

Let us hope that the parallels end there.

Let us hope that Boris Nemtsov's death will never come to have the retrospective meaning of the demise of the last advocate of internationalism before the catastrophe of 1914.

A similar hope seems to be on the minds of the massive outpouring of Muscovites and many others from around the country who came into the streets on Sunday to pay tribute to their assassinated Russian hero.

One might have expected an opposition dazed, paralyzed, and intimidated by those four revolver shots -- one shot, observed Nemtsov's friend Kasparov, for each of the children he left behind.

But no.

The opposite was true.

Far from falling back into line and yielding to terror, tens of thousands of Russian men and women, in the manner of the French who so recently proclaimed "Je suis Charlie," came out to shout "I am Boris" into the ears of Vladimir Putin, who has never faced an adversary as vibrantly alive as this newly dead man.

Sunday's marches, beautiful and solemn, in which Ukrainian flags mingled with Russian, were the first real reversal for the party of war in Europe.

Translated by Steven B. Kennedy