On an unseasonably warm Friday night, Feb. 27, Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov was enjoying a stroll with his girlfriend, the Ukrainian supermodel Anna Duritskaya. A remote security camera recorded the pair walking hand in hand over the Moscow River Bridge. The pastel lights of the Kremlin glowed in the background as a pedestrian overtook them from behind. At that moment, a salt truck pulled up, obscuring the camera’s view and leaving the murder of this handsome, charismatic politician to the viewer’s imagination. The assassin’s seven bullets briskly ended Nemtsov’s life and, with it, the aspirations he had since the early 1990s to build a confident and financially independent Russian middle class.
The state-sponsored media blamed the usual suspects — provocateurs from the political opposition, Islamic extremists and Ukrainian fascists. Western bloggers fingered their own universal bad guy: Vladimir Putin. Amid the finger-pointing, few commentators reflected on Nemtsov’s career and what its tragic end means for Russia.
I met Nemtsov once, in 1992, when he was the 33-year-old appointed governor of the large and arms-producing Nizhny Novgorod province, a region formerly closed to foreign travelers, where the dissident Andrei Sakharov had been kept under house arrest. When the Soviet Union disintegrated, Nemtsov quit his job teaching physics and entered politics as a democratic, economically liberal reformer. He got his start in politics, in other words, before “democrat” in Russia became a dirty word and “capitalism” became synonymous with corruption, graft and theft.
In 1992, Nemtsov had little time to spare. He found an hour to meet me for an interview after midnight at the city TV studio where he gave his monthly televised address to the province. He led me out to his car, asked his driver to slide over and drove us through the surprisingly clean and orderly Nizhny Novgorod, formerly Gorky, Russia’s third-largest city at the time. He pointed out the renovations underway and described his larger plans.
Nemtsov led a small posse of local technocrats-turned-politicians, most of whom were his college chums. They essentially invented the transition from socialism as they went along. When the central government seized up in 1992 and could not pay state workers, Nemtsov devised a program in which new local banks issued bonds, which workers could accept as wages instead of rubles. The bonds, which locals called nemtsovtsi, after their creator, could be cashed at local stores or held as investments.
With the help of an international NGO, Nemtsov and his colleagues started microlending programs to gradually privatize small state-owned enterprises, such as stores, beauty parlors and auto shops. Realizing that independent businesses could not get goods, he devised an auction to sell off trucks not in use from the state-owned trucking firm. He also transformed the fairground, built in the 18th century, into a local mercantile exchange and founded a land bank to carry out land reform to enable small stakeholders to buy farms and private property.
We now know it was the speed of the mass drive to privatize and the promises of a painful but quick shock therapy that paved the way for what a recent Russian film calls the “Leviathan.” That is the establishment, locally and nationally, of oligarchs who control business, finance and political power. By privatizing the vast wealth of the Soviet state in just six months, shock therapy gave the advantage to people already in positions of power — former communist party bosses, KGB officers (especially in the agency’s financial wing) and enterprise directors. These insiders managed to funnel the most profitable portfolios into their own hands while leaving state debt and joblessness to the vast majority of Russians, who quickly came to disdain these processes of divestment and disenfranchisement and identify them as democracy and capitalism exported to Russia by the West.
Nemtsov and his colleagues were in a great hurry because they sought to pass into law land reform and electoral politics before the scene changed and they were pushed from power. In 1992, Nemtsov understood, presciently, that he didn’t have much time.
“If I were to die tomorrow and some fascist replaced me, everything, of course, is finished,” he told me. “He could turn back the clock, closing down the auctions and shutting stores. But if these reforms get fixed in law, then they will continue on their own accord.”
“My personality,” he added, “just like the personality of [the U.S.] president, will mean nothing.” Unfortunately, the funeral coverage of Nemtsov is all about his personality, not his policies, because he did not manage on a national level to pass the reforms he sought.
It is good to keep Russian events in perspective. The United States also had a period, from 1963 to 1968, when a minority of Americans sought to reform discriminatory electoral and financial structures, and during this time a number of important political and opposition leaders were mysteriously murdered — John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. What differs in this case is the level of fear. Thousands of Russians paid their respects to Nemtsov in the full light of day in the streets on March 1 and at his wake on March 3, but the security camera reveals a different story at the moment of Nemtsov’s death. For a full 20 minutes before police arrived, Muscovites walking and driving by Nemtsov’s felled body did not stop. A few paused, looked and kept going. No one felt empowered enough to try to help.
Nemtsov died alone.