On Tuesday, September 9 Boris Nemtsov was posthumously honored with the International Republican Institute’s (IRI) 2015 Freedom Award. His longtime friend and colleague Vladimir Kara-Murza Jr accepted the award on his behalf this week in Washington, D.C. Kara-Murza delivered a moving tribute that reviewed Nemtsov’s storied accomplishments as a young visionary reformer in the early days of post-Soviet Russia as well as highlighted Nemtsov’s personal attributes as a principled and decent human being.
Boris Nemtsov was assassinated on February 27, 2015, on the anniversary of Russia’s occupation of Crimea, and on the eve of a widely anticipated and widely publicized protest rally to be held March 1. His shocking death stopped everyone cold, diverting attention from recalling Putin’s Crimea land-grab and stopping the mass protest rally in its tracks.
Nemtsov’s protest rally was pointedly called “Весна” [transliterated “Vesna”], Russian for “Spring,” and was expected to bring tens of thousands of Russians into the streets of Moscow, a feat increasingly difficult to accomplish in light of the growing cult of Putin and increasing censorship and vilification of opponents in Russia’s state-run media. Nemtsov, an older generation liberal democrat, active since the fall of the Soviet Union, even serving as Deputy Prime Minister in 1990s, organized “Spring” with younger leading opposition figures, including Alexey Navalny, as part of a continuing campaign to inform Russians of the Putin regime’s deadly and costly covert war in Ukraine, a war he continues to deny involvement in despite overwhelming evidence. The March 1 protest was also dubbed the “Anti-Crisis March” aimed specifically at connecting the increasingly troubling economic and social conditions at home in Russia to Putin’s war in Ukraine.
Nemtsov was shot within steps of the Kremlin as he strolled home from dinner at an upscale downtown Moscow restaurant, having recorded an enthusiastic interview and several promotions for the coming protest for independent radio station Echo Moscow earlier that same evening. In a surreal turn of events, Boris Nemtsov’s Spring Anti-Crisis March became his own funeral march, attended by tens of thousands of blindsided Russians.
Although Nemtsov’s assassination was a shocking event to be sure, the motivation for gunning down such an prominent figure in Russian political life and memory cannot be clearer. As Kara-Murza poignantly proclaimed at the IRI award ceremony, “His was the loudest and clearest voice against the abuses, the corruption and the aggression of Putin’s rule.”
You’ll recall that Kara-Murza was himself a recent victim of Russia’s political brutality, having suffered acute organ failure after a suspected poisoning just months after Nemtsov’s assassination. He is visibly thinner and physically frail after a somewhat miraculous recovery. Like Nemtsov, Kara-Murza is steadfast in carrying on his work to democratize Russian politics, as a leader of the People’s Freedom Party and as Coordinator of Open Russia NGO, despite the obvious tremendous personal risk.
Americans are often baffled, wondering why opposition figures stay in Russia or even continue their work against the repression of the Putin regime. The pull of one’s homeland is difficult to articulate. No one wants to uproot their lives, abandon their friends and family and live in exile. It causes immeasurable upheaval, often irreversible, and that’s why it’s something done truly as a last resort. And of course, these are far from ordinary people. They are used to struggle, have already lost much, and are motivated by true patriotism and a deep abiding love for Russia. They will not just give in or simply lay down and die, as it were. In fact, it seems these awful challenges make them stronger and even more resolute.
Below is an extensive excerpt of Kara-Murza’s remarks. The full speech can be viewed here.
Boris Nemtsov … was diametrically opposite to [Putin], both as a politician and as a human being. He was kind and decent; humble and full of self-irony. He was always ready to help others and never one to boast about it.
As a political leader, Boris Nemtsov was always a maverick. He always said what he believed, and he always did what he said. He never betrayed his principles or his friends. He never profited from the many high government offices he occupied — a rarity in my country. And he never put his personal interests above the interests of his nation. He valued freedom and dignity, both his own and those of others. And above all, he always did what he believed was right, not what was easy, expedient or profitable.
As a young leader of the anti-communist movement in Nizhny Novgorod, he ran for the Russian parliament against the establishment at the age of 30 and won. Just a year later as the communist regime fell and the old party apparatchiks simply ran away, he found himself governor of a large industrial region on the verge of economic collapse. And within just a few years transformed it into Russia’s economic miracle, the hub of free market reforms. And leaders from across the world, including from this country, went to visit Nizhny Novgorod and its reformist governor to see the changes with their own eyes.
For its unparalleled media pluralism, Nizhny Novgorod under Governor Nemtsov was known as the “Land of Untamed Journalists.” As the Deputy Prime Minister of Russia in the late 1990s, he tackled government corruption, crony capitalism, and the oligarchs head on, at the expense of his own political advancement. As U.S. Congressman Bob Livingston said after meeting Boris Nemtsov, “This guy is simply too good to be true.”
Except that he IS true. He always did what he believed was right. Whether it was when he placed one million signatures against the war in Chechnya on President Boris Yeltsin’s desk, or when he led the protests against Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine.
In the last 15 years as my country entered another authoritarian spell and as so many of Boris’ former political colleagues chose the comfortable path of silence or collaboration, he continued to fight for his beliefs regardless of the cost. His was the loudest and the clearest voice against the abuses, the corruption and the aggression of Putin’s rule. And to his many friends … who voiced concern about his physical safety and urged him to leave Russia, he answered one and same thing… ”This is my country, I have to fight for it.”
He gave everything he had for that fight. And in the end, he gave it his life.
Boris Nemtsov was destined for much more. He was undoubtedly the best president that Russia never had. But our country is fortunate to have had such an authentic, principled and visionary political leader. I’m fortunate to have had such a great colleague and such a true friend.
I gratefully and humbly accept this award for Boris Yefimovich Nemtsov, as recognition that his life, his fight and his example are not and shall never be forgotten.
There is little confidence that the full truth of Boris Nemtsov’s assassins – who ordered the hit, who gave cover and support and other critical details – will be revealed in Russia’s perfunctory investigation. The latest rumors are that prosecutors will indict the two Chechen in custody, citing religious hatred and revenge for Nemtsov’s statements in support of slain Charlie Hebdo cartoonists as their motive for the murder. Such a facile conclusion in light of the public time, manner and place of the murder near the Kremlin – one of the most highly secured and surveilled places on earth – has propelled Russian activists to start an online petition drive, seeking justice through an independent investigation into Nemtsov’s murder to be undertaken by the international community. You can learn more about how to support and sign the petition here.