For followers of events in and around Russia and Ukraine, February is a brutal month. You need true grit to get through all the painful anniversaries of recent injustices and tragedies.
February is the anniversary of the tragic deaths of protesters killed in Ukraine’s Euromaidan Revolution. After two years, not a single person has been brought to justice, even as new General Prosecutors are appointed and fail to deliver. Those who gave their lives for a new democratic Ukraine were honored in an emotional ceremony in Kyiv, with 105 beams of light reaching toward the skies in their memory.
It’s also the anniversary of the Minsk Accords which brought together the leaders of France, Germany, Ukraine and Russia in the Belarus capital in February 2015. After an all-nighter, Putin had played Merkel, Hollande, and Poroshenko into a collective checkmate, resulting in at best an incomplete halt to the fighting in the pro-Russian Donbas region of Ukraine. Soldiers are still dying, POWs are still being held (Nadiya Savchenko is still in a Russian prison), war crimes are being documented, the humanitarian crisis has deepened. Meetings continue, with little progress. Minsk remains unfulfilled.
February is the anniversary of the horrific battle for Debaltseve, the critical railway hub in eastern Ukraine which Russia claimed was not subject to the Minsk agreement they had just helped to author. The brutal fighting raged on, thanks to Russia’s endless supply of heavy weaponry to their separatists until Ukrainian forces were surrounded, then defeated. Combined Russian and separatist forces occupied the devastated city to this day.
And the act that started it all – the invasion of Crimea – began at the end of February 2014 when thousands of Russian troops descended on the peninsula–by land, sea and air–accompanied by a Russian take-over of media, internet and cell phone towers. We know how that ended. Ukraine was forced to abandon Crimea, as Putin’s balaclava-clad gunmen, bizarrely dubbed “polite little green men” stood outside the Crimean Parliament while those inside were shown how to vote for secession from Ukraine. The leaders of the indigenous population of Crimean Tatars refused to acknowledge Russia’s illegal annexation, as did most of the rest of the civilized world. Europe and the US imposed sanctions, and relations between Russia and the West have only grown worse since.
Last year on February 27, 2015, I spent the day thinking about the Russian invasion of Crimea, how quickly Russia had moved to both seize and annex Crimea, how Russia had left the democracies in the West, slow by nature and design, in the dust. As I was reviewing videos and reports from Crimea, I came across some raw footage from closed-circuit cameras located inside the Belbek Airport terminal in Sevastopol, Crimea. What I saw was astounding. In the middle of the night, soldiers clad in full military gear streamed through the turnstiles of the airport, greeted by people who obviously expected their arrival. Russia’s invasion had been recorded for all to see.
We all know now that those Russian soldiers who descended on Crimea were but one part of a Russian campaign to undermine Ukraine’s new post-Maidan government, which leaned West to Europe rather than toward Russia, as Putin had planned. Having failed to keep pro-Russia kleptocrat Yanukovych in power, Putin moved quickly to tear Ukraine apart. The invasion of Crimea which began at the end of February 2014 was the first of many shocking actions by Russia in Ukraine and elsewhere.
Russians who had opposed Putin’s growing autocratic rule found yet another powerful reason to oppose him. Ukraine became a new rallying cry in Russia. Putin’s brazen seizure of Crimea was a shameful betrayal of “brotherly” neighbor Ukraine. And Putin’s aggression was causing an economic crisis inside Russia, whose economy was deteriorating from a global oil glut exacerbated by Western sanctions. Russia instituted retaliatory sanctions on Western imports, which only increased Russian suffering.
The Russian opposition, made up of a variety of pro-democracy parties, none of whom had widespread influence, began uniting to hold rallies against Putin and against Putin’s war in Ukraine. Nemtsov was instrumental in organizing large anti-war rallies in March 2014 and again in September 2014. For the first time since the mass protests against Putin’s re-election in 2012, aggression on Ukraine brought tens of thousands of people to the streets of Moscow and St Petersburg, marching with both anti-war and anti-Putin banners.
As Putin’s war escalated in Ukraine and Russian soldier “volunteers” had begun coming home in body bags, the Opposition parties now planned another mass demonstration for March 1, 2015. It was to be not only an anti-war protest but a broader anti-crisis protest, connecting Putin’s seizure of Crimea and his subsequent war in Ukraine to the growing social and economic crises in Russia. Boris Nemtsov called it the “Spring” March, cleverly recalling pro-democracy Spring revolutions around the world that had passed Russia by.
Last February, as the anniversary of Russia’s Crimea invasion approached, Nemtsov was campaigning together with Alexey Navalny and others to spread the word of the Spring March 1 protest. Russian television systematically excluded the opposition, so their efforts were largely grassroots–social media, independent Echo Moscow radio interviews, word of mouth, and handing out leaflets. The campaign was so energized. History, truth, and momentum seemed to be on their side. Winter was nearly over, a new symbolic Spring was just around the corner.
In the weeks leading up to the Spring March, Russia’s propaganda campaign against Ukraine and Russian supporters of Ukraine reached a fever pitch. Fascists, Nazis, ultra-nationalist Ukrainians, Russian haters had taken over Ukraine, according to the nonstop and shameless propaganda broadcast on every Russian-language channel. Russian patriots were taking to the streets, holding rallies to support Russian volunteers going to fight those awful fascists in Ukraine. Russian nationalists and pro-Kremlin groups now called themselves Anti-Maidan, as the disinformation campaign turned Ukraine’s “Maidan” into a dirty word. Only in Russia would a pro-democracy protest of ordinary people be a bad thing.
And it wasn’t just bad. The Kremlin presented Maidan as dark, evil, violent and destructive, bombarding TV viewers with frightening images of fire and clashes. Nevermind that the fires were started to protect protesters from riot police who attacked and beat them. That was not part of the story. In fact, the entire protest that was Maidan was not the story. In Russia the clashes were the only story. They were evil, and the Ukrainians were evil, and they were supported by the evilest of them all, Obama and the CIA. Russians with pro-Ukraine sympathies were now routinely called traitors. Putin even referred to a Stalineque “fifth column” of “enemies of the people” who seek to overthrow Russia. Banners began appearing in Moscow with portraits of leading opposition figures as traitors and aliens, not true Russians.
A year ago today, on Feb 20, pro-Kremlin groups held a large pro-Putin Anti-Maidan rally in Moscow with appalling rhetoric echoing Kremlin propaganda bashing Ukraine, the US and Europe, while co-opting the anti-war message. Among the many banners praising Putin for standing up to the evil ones, there were some very ugly signs.
The one that stood out to me was a placard with a portrait of Boris Nemtsov, naming him as an organizer of Ukraine’s Maidan, clearly suggesting he was working to do the same in Russia. I remember thinking, Nemtsov made Maidan happen?? They must be crazy.
One week later, on February 27, 2015, on the one-year anniversary of Russian troops streaming through those turnstiles in that Crimean airport, the anniversary of the beginning of the first invasion of a sovereign European country since World War II, Boris Nemtsov was assassinated in central picturesque Moscow, on a bridge within a stone’s throw from the Kremlin walls, the seat of Putin’s power. Russia’s Spring was dead. Boris Nemtsov’s Spring March became his funeral procession. A tragedy of immense proportions, personally and politically.
If Crimea was Putin’s first shocking punch against the accepted world order, the assassination of Boris Nemtsov was the knockout. Few outside Crimea and Ukraine have talked about Crimea since. On the day we should have been scrutinizing the events in Crimea, seeing the parallels between Putin’s strategy in Crimea and Donbas, documenting Russia’s involvement, we learned the horrific news that Nemtsov was dead. The assassination of Boris Nemtsov–the most prominent of Russia’s opposition leaders, the best known in the West, the one who Anthony Bourdain dined with on his trip to Russia–was the ultimate Kremlin hybrid war “distraction,” shifting focus away from Putin’s actions in Crimea.
Boris Nemtsov’s assassination last February was a game-changer inside and outside Russia, but ironically, it resulted in more scrutiny of Putin, not less. It unmasked the veil of a seemingly normal civilized post-Soviet Russian government under Putin. The annexation of Crimea, the war in Donbas, the MH17 disaster all were shocking violations of international law. Nemtsov’s murder was a shocking violation of decency. The Kremlin’s true colors under Putin have only become more transparent since his murder, as investigations that had been gathering dust for years began receiving renewed attention, adding to the list of suspicious murders of Putin critics. It’s not a pretty picture. Like a mafia family, Putin and his circle of Kremlin elites will abide by no embarrassing criticism that could shake their grip on power. They will find a way to silence critics one way or another, in Chechnya, London, Ukraine and Moscow, and their powerful worldwide propaganda media will clean up the mess with disinformation, obfuscation, and outright lies.
Without the irrepressible and dynamic spirit and wit of their friend and leader Boris Nemtsov, Russia’s opposition has valiantly carried on, finishing his work, speaking out, attempting to participate in elections, documenting government corruption and nepotism. But their work has become harder than ever against a system that’s increasingly closing off the few remaining civic spaces for independent voices.
And without Nemtsov’s thorn in his side, Putin has had a smoother path to continue his destructive policies. Only one large protest has been held in Russia since his death, and it was nowhere near the scale of previous years. The war in Ukraine still smolders, while Putin’s moved on to making new enemies in Turkey and Syria, aggravating Europe’s refugee crisis as Russian airstrikes continue to wipe out Assad’s opposition and any civilians who happen to be in the way.
At home, Putin has only made life more miserable and more unpredictable for many Russians through harassment, intimidation, even prison. He’s succeeded in silencing some, but others have bravely continued to speak out about the hypocrisy and corruption of Kremlin elites, even Putin himself, and the need for democratic change. It seems that the Kremlin’s “signal” violence tactic of murdering Nemtsov to scare dissenters into silence has not only failed, but it’s had the opposite reaction. The fact that officials have rejected people’s attempts to modestly honor, commemorate or even remember Boris Nemtsov in any public or private way has only strengthened commitment to Nemtsov’s memory as well as his struggle for a new Russia. Boris Nemtsov, a larger-than-life figure in life, has become in death a revered symbol of the struggle for a decent, predictable, rule of law-based, free and democratic Russia.
As the first anniversary of Nemtsov’s brutal assassination approaches, people around the world are planning demonstrations in his honor and to continue his struggle for a democratic Russia. So far, the list includes some 61 cities, from Kyiv to San Francisco, and throughout Russia. The largest demonstration is planned for Moscow.
This afternoon I listened to several brief but powerful appeals from Nemtsov friends and allies, members of Russia’s People’s Freedom Party (PARNAS), to attend the March in Memory of Boris Nemtsov to be held in Moscow next Saturday, February 27, the one-year anniversary of his murder.
Below are translations of the recorded announcements from (1) Vladimir Kara-Murza, (2) Ilya Yashin, (3) Mikhail Kasyanov, (4) Gennady Gudkov, and (5) Alexander Ryklin, (6) Sergei Parkhomenko. Each appeal to join the February march is also a moving and personal tribute to Boris Nemtsov.
Before this miserable February is over, people all over the world in solidarity with so many brave Russians will remind Putin that neither Boris Nemtsov nor his fight to free Russia from the repressive, belligerent, failing security state it has become is forgotten.
Vladimir Kara-Murza: One year ago our friend, the leader of the Russian Opposition, Boris Nemtsov was killed at the Kremlin’s walls. Those in power would prefer that we forget him, the sooner the better. They call him a relatively insignificant citizen. They refuse to remember him. Day in and day out they allow the people’s memorial on the Bolshoy Moskvoretsky Bridge to be destroyed and vandalized. But we haven’t forgotten Boris. We’ll never forget him.
On February 27, 2016, the one-year anniversary of his murder, we are holding a march in his memory in Moscow. We’ll be marching on the same path that he himself took during the last march of his life, a march against the war in Ukraine in September 2014. We’ll be gathering on Pushkin Square on Saturday, February 27 after 1 pm.
Let’s show them that we are many. Let’s show them that we haven’t forgotten. Join us.
Ilya Yashin: One year ago they killed my friend Boris Nemtsov in Moscow. We now understand that the organizers and those who ordered this crime have been allowed to walk freely, they feel very comfortable, the government is protecting them. And judging by everything that’s happened, if they’re allowed to remain free, then the policy of political assassinations in Russia will continue.
The only way to stop this is together, you and I. We can’t count on the Kremlin or the security services. Only we can stop this, together. That’s why we must go out on Feb 27th in honor of Boris Nemtsov, to show that we are many, that there are many people who reject political violence, who reject the atmosphere of hatred that’s developed in Russian society, who want to live in a normal, free, democratic country. That’s what Boris fought for, that’s what Boris gave his life for.
Come join us on February 27 to march in honor of Boris Nemtsov. Let’s show them that we are many.
Mikhail Kasyanov: Friends, On February 27 will be a march in honor of Boris Nemtsov, my friend, colleague, Opposition leader, an activist for a new Russia. I ask you all to come to our demonstration to say “no” to lawlessness, to say “no” to political assassinations, to say “no” to authoritarianism, and to say “yes” to a democratic Russia.
Gennady Gudkov: Dear fellow citizens, Exactly one year ago a horrible terrorist act was committed at the walls of the old Kremlin. Five bullets in the back killed a prominent Russian politician, a public governmental figure, and simply a smart and very responsible individual, Boris Nemtsov. He was brave, honest, bold.
The crime that was committed a year ago has yet to be investigated. The actual people who ordered the crime aren’t found, the organizers have yet to be determined.
I ask all of you to support the march being held on Feb 27 in honor of Boris Nemtsov in Moscow. It starts at 2pm and wIll be held in central Moscow…
This march is not only to remember Boris Nemtsov. It’s also to unite in a patriotic civic stance, and to demand that our government conduct a real investigation, to hold the true murderers accountable for this crime.
This is a march for a democratic Russia. This is a march for Russia’s future. Everyone who cares about Russia’s future, who cares about Russia and its government institutions, come join us…
Alexander Ryklin: Last year on February 27 Boris Nemtsov was killed. In the year since, Russia has slipped into a deep abyss. I’m attending this march this year on February 27 because I’m not prepared to accept the conclusions of the so-called investigation without establishing the organizers and those who ordered his killing. I’m going to the march because I want to express what I think about what’s going on in my country, which for an intents and purposes, has ceased to be a normal country.
I’m not just going to attend the march. I’m also going to go to the Bridge afterwards. I’ll be on that bridge several times that day. And I don’t think I’ll be alone there. We will, in the end, achieve what Boris Nemtsov spoke about. May his memory be eternal.
Sergei Parkhomenko: This Saturday February 27 is exactly one year to the day that Boris Nemtsov was murdered. Of course we’ll all come to that bridge, back to that very place. We just can’t not go. The mayor of Moscow thinks that the anniversary should be observed somewhere else, not at the bridge, but on a boulevard. Alright, that’s fine. First we have a procession down the boulevard, from Pushkin Square to Sakharov Prospect, that’ll be our route. But then we’ll have to wind up at the bridge. Please absolutely come. It’s been exactly a year since Boris Nemtsov was killed.
NOTE: To find a rally near you, check the Facebook event page here.
A version of this article appears at Euromaidan Press.