Boris Nemtsov, the man who led Russian liberalism by example

The family, friends and associates of Boris Nemtsov gathered on March 3 for the funeral of the murdered politician and Kremlin critic, gunned down in central Moscow on the evening of Feb. 27 by unknown assailants. Among those who attended the burial was Nemtsov’s former colleague Irina Khakamada, who pays tribute here to a man who always stood out from the crowd in the world of Russian politics.


Click to enlarge the image. Drawing by Grigory Avoyan

Boris Nemtsov blew up the political space of Russia with his very first appearance. Young, handsome, clever, daring and devastatingly charming – the Soviet Union had never known the like.

It was 1991. He was a young governor [Nemtsov was the first governor of the Nizhny Novgorod Region (1991–97) – RBTH]; I was a fledgling politician. We were both neophytes in the post-Soviet nomenclature, and of course it brought us together. But until 1997, I just observed his activities with interest from the sidelines.

If Leo Tolstoy can be called a mirror of the Russian revolution, then Boris Nemtsov "mirrored" all the features of the transitional period. Sochi adventurism [Nemtsov was born in Sochi in 1959 – RBTH], Soviet deference to rank, romantic belief in the victory of democracy and Komsomol enthusiasm.

In the government, to which he invited me in 1997 [from March 17, 1997 through April 28, 1998 he was First Deputy Prime Minister – RBTH], he was already a different person – his charisma and creative energy remained, but the Komsomol fervor had given way to the responsibility of a federal-scale reformer. Boris gained political clout, but unlike many did not lose his desire to change the world for the better.

The fight against Berezovsky, the miners' strikes near the White House, the default and eventually the resignation of the government in 1998 was a great test for all of us [from April 28, 1998 to August 28, 1998 Nemtsov served as Deputy Prime Minister – RBTH], but it did not break anybody – it only added more excitement and energy to us, even if we were considered political corpses.

And Boris was the first to begin to assemble a team again. For all his ambitions, the result was a top priority for him. The Union of Right Forces party, initiated by him, won the State Duma elections with its leader Sergei Kiriyenko [Nemtsov served as State Duma deputy in 1999-2003 – RBTH].

Nemtsov remained the brightest figure in parliament, where it was no longer the Communists but the ruling party that had a majority, while the country was ruled not by Boris Yeltsin but by Vladimir Putin.

Unlike Sergei Kiriyenko, who promptly left to join executive power, Nemtsov enjoyed the freedom and political competition that still remained in the parliament.

Many things were to follow – the Nord-Ost hostage crisis [in 2002], the Khodorkovsky case, the loss of the two liberal parties in the Duma elections in 2003.

Nemtsov is now outside the system once more, but once again he shows how to take a punch, and converts his entire expertise into the creation of "non-systemic" opposition.

As the field of possibilities for the realization of his ideas narrowed, his statements and work methods became more radical.

You can see how, by following the example of Boris Nemtsov, the liberal project has turned from the "systemic" (represented in the government) into the "non-systemic" – focused on street protests.

And its leader has been killed – pointedly and brutally. In the middle of the bridge leading to both a cathedral and to the Kremlin – the two symbols of today's Russia.

Have these shots killed liberalism in Russia? The march in the memory of Boris Nemtsov, which drew tens of thousands of free people across the country on March 1, gives us hope that they have not.

Irina Khakamada is a politician and stateswoman who worked with Boris Nemtsov in the government as the Chairman of the State Committee for Support and Development of Small Business.

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