Dissent Shot Dead on the Streets of Moscow

Tens of thousands rally in the streets of Moscow in memory of Boris Nemtsov on March 1, 2015


Late Friday in Moscow, unknown gunmen shot and killed prominent Russian opposition politician Boris Nemtsov. His body lay in the street back-dropped by the Kremlin and St. Basil’s Cathedral. Nemtsov was one of the last members of what now is, quite literally, a dying breed in Russia. He was vocal, public, and unabashed in his calls for reform and change in Russian policymaking. Nemtsov, in a chilling display of anticipation, predicted the result of his actions, stating mere weeks before he was killed that he fully expected his fate. Boris Nemtsov was a complicated character. Educated as a physicist, he became politically active around the time of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, and held leadership positions in several of Russia’s opposition parties. Like most Russians, the chaos of the 1990s was seminal in his personal development. In the late 1990s, after serving a short stint as Deputy Prime Minister, he called Putin “Russia’s best bet.” While Nemtsov was a liberal west-leaning politician, he stated in this op-ed that Putin “Is no liberal democrat domestically or internationally . . . . [His] government will, however, reflect the Russian people’s desire for a strong state, a functioning economy, and an end to tolerance for robber barons.” More recently though, Nemtsov reneged on these comments, becoming more brash in his characterization of the regime. There is no question Nemtsov correctly predicted the illiberal nature of Putin’s Russia. But contrary to his initial predictions, Russia’s economy has remained non-functioning, and robber barons have merely been replaced by slightly less violent versions, most of whom happen to be friends of Putin. So what does the murder of Nemtsov mean for Russia? President Vladimir Putin called the murder “provocative,” adding that he would personally lead its investigation. I do not mean to presume the regime’s guilt, but it would be wishful – and indeed, irresponsible – to pretend that Putin’s administration would see this as anything but good news. Most disturbing is the idea that Putin’s hushed campaign against dissent is working. The days where Russians can take to the streets like they did during the Bolotnaya Protests are long gone. When similar things were done in the past, such as with the murder of Anna Politkosvkaya, there was debate about the ethics and efficacy of the Kremlin. No such debate will happen after this murder, nor will it be a catalyst for action in Russia; Nemtsov will not become Russia’s Mohamed Bouazizi. Tens of thousands of people took to Moscow’s streets in memorial, but nearly as many police were closely supervising the march. Meanwhile, large sections of Russian society have been taking to the media and the internet, paradoxically vocalizing their lack of empathy. In a greater sense, the murder shows how Russian politics are increasingly becoming a one-man show. Putin’s power is consolidated such that Nemtsov’s chances of changing the status quo were minimal. The ruling elite, however, still feel the need to control political discourse. The world will most likely never know who shot Nemtsov. It is unclear whether the Russian emperor is not wearing any clothes, or if he has simply taken the clothes from all of his subjects. It is not a stretch to assume that being a journalist for a non-state approved publication, or working for the opposition may be some of the deadliest jobs in Russia. Something far more than a man was killed this week – Nemtsov’s death was also an affirmation that the fight for ideas in Russia continues to be a war of attrition. And right now, the Pro-Kremlin camp is winning. Photo by Dhārmikatva / CC BY-SA 4.0

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