Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov served as deputy prime minister to then-President Boris Yeltsin but fell out of favor under the leadership of Vladimir Putin
Russian riot police detain the leader of the Solidarity opposition group, Boris Nemtsov, during an opposition rally in central Moscow on Aug. 31, 2010.
European Pressphoto Agency
Then-Russian President Boris Yeltsin, left, and his first Vice Premier Boris Nemtsov during a visit to Krasnoyarsk, Russia, on Nov. 1, 1997.
European Pressphoto Agency
Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, shaking hands with then-Leader of the State Duma’s Right-Wing Union faction Boris Nemtsov during a meeting at the Kremlin on July 4, 2000.
European Pressphoto Agency
Boris Nemtsov addresses demonstrators during a massive rally to oppose President Vladimir Putin’s policies in Ukraine, on March 15, 2014, in Moscow.
Alexander Zemlianichenko/Associated Press
Boris Nemtsov listens to Petro Poroshenko while Yulia Tymoshenko, left, watches during a street protest in downtown Kiev, Ukraine, on Nov. 22, 2004.
Efrem Lukatsky/Associated Press
Boris Nemtsov uses a loud speaker during an opposition rally in downtown Moscow on May 6, 2012.
Misha Japaridze/Associated Press
People light candles in memory of Boris Nemtsov, seen behind, at the monument of political prisoners ‘Solovetsky Stone’ in central St.Petersburg, Russia, on Saturday. Nemtsov was gunned down on Friday near the Kremlin, a day before a planned protest against the government.
Dmitry Lovetsky/Associated Press
Updated Feb. 28, 2015 7:09 p.m. ET
MOSCOW—Just days after Boris Nemtsov’s release from a jail stint for conducting anti-Kremlin protests last year, the veteran opposition leader was asked why he hadn’t given up the lonely and increasingly dangerous pursuit of publicly challenging Russian President
“I don’t really have a choice,” he told the Dozhd TV channel. “I’m in this track that it’s already impossible to get out of.”
For Mr. Nemtsov, that path ended just before midnight Friday, when four bullets from an assassin’s gun took his life as he walked across a bridge just steps from the Kremlin wall and Red Square. He was 55 years old.
The killing—the highest-profile political assassination of the Putin era—appeared a throwback to the violent shootouts of the 1990s, when Mr. Nemtsov neared the pinnacle of power. But it also reflected the new reality of Putin’s Russia, where state media brand adversaries like Mr. Nemtsov as traitors for their criticism of the war in Ukraine, pillorying them as a “fifth column” bent on destroying the motherland.
Even Kremlin loyalists expressed shock at the brazen shooting in one of the highest-security locations in the capital.
“Nemtsov’s murder is not just a crime. It’s a tragedy. A challenge to all of us,” Maria Zakharova, the foreign ministry spokeswoman known for her attack-dog defense of the Kremlin line, wrote on Facebook early Saturday. “I never understood him: not when he was in government and not when he went into opposition. But today, I am Nemtsov.”
Boris Nemtsov, an antigovernment protestor and critic of Russian president Vladimir Putin, was shot and killed near the Kremlin late Friday, in what authorities said appeared to be a contract killing.
Like few others, Mr. Nemtsov’s nearly three-decade career as a liberal activist traced the arc of Russia’s now-dimmed and tarnished hopes for democracy and reform after the Soviet Union’s collapse. From early campaign victories and top-level appointments in the 1990s, he wound up regularly getting arrested at small opposition protests in the last few years.
“I naively thought that there were a lot of these passionate people in the country,” he told the Dozhd interviewer last year. “That’s absolute nonsense. The number of people who are ready to risk their freedom and prosperity in Russia is infinitesimally small.” For this “genetic fear of the authorities,” he blamed the brutal legacy of the Soviet Union’s Gulag, a system of forced labor camps.
Mr. Nemtsov got his political start in a Soviet provincial city then called Gorky and known for housing dissident scientist Andrei Sakharov when the government exiled him from the capital. A physicist himself, Mr. Nemtsov got involved with protesting plans to build a nuclear plant nearby. Like many intellectuals of the time, he won a seat in parliament in 1988, when the Soviet Union began experimenting with freer elections.
He drew the notice of Russian President Boris Yeltsin in August 1991, when he joined protesters facing down the coup by communist hard-liners. Mr. Yeltsin soon named him governor of his region, which reverted to its pre-Soviet name of Nizhny Novgorod.
Then-Russian President Boris Yeltsin, left, and his first Vice Premier Boris Nemtsov during a visit to Krasnoyarsk, Russia on Nov. 1, 1997.
European Pressphoto Agency
Young – 31 when he started as governor – tall and handsome, Mr. Nemtsov embodied the new wave of novice politicians who promised quick transition to democracy and free markets. Mr. Nemtsov’s Nizhny for a few years became a model for reform, attracting foreign investors and pioneering privatization. But unlike his often bookish reformist colleagues, Mr. Nemtsov had a charismatic populist touch, reveling in the glad-handing that was then still a new phenomenon for Russia. He won re-election as governor in 1996 and challenged the Kremlin with a petition opposing the war against separatists in Chechnya.
Despite that opposition, Mr. Yeltsin brought the young governor to Moscow in 1997, naming him first deputy prime minister in charge of the lucrative but corrupt energy sector. For a time, Mr. Nemtsov was the aging president’s golden boy. Mr. Yeltsin at one point introduced him to U.S. President
as his chosen successor, according a former Yeltsin aide.
But Mr. Nemtsov clashed with the powerful oligarchs whose business interests he sometimes challenged and was swept out of office in the financial collapse of 1998.
Though the reformers were reviled by many Russians for that crisis, Mr. Nemtsov stayed in politics, helping found a pro-reform party and winning a seat in parliament in the elections in December 1999.
He endorsed Mr. Yeltsin’s choice at the end of that year of Vladimir Putin as his successor. “Russia could do considerably worse than have a leader with an unwavering commitment to the national interest. And it is difficult to see how to do better,” Mr. Nemtsov and political scientist
wrote in the New York Times in 2000. Hours after Mr. Nemtsov’s murder, Mr. Bremmer tweeted, “We were wrong. R.I.P., Boris.”
The political chill came slowly, but Mr. Putin cracked down on independent media, politically ambitious oligarchs and other political rivals steadily.
In a radio interview just hours before he died, Mr. Nemtsov said he sensed the new president’s turn against the democratic ideals of the 1990s started in late 2000, when Putin proposed that the music of the old Soviet anthem be used for Russia’s anthem but with different lyrics. “Because our country is a very mystical one, as you know, that’s where it all started,” said Mr. Nemtsov, noting that he was one of the few legislators to vote against the plan.
Mr. Nemtsov lost his seat in parliament after pro-Kremlin parties won a landslide in 2003. He moved into more open opposition, joining vociferous regime critics like chess champion Garry Kasparov to found an umbrella group for opposition parties aimed at challenging Mr. Putin when his presidential term would next end in 2008.
They got little traction in a country where surging prices for oil, Russia’s main export, were fueling a jump in living standards not seen for decades before. Tied by his years in government to the economic collapse of the late 1990s, Mr. Nemtsov found his background a political liability with many Russians. Some liberal activists were put off by his reputation as a playboy and bon vivant.
After an abortive presidential run in 2008 against Mr. Putin’s chosen successor,
Mr. Nemtsov renamed his opposition group Solidarity, digging in for a long battle against the Kremlin as the Polish activists who challenged the communist government there did in the 1980s under a movement of the same name.
The daily reality of political opposition to the Kremlin had moved decisively from campaigns and debate to street protests and arrests. Pro-Kremlin activists followed Mr. Nemtsov and other leaders around, belittling them whenever they appeared publicly. State media attacked them as disloyal.
Still, Mr. Nemtsov tried his hand at electoral politics, running in 2009 for mayor of Sochi, the Black Sea resort that was his birthplace. He walked door-to-door as he had in the 1990s, chatting up voters and trying to build support. Opponents hounded him, at one point splashing his face with medical chemicals. Mr. Nemtsov got 14% of the vote, losing to the Kremlin’s candidate.
He became a regular figure at protests against the Kremlin’s increasingly tight restrictions on public demonstrations. But while other leaders escaped before police could arrest them, Mr. Nemtsov joined the dozens who were jailed for days or weeks.
In that period, he recalled later, he was in prison so often he came to recognize the cells and, when released, regaled visitors with tales of his cellmates. One cell where he was held particularly often was ultimately renovated after he filed suit to challenge the inhumane conditions, he said.
Russian riot police detain Boris Nemtsov during an opposition rally in central Moscow on Aug. 31, 2010.
European Pressphoto Agency
For a brief period at the end of 2011 and early 2012, mass protests against alleged vote fraud in the December 2011 parliamentary vote energized Mr. Nemtsov and his colleagues. But the Kremlin moved fast to neutralize their opponents, marshaling thousands of state workers and other supporters for counter-demonstrations. State television relentlessly tarred Mr. Nemtsov and his allies as subversives paid by the U.S. Kremlin supporters in the Russian heartland offered to come to Moscow and disperse the opponents.
Mr. Putin, running in 2012 to return to the presidency for a third term, picked up the brutal tone politics had taken on. Just days before the election, he warned in a televised meeting with supporters that unnamed opponents “who sit abroad” were “looking for a sacrificial victim from among prominent people.”
“They would rub him out and then blame it on the authorities. I know about this, I’m not exaggerating,” Mr. Putin said.
Mr. Putin was re-elected in a landslide and the protest movement faded. Mr. Nemtsov headed for the provinces and won a seat in a regional legislature north of Moscow.
The chill deepened further last year, when Mr. Nemtsov was one of the few politicians to openly criticize Russia’s annexation of the Ukrainian province of Crimea, cast by the Kremlin as a foreign-policy triumph that drove Mr. Putin’s popularity to record highs.
“Now the opposition occupies the niche that the dissidents occupied in the Soviet era,” Mr. Nemtsov said in a radio interview last April. “It’s extremely difficult I want to tell you to be part of the minority when the majority is aggressive, when they are zombified and drunken on the victory.”
He told associates this fall that he had been advised to leave the country for his own safety, but decided not to.
On Saturday, investigators said a possible motive for his murder was to create a “sacrificial victim” to discredit the Kremlin.
Write to Gregory L. White at email@example.com
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