The death of Boris Nemtsov within sight of Red Square and its monuments to the power of the Russian state is a chilling event. A radical reformer turned popular and irreverent opposition leader, Nemtsov was one of the few unyielding critics of Vladimir Putin who was equally at home on the streets and in officialdom. On Friday night, he was shot in the back from a car. Four times, his friend and fellow opposition leader Gary Kasparov said, “once for each child he leaves behind.”
A spokesman for the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, said the killing had all the hallmarks of a contracted hit. This, in the same breath as saying his boss was taking full charge of an investigation into the shooting. That may not make for an inquiry of model openness, but it is strikingly different in tone from Putin’s past reactions to the death of opposition figures, where he has expressed very little sympathy. Even as Putin’s approval ratings soar and human rights are repressed, the Russian President has learned a little PR-spin to accompany his leadership. Last year, two men were sentenced for the killing of journalist Anna Politkovskaya eight years after her murder. Her family expressed disappointment that the trial held no clues to the question of who was behind the killing.
Images of Nemtsov’s body circulated last night on Russian news websites and social media. Whether this was down to the incompetence of the police or something more sinister – for what force would not want to block the scene from view – it meant that Nemtsov’s death was an eerily visual affair. Several commentators have taken to speculation about whether the killing will deter people from attending a rally this weekend that Nemtsov himself was promoting.
For all its murkiness, the death of Nemtsov is a tragedy that will do no good for critics of Putin’s regime. With little evidence to show, few opposition leaders or governments outside of Russia will be able to leverage it for an extension of sanctions. It is unlikely to rebound on Putin in the short-term, who has grown ever more popular for his perceived defence of Russian interests in Ukraine and annexation of Crimea.
What can, and should, result from this moment of tragedy is a full appraisal of Nemtsov’s work and the fate of the liberal opposition, which was routed so comprehensively after the 1998 default. Nemtsov’s exposure of corruption in the lead up to Sochi 2014 was bold, brave, and intelligible to the ordinary Russian. Alexei Navalny, who is serving a suspended sentence for fraud, also made his name exposing corruption. Now, when that analysis is needed more than ever amid a falling ruble and unaffordable budget, Russia has one fewer statesman.
More recently, Nemtsov has spoken out against Russia’s involvement in the Ukrainian conflict. His (English-language) piece in the Kyiv Post is a fine testament, in which he argues that “Putin is trying to dissect Ukraine and create in the east of the country a puppet state, Novorossiya, that is full economically and politically controlled by the Kremlin.” We should share it to continue his good work.