Boris Nemtsov: Russian Dissident, Rebel for Peace, and Enemy of Tyrants

Paweł Piwowar – May 14, 2019

“I don’t need any positions. My position is Boris Nemtsov, and that’s enough.”

You can end up dead in Russia if you step on the wrong person’s toes.

The hero of this article knew that unfortunate fact very well yet was not afraid to step on the toes of the country’s most important figures, including Vladimir Putin himself. Boris Nemtsov, a passionate advocate for democracy and free markets, went from a chief Russian reformer to the government’s foe and paid the highest price for speaking truth to power.

A Born Rebel

Boris Efimovich Nemtsov, born in 1959 in Sochi, spent most of his early life in Nizhny Novgorod (then known as Gorky), a city of a million people 500 kilometers east of Moscow. From an early age, he did not plan to be involved in any kind of political activism. Instead, he wanted to be a scientist, and in 1985, at the early age of 25, he earned his PhD in math and physics.

Earlier in school, he declined to enter Komsomol, a state-wide organization of communist youth, and later, he also spurned membership in the Communist Party of the then-Soviet Union. That soon backfired on him, as he was given a “politically unstable” status, which effectively barred him from entrance to any university. Luckily for him, after negotiating with the school officials, his recommendation was changed to “sometimes having unadvised political opinions,” and that was apparently good enough for university officials.

In 1986, the Chernobyl nuclear reactor ruptured, causing perhaps the biggest ecological disaster in the history of the planet. The Soviet government tried desperately to hide the disaster. But such a spectacular failure of one of their proudest industrial projects couldn’t be kept quiet. In Chernobyl’s wake, a group of people in Nizhny Novgorod started protesting plans to introduce a nuclear boiler system in their city, and fatefully, one of these people was Dina Yakovlevna Eidman, Nemtsov’s mother.

Because no serious environmentalist protest can do without an expert scientist on board, Dina realized that her son’s expertise in physics might come in handy.

Nemtsov was not an opponent of nuclear energy, but he quickly realized that the atom was a dangerous toy in the hands of communist bureaucrats. He wrote an article for a local newspaper in which he gave a detailed explanation of why the project was a recipe for disaster (the government basically wanted to pump warm water into people’s homes with the help of nuclear energy, something aging Soviet pipelines could not handle). The article received such a huge public response that the editorial staff had to get a separate table for all the letters Nemtsov got from the readers.

The protest turned out to be successful and became the first act of civil disobedience in the city. It also gave Nemtsov the recognition necessary to kickstart his political career. Five years later, already a governor of the Nizhny Novgorod region, he faced the challenge of introducing capitalism to Russia.

A Capitalist Rebel

“Reforms start when money ends.”

Boris Nemtsov understood capitalism perhaps like no one else in Russia at that time. You can find many of his quotes explaining the benefits of economic freedom online, but a most interesting one, and relatively little-known, comes from his autobiography, written in 2008:

People started to drink weaker alcohols, for example beer… They learned how to drink less and more reasonably. Sobering of the nation is not thanks to new leaders. It is thanks to capitalism, which increased the value of good health. The thing is, when people already have some wealth, they treasure health and physical well-being a lot… A middle-class was born (in Russia), with enough money not only to make ends meet, but also to spend it on something beneficial and interesting.

If that observation is correct, then Nemtsov, a true pioneer of capitalism in Russia, can easily be deemed to be a key figure in changing the drinking habits of Russians — if not all of them, then at least the ones living in the Nizhny Novgorod region. It was, at that time, dubbed “a laboratory of reforms” — all thanks to Nemtsov’s efforts to liberalize the region’s economy.

First, Nemtsov released store owners from central control, making each one responsible for his own financial results. Then, he went a step further and privatized a portion of the shops altogether, making his region the first in Russia to sell state-owned stores. He also introduced a mixed scheme of private/public funding for agriculture, which reportedly resulted in flooding the market with food — something extraordinary during this time of rampant inflation and shortages of the most necessary products. Finally, he allowed over 300,000 people to purchase their own land.

All the above, together with Nemtsov’s greenlight for democracy and media pluralism to flourish, helped Nizhny Novgorod survive the chaos of economic transformation relatively well and earned Nemtsov the praise of the Iron Lady, Margaret Thatcher, during her visit to the city in 1993.

Despite all the setbacks, the beginning of the 1990s might have been the best time for advocating for the free market in Russia. Sadly, others did not follow Nemtsov’s path, and while his region was dubbed the laboratory of reform, from the very moment USSR collapsed, others became laboratories of oligarchy.

A Rebel in the Establishment

“To love the government is a pure perversion. You should love women, your mom and dad. The government you can respect or not, trust it or not. But to love it is slavery.”

Nemtsov used the term “oligarchy” himself because he knew what it was and the corruption it represented. The expression describes a system in which political and economic power are concentrated in the hands of rich individuals who are able to rig the rules in their favor by bribing politicians, controlling the media, and restricting competition. It’s far removed from true capitalism and, in fact, looks more like crony socialism.

What’s crucial to understand is that in the period following the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, oligarchs grew extremely rich not by building efficient businesses and satisfying customers’ needs but by utilizing political and criminal connections to put Soviet public property (factories, media, transport companies, etc.) in their hands.

Russian oligarchs were usually connected to the Russian mafia, and Nemtsov came out with another appropriate term to describe the system they exploited: “bandit capitalism,” as compared with “capitalism” — as it was known elsewhere — which, in Nemtsov’s opinion, was a right path to follow.

If you can’t fight something unless you name it, then Nemtsov knew exactly what he was doing; both oligarchs and “bandit capitalists” became his main enemies when he became a deputy prime minister of Russia in 1997.

Consistent Soldier Against Corruption

Nemtsov practiced what he preached. There were two particularly notable cases of his fight against the corrupt system. He did not allow Svyazinvest, the biggest state-owned telecom company in Russia, to fall into the hands of Vladimir Gusinski, or Gazprom, the giant gas company, into the hands of Boris Berezovski. The latter, according to Nemtsov, basically walked into his office and demanded he be appointed the company’s chairman.

The two oligarchs, unluckily for Nemtsov, were also media magnates and utilized the NTV television station to launch a genuine information war against him. Gusinski reportedly even hired prostitutes to present — in front of cameras — false accounts of their alleged evening meetings with Nemtsov.

The resistance of various oligarchic interest groups only increased when Boris Yeltsin, the Russian president, started openly considering Nemtsov as his successor. Their main enemy as the most powerful politician in the country would be simply too much to bear.

The continuous black-PR campaign against Nemtsov, together with the 1998 financial crisis, led to a decline in his popularity. His succession to the president’s chair was no longer on the table. Instead, a new powerful player appeared on the horizon.

A Rebel for Peace

“I am certain that every country needs non-conformists, as they form a kind of anti-establishment—and don’t let the establishment become detached from reality. … Non-conformists give each society hope for revival and progress.”

Nemtsov was certain that although Vladimir Putin liked to present himself as a man who fights oligarchy, it was actually the oligarchs who helped elect him. Nemtsov even called Putin a “chekist,” comparing him to an official of an organization called “Cheka,” the first Soviet secret police, infamous for their brutality and violence. Already back in 2004, he co-authored a manifesto titled An Appeal to the Putinist Majority in which he warned Russians against the rise of authoritarianism under Putin’s rule.

Vladimir Putin’s presidency only gave Nemtsov new reasons to speak out on pressing issues, from decreasing freedoms in Russia to the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, during which, according to Nemtsov, billions of dollars were embezzled and thousands of families forced out of their homes. He was arrested three times for supporting the opposition’s cause — for example, by taking part in a 2010 rally against restricting the freedom of assembly.

Amnesty International then named him, along with other protesters, a “Prisoner of Conscience” and stated that the charges against him were trumped-up and political. He also wrote a report exposing the lavish lifestyle Putin lives, mentioning an entire fleet of yachts and a $75,000 toilet.

A Courageous Investigator

Nemtsov, once a key person in the government, became its most famous opponent. Being the president’s competitor is in itself enough to look behind your shoulder on the street. But Nemtsov gave the establishment one more reason to hate him: his fervent commitment to exposing its crimes.  

Back during his tenure as governor, he showed himself to be fearless in opposing bad policies. He collected 1.5 million signatures against the war in Chechnya and presented them to then-president Boris Yeltsin. The president must have been very surprised when he learned that the signatures only came from the Nizhny Novgorod region, which then had around four million inhabitants!

But the truest test of his rebellious soul happened in 2014, when Russian troops invaded Crimea, and later, the Donbas region of Eastern Ukraine. All state- and oligarch-owned media allocated their resources into convincing the population that no Russian troops were present in Ukraine and that only local, pro-Russian Ukrainian insurgents were fighting in Donbas.

Nemtsov was one of the few Russian figures with the courage to counter the government’s narrative. He openly opposed the annexation of Crimea and exposed the Russian military presence in Donbas. An investigation he directed himself provided proof that coffins of Russian servicemen had indeed been coming home from Donbas since 2014.

Unfortunately, he did not live to see the effects of his investigation published.

A Rebel’s Legacy

“Freedom costs a lot.”

Nemtsov was shot dead on February 27, 2015, 100 meters from the walls of the Kremlin in Moscow, two days before he was to lead a rally in support of Ukraine. Sadly, the rally turned into a march in his memory.  

The perpetrators—five Chechen men—were sentenced in relation to the case. However, it remains unknown who ordered the killing. The trial itself was denounced by Nemtsov’s family as “a cover-up that failed to bring the masterminds of the assassination to justice.”

David Satter, Senior Fellow at the Hudson Institute, stated in his analysis “Who Killed Boris Nemtsov?” that “the evidence shows that the murder was carried out…by the Russian Federal Protective Service (FSO) under direct orders from the Russian president, Vladimir Putin.” According to him, the killing — conducted in one of the most heavily supervised places in the country — was a meticulously planned operation that “could not have been carried out by anyone other than a ruthless and highly skilled intelligence organization.”

According to others, another important figure might have been involved in the killing — Ramzan Kadyrov, the president of the Russia-controlled republic of Chechnya, accused of persecution of the political opposition and organizing internment camps for members of the LGBT community. The men sentenced in the case were all Chechen, and one of them was found to have served in Chechnya’s security forces. Nemtsov had certainly stepped on Kadyrov’s toes in the past by exposing the presence of Chechen law enforcement members in the war against Ukraine in Donbas.

One thing is certain: The death of Nemtsov was a catastrophic loss for freedom. Russia lost a popular, charismatic, and courageous opposition figure — perhaps the only one who was popular enough to beat Putin in elections or lead a countrywide protest against him. Ukraine lost a dear friend, a person who was visible proof that not all Russians support Russia’s war against Ukraine, and a true bridge between the two conflicted nations. The liberty movement lost one of its strongest advocates of free markets in the history not only of Russia but of Eastern Europe in general.

It is our duty to preserve the memory of Nemtsov by continuing his cause, which is working towards reconciliation between Russians and Ukrainians, exposing the truth about Russia’s war in Ukraine, and advocating for the ultimate peacemaker: the free market of goods and ideas.

All information, unless stated otherwise, comes from Nemtsov’s autobiography,  A Confession of a Rebel, published in 2008.

This article was originally published at Fee.org.

Image Credit: Ilya Schurov from Moscow, Russia [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)]

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