Boris Nemtsov, who was shot dead in Moscow on Friday, was one of the most charismatic Russian politicians of the post-Soviet era, a tireless campaigner and fiery orator renowned for his uncompromising opposition to the Putin regime.
He rose from humble origins to scale the heights of Russian power and was once touted as a future president. But after being booted out of office in 1998, he gradually emerged as one of the Kremlin’s most outspoken critics.
In words that now sound prophetic, Nemtsov recently expressed fears for his life. In a February 10 interview with Sobesednik, he related how his mother would often say: “When will you stop railing against Putin? He’ll kill you!”
And when asked if he himself feared for his life, he said: “You know, yes, a little bit . . . But if I was really scared, I would hardly be the leader of an opposition party.”
Nemtsov was born in the southern Black Sea town of Sochi in 1959 of a Jewish mother and Russian Orthodox father. In the 1980s he studied physics at the state university of Nizhny Novgorod, known as Gorky in Soviet times.
He was swept up in the intellectual and political ferment unleashed by glasnost and perestroika and by 1990 he had been elected to the Russian Supreme Soviet or parliament. There he caught the eye of Boris Yeltsin, Russia’s first democratically elected president, who appointed him governor of Nizhny Novgorod the following year.
In this position, he turned the city, Russia’s third-largest after Moscow and St Petersburg, into a laboratory of pro-market economic reforms. Nemtsov was one of the first provincial officials of the Yeltsin era to carry out auctions of farmland and to sell off state-owned shops and other businesses. And with his distinctive unruly black curls, engaging smile and colourful language, he was the closest thing Russia had to a popular, western-style politician.
In 1997, Yeltsin brought him to Moscow to work in the government. During this period, in which he rose to the rank of deputy prime minister, he was closely associated with a group of prominent liberals which included Anatoly Chubais, the architect of Russia’s privatisation programme.
He grabbed headlines with eye-catching initiatives such as insisting that Russian ministers switch from foreign Mercedes to domestically produced cars. His popularity rose, and he was even touted as a future president.
But he lost his job in August 1998 during the fallout from a financial crisis that saw Russia default on its domestic debt and which badly tarnished the reputation of the Yeltsin-era reformers.
He later drove efforts to create a liberal party that would bring together all reformist forces in Russia. He was one of the founders of the “Union of Right Forces” and was elected to the Duma, the lower house of the Russian parliament where he sat between 1999 and 2003.
But his star waned with the rise of Vladimir Putin, who after becoming president in 2000 gradually curbed the democratic freedoms of the Yeltsin era.
Unlike other leading liberals of the 1990s, such as Chubais, Nemtsov refused to reach an accommodation with the Putin regime, remaining an implacable opponent of the new leader and the authoritarian regime he created.
He continued to found and lead a number of small liberal parties, the most recent being the small Republican Party of Russia — People’s Freedom Party. He also ran for mayor of Sochi in 2009, eventually coming second with around 14 per cent of the vote despite little coverage in the mostly state-run media. In 2013 he was elected to the regional parliament of Yaroslavl, northeast of Moscow.
But he was better known for his talent for organising street protests and rallies, and became a driving force behind the mass anti-Putin demonstrations that swept Moscow in 2011 and 2012. He was often detained by police, and was sentenced to 15 days in jail in January 2011.
He also published a series of reports on official corruption — particularly in connection with the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi — and in recent months he had also investigated Russian involvement in the war in eastern Ukraine.
In later years he was overshadowed by a new generation of younger activists, such as the anti-corruption blogger Alexei Navalny who, unlike Nemtsov, had no connection to the discredited market reforms of the 1990s. But he continued to address rallies, often acting as Mr Navalny’s warm-up act.
The attack on Nemtsov came less than two days before he was to take part in another large demonstration to protest what he described as “Putin’s covert war against Ukraine”. After Friday’s events, that was turned into a memorial march to mark Nemtsov’s eventful life — and tragic death.
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