The covered body of Boris Nemtsov lies on Moskvoretsky bridge near St. Basil cathedral in central Moscow
The covered body of Boris Nemtsov lies on Moskvoretsky bridge near St. Basil cathedral in central Moscow © AFP

Sergei Yushenkov (2003). Yuri Shchekochikhin (2003). Anna Politkovskaya (2006). Stanislav Markelov (2009). Anastasia Baburova (2009). Natalia Estimirova (2009).

To this sad and shameful roll call of politicians, journalists, and human rights activists assassinated in Vladimir Putin’s Russia must now be added the name of Boris Nemtsov, who was shot dead within shouting distance of the Kremlin on Friday.

Like those on the list above, Nemtsov was a stubborn champion of democratic values and human rights. His murder marks a further sickening downwards lurch in Russia’s culture of political violence. His death tears a hole in Russia’s threadbare opposition movement. One bunch of flowers left on the bridge where he was shot included the message: “Without you, spring will not come.”

In an interview with the Financial Times last week, he acknowledged the difficulty of his cause but nevertheless remained tireless in promoting it. “Three years ago we were an opposition. Now we are no more than dissidents,” he said. That made his struggle all the more remarkable — and heroic.

Deprived of any official political position in recent years and marginalised by the state media, Nemtsov campaigned by handing out one leaflet at a time on the metro. He was frequently in the front line of any demonstrations and was just as often arrested.

In speaking out against state corruption and the Kremlin’s involvement in the war in Ukraine, Nemtsov was denounced as a traitor on state television. Posters of him and his supporters were hung in central Moscow accusing them of being a “Fifth Column”.

This war psychosis, promoted by the Kremlin, has re-awoken the ultranationalist demons from Russia’s past. Nemtsov was mystified why the west did not sanction those Kremlin propagandists responsible for stoking this culture of hate. President Putin has condemned Nemtsov’s killing, promising a thorough investigation and suggesting it was a “provocation”. But Russia’s law authorities have a dismal record of catching and convicting those responsible for such murders.

At a time of international tension over Ukraine, it is tempting for the west to wash its hands of Russia and isolate the country. But that would do a terrible disservice to Nemtsov’s life’s work and Russia’s remaining democratic campaigners.

Just as in Soviet times, Russia’s dissidents look to western democracies as a source of hope. While sanctioning the regime, the west should never cease to engage — where possible — with the Russian people.

Nemtsov embodied a vision of another Russia, at peace with itself and the outside world. The outside world should in turn honour that memory. One leaflet at a time.

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