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Liesl Schillinger: Darkness at Midnight

Boris Nemtsov had the courage to demand justice in Russia and to challenge Putin's regime; it cost him his life.

https://www.guernicamag.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/nemtsov.jpg
Boris Nemtsov in 2014.
Image from Wikimedia.

By Liesl Schillinger

Boris Nemtsov’s murder—four shots in the back, within sight of the Kremlin—recalls the assassination of Sergei Kirov, who became the Communist Party leader of Leningrad after the Bolshevik Revolution, but got in trouble when he became too popular. Kirov was shot in the neck by an NKVD gunman at his offices at the Smolny Institute in 1934. Some would lay the killing at Stalin’s feet; the details of its actual orchestration never fully emerged. Stalin used Kirov’s murder as a pretext to escalate repression against dissidents; an escalation that eventually became the Great Purge. Kirov’s ashes are buried within the Kremlin Wall; Stalin was one of the men who carried the urn, in a coffin-sized palanquin, across Red Square. This sobering association is well worth keeping in mind in the aftermath of the outrageous murder of the charismatic, progressive Russian reformer Boris Nemtsov who was gunned down in Moscow Friday night.

It was a time of exhilarating optimism for many in Russia; and some of us who lived there at the time felt lucky to witness it firsthand.

Americans who talk and write about Russia of the early 1990s—in the wake of Mikhail Gorbachev’s liberalizing policies, and Boris Yeltsin’s dissolution of the Soviet Union on Christmas Day, 1991—often emphasize the gloom and fear felt by Russians in that era, as if it had been a time characterized by despair alone. It is true that chaos and uncertainty and anger at the loss of Soviet-style security accompanied that period of change. But it was also a time of exhilarating optimism for many in Russia; and some of us who lived there at the time felt lucky to witness it firsthand. There was a spirit of possibility and transformation that I’ve never felt anywhere else; a spirit that I’ve been surprised to see ignored in Western commentary. But the mood was there nonetheless and it was real: a mood of energetic purpose for the project of building a new, successful, post-Soviet Russia. One of the great early standard-bearers of this project was a young, idealistic regional governor named Boris Nemtsov.

In 1993 and 1994, my mother, Elisabeth Schillinger, was the head of the Russian-American Press and Information Center (RAPIC) in Moscow, a Glasnost-era organization run by New York University’s Center for War, Peace, and the News Media, in partnership with the former Soviet Union’s Institute for US and Canadian Studies. (Several RAPIC outposts arose in other Russian cities, too.) Moscow’s RAPIC was housed in the yellow brick buildings of the US-Canada Institute, on a street called Khlebny Pereulok (Bread Lane), steps from the Novy Arbat. Its purpose was to help Russian journalists bring objective news-gathering skills to their reporting, in the interest of furthering non-propagandistic journalism and a freer flow of information. The center also served as a meeting place where journalists—Russian and foreign—could consult a library of periodicals and electronic media resources, and hold press conferences.

Nemtsov was thirty-three at the time, and he struck my mother as forward-looking, reliable, and hearteningly enthusiastic.

My mother found me a job for a few months at a Russian publication during her two years at RAPIC so she wouldn’t be totally alone during her long stay. (My father, a retired Russian professor, also visited her several times.) The place I worked was called Moscow Magazine, and was a short walk from Lubyanka Square, the headquarters of the FSB (formerly the KGB, formerly the NKVD); I edited its English supplement. I remember the day my mother called me at work from RAPIC to tell me she had just returned from an exhilarating visit to Nizhny Novgorod, where she and her American associates had met the remarkable governor, Boris Nemtsov. “He came bounding up the steps to meet us, in his jeans and cool t-shirt,” she said. He was thirty-three at the time, and he struck her as forward-looking, reliable, and hearteningly enthusiastic. One of the things RAPIC did was offer funding to English language programs in regional schools, the idea being that English would be a useful language for future journalists to know. The money was there for the taking, but regional Russian officials had to show up to receive it, make a token monetary commitment to demonstrate their seriousness, and they had to agree to adhere to a rigorous schedule in order for American accounting offices to see that the money was being used responsibly. Many officials didn’t even bother to show up for these grant outreach meetings. But Nemtsov did.

“He was so energetic and positive,” my mother recalled when I spoke to her and my father this weekend, after hearing news of Nemtsov’s murder. She remembered the time he came to RAPIC’s offices on Bread Lane in Moscow to give a talk on economic reforms. So many people crowded into the room to hear him that he had to stand on a chair so people could see him, she said. In December of that year, he was elected to the Federation Council, the upper house of the Russian Parliament.

On Sunday he was to lead a rally in Moscow against Russian interference in that country. Instead, in the shadow of murdered Kirov, he was ambushed on a Kremlin bridge and his voice silenced forever.

In ensuing years Boris Nemtsov became still more visible on the Russian scene. He briefly served as Deputy Prime Minister under Yeltsin. He co-founded a liberal-democratic coalition called the Union of Rightist Forces, and became its leader. He was elected to the lower house of the Russian Parliament (the State Duma). He never stopped fighting for a progressive, democratic Russia. In 2010, he banded with other reformers to create a party called “For Russia without Lawlessness and Corruption.” When the party tried to register itself formally, in May 2011, it was denied. He vocally and frequently criticized the move toward “dictatorship” in Putin’s government, and in the last year denounced both Russia’s Annexation of Crimea and Russian intervention in the conflict in Ukraine. On Sunday, March 1, he was to lead a rally in Moscow against Russian interference in that country. Instead, in the shadow of murdered Kirov, he was ambushed on a Kremlin bridge and his voice silenced forever.

Given current patterns in today’s Russia, one wonders how many voices will be silenced after seeing Nemtsov’s so casually stifled. The whistleblowers Anna Politkovskaya and Alexander Litvinenko were killed in 2006; Sergei Magnitsky, who alleged government corruption, died a martyr for probity in a Moscow prison in 2009. After emerging from nearly a year of house arrest, the opposition leader Alexei Navalny was re-imprisoned last week for distributing leaflets promoting Sunday’s anti-government march in Moscow. On Saturday, my parents got an email from an old Ukrainian family friend, whom they have kept in touch with since they met in 1970 when they were students in Moscow. He visited them in Virginia last summer as the crisis in his country mounted. “In Ukraine things are terrible. It looks like the beginning of a big war,” he wrote this weekend. “The murder of Nemtsov is a tragedy,” he continued: “He was an excellent person and politician. I am afraid that in these tense times, his killing will be used to stir the pot and further destabilize the situation.”

His fear is justified.

I’ve begun to think there was little the West could have done to keep Russia on the path that courageous visionaries like Nemtsov sought for it.

I used to think that if the West had made a more focused effort in the 1990s to support Yeltsin’s administration and Russia’s stumbling economy, that the rise of Putin and the oligarchs might have been averted. But lately, seeing the spread of Russian belligerence on the news, and reading trenchant analyses like Anne Applebaum’s piece in the New York Review of Books about the long strategy Putin and his cronies began pursuing as far back as the 1980s to pave the way for a new Russian authoritarianism, I’ve begun to think there was little the West could have done to keep Russia on the path that courageous visionaries like Nemtsov sought for it. We didn’t know about the assassins in the dark, the determination from above, the larger plan.

Boris Nemtsov continued stubbornly fighting for a better future for Russia until last Friday night. Shortly before his death he told Newsweek that he was afraid President Putin would have him killed. A simple coincidence? Lacking proof, it would be reckless to cast aspersions on a head of state in the wake of such tragedy. Yet proof is slow in coming in Putin’s Russia. It’s unclear, nine years on, who ordered the hit on Anna Politkovskaya. Russia refused to extradite the FSB member whom British authorities suspect in the poisoning of Litvinenko, and an inquest into his death was launched in London only last month—after four years’ delay. A quick resolution of Nemtsov’s murder seems unlikely: Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov suggested last weekend that “Islamic extremists,” or dissident elements who seek to “destabilize” Russia, might be to blame, adding that Nemtsov’s popularity has been exaggerated—that he was “little more than an average citizen.” President Putin has announced that he will personally lead an investigation into Nemtsov’s killing, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel has urged him to ensure “that the murder is cleared up and the perpetrators brought to justice.”

But even once—or rather, even if—the usual suspects are rounded up, a larger mystery will remain: what is the meaning of “justice” in today’s Russia?

Liesl Schillinger is a New York–based critic, translator, and moderator. She grew up in Midwestern college towns, studied comparative literature at Yale, worked at The New Yorker for more than a decade and became a regular critic for The New York Times Book Review in 2004. Her articles and essays have appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times, New York, The New Republic, The Washington Post, Vogue, Foreign Policy, The London Independent on Sunday, and many other publications. Her recent translations include the novels Every Day, Every Hour, by Natasa Dragnic, and The Lady of the Camellias, by Alexandre Dumas, fils. Wordbirds is her illustrated lexicon of necessary neologisms for the twenty-first century.

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