The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Remembering a Russian champion of freedom

A woman places flowers on Sunday at the place where Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov was gunned down in Moscow. Thousands of Russians took to the streets of downtown Moscow to mark three years since Nemtsov’s death. (Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP)

Today the city of Washington will rename a square in honor of Boris Nemtsov, the brilliant Russian reformer who was struck down by an assassin’s bullet in Moscow on this date in 2015. The naming ceremony is an amazing moment — so I deeply regret that I cannot attend this historic event to celebrate my former friend of some two decades. Nemtsov was one of the most principled, charismatic, engaging, smart and funny politicians whom I have ever met. (Which is saying a lot, since I worked for Barack Obama for five years!) Nemtsov was also a loyal, unwavering friend, even when policy differences sometimes divided us during his time in government and then my time in government. The last time I saw him was when he honored me with his presence at my farewell reception at Spaso House, the U.S. ambassador’s residence in Moscow, in February 2014. I miss him dearly.

It is said that the “winners” write history. In the case of Russia’s post-Soviet history, the “winners” — the former KGB agents and oligarchs who make up today’s governing elite — have portrayed Nemtsov as some marginal rabble-rouser. That is not true. He played a central role in pushing Russia from autocracy to democracy and from a command economy to a market economy. Later in his career, he rallied first dozens, then thousands, then hundreds of thousands in resisting Vladimir Putin’s return to autocracy. For that cause — for the cause of democracy — he may have given the ultimate sacrifice. (The precise circumstances of his murder remain opaque.) Above all else, Nemtsov was a fierce patriot. He loved Russia. He loved Russians. He embraced the idea that Russia would one today become a great power in the world again — a great, wealthy, democratic power. Someday, I hope there will be landmarks named after him in Russia as well.

In order to counter the narrative of the “winners,” I offer an alternative account of Nemtsov’s relationship to the past two decades in this short excerpt from my forthcoming book, “From Cold War to Hot Peace: An American Ambassador in Putin’s Russia” (May 2018):

Putin and Putinism were not predetermined. Innate, structural forces did not produce Putin; Yeltsin selected Putin as his successor. The Russian people merely ratified Yeltsin’s choice. Putin did not rise to power through a groundswell of popular support for his leadership style or political program. He did not plot a path to the Kremlin over the course of decades. He had never participated as a candidate in an election until he ran for president in March 2000. He was simply in the right place at the right time. Years later, Putin and his Kremlin team would propagate an idea about Russian societal demand for his leadership, claiming that Putin was not Yeltsin’s handpicked successor, that he hadn’t supported Yeltsin’s policies, and that Putin was indeed the antithesis of Russia’s first president. But the facts of Putin’s ascendance run counter to these assertions. Especially mythical is the revisionist claim about mass demand for Putin and his ideas. How could there have been such demand? No one knew anything about Putin in the spring of 2000. Moreover, Yeltsin had other choices for a successor. Putin’s selection was not inevitable. Most intriguingly, Yeltsin flirted with choosing Boris Nemtsov as his heir. Yeltsin had admired Nemtsov for years, seeing traits of his younger self in the smart, charismatic, plainspoken, and ambitious democrat from the Urals. In March 1997 Yeltsin appointed Nemtsov – then governor of Nizhny Novgorod – first deputy prime minister in a move that many interpreted as the next phase of Yeltsin’s cultivation of him as his successor. Nemtsov took on the oligarchs, and championed popular policies such as income declarations for all government officials. Nemtsov stayed on after Yeltsin fired Prime Minister Chernomyrdin and replaced him with a new, young head of government, Sergey Kiriyenko. Prime Minister Kiriyenko and his government lasted only a few months, ousted from power by the August 1998 financial meltdown. Although Nemtsov had no personal responsibility for this economic crisis, his reputation suffered like everyone else’s in the Russian government at the time. Without that economic collapse, Yeltsin might have very well selected Nemtsov as his successor, and the world might never have heard of Vladimir Putin.
Most Russians only remember Nemtsov as an opposition leader who organized popular demonstrators against Putin’s autocratic regime. But I knew him for nearly two decades in a different role, when he was a popular, successful, democratically elected governor in Nizhny Novgorod. Nemtsov boldly pursued radical economic reforms in that role, yet managed to maintain popular support and protect his reputation.  I also remember First Deputy Prime Minister Nemtsov, who challenged the oligarchs and made tackling corruption one of his highest priorities. He had the skills and charisma to have become a successful president – a successful democratic president.
The 1998 financial crisis interrupted Nemtsov’s rise to power. But another factor played a role: Yeltsin’s fear of retribution after he left office. Yeltsin opted for a KGB colonel instead of Nemtsov or other candidates because he wanted a successor who could protect his family and their assets. As a member of the siloviki, the power ministers, Putin was more likely to put up a strong defense than was Nemtsov or someone else with a more democratic orientation.

So today, let’s remember Nemtsov not only as a remarkable man but also as someone who still embodies the dream of a free and justly governed Russia.