It takes about 700 steps at a leisurely pace to stroll from the lavish mall along Red Square to the bridge over the Moscow River where, more than 740 days ago , Russia’s most prominent opposition leader was gunned down as he made that walk with his girlfriend.
There, in the shadow of the red brick Kremlin walls, an informal shrine marks the spot and the memory of Boris Nemtsov, a former deputy prime minister and President Vladimir Putin’s loudest critic.
A neat row of flowers, candles and portraits is guarded in shifts around the clock by pro-democracy activists, who frequently find themselves targeted by police. It’s truly a makeshift memorial: When its guardians are hauled away, city workers remove the flowers and portraits, and it’s up to the next shift to remake it.
Against this tense backdrop, something remarkable is happening in a small, luxurious movie theater inside that opulent mall. A film is showing that recounts, in unflinching detail, the rise and fall of Russian democracy through the story of Nemtsov’s political career, from a whiz-kid regional governor considered presidential material to the political margins of an illiberal society dominated by Putin.
That the film “The Man Who Was Too Free,” was allowed to be made, much less shown across Red Square from the Kremlin, came as a shock to its creators, Mikhail Fishman and Vera Krichevskaya.
Told entirely through monologues by Nemtsov’s associates, interviews with him and video footage of his public speeches, the documentary focuses on the missed chances and miscalculations that led to Putin’s unchallenged rule. The Russian leader, whose intolerance of criticism is legendary, does not come off in a flattering light.
“I have to say, when I was working on it, . . . I couldn’t imagine it would be showing in movie theaters across Moscow and other cities,” Fishman told The Washington Post before departing for a premiere of the film in a Siberian regional capital. Since it opened on Feb. 27, the second anniversary of Nemtsov’s death, “The Man Who Was Too Free” has been shown in several Moscow theaters, as well as St. Petersburg and a handful of other Russian cities.
Fishman speculates that allowing the film to be shown may be evidence of a slight thaw in Putin’s icy grip, perhaps tied to next year’s presidential election, “sort of a little present to those who are so tired of him staying in power for decades.”
There are other hints, as well. On Tuesday, Putin pardoned Oksana Sevastidi, convicted of treason last year for sending an innocuous text message to an acquaintance about the movement of a train carrying Russian military equipment.
Russia’s Supreme Court also released Ildar Dadin, a human rights activist convicted in 2015 of breaking a law that regulates public demonstrations. (Dadin was again detained Friday, but quickly released — Moscow police might not have gotten the memo about the thaw.)
Some have speculated that someone in high places approved “The Man Who Was Too Free,” although Fishman doubts it. A Kremlin spokesman said that Putin had not seen the film.
In scenes sewn together by an animated electrocardiogram that forms the towers of the Kremlin to the thump of a beating heart, the documentary places snippets of the charismatic Nemtsov amid the regrets of a generation that believed a free, market-oriented society could be built on the ruins of the monolithic Communist state.
Nemtsov — a physicist with a boyish grin and a natural ability to connect with voters — personified their optimism as much as anyone. At 32 in 1991, he became Russia’s youngest regional governor, in charge of the formerly closed city of Nizhny Novgorod.
As the film shows, Nemtsov soon makes what his associates later rue as his first great mistake, accepting President Boris Yeltsin’s cabinet appointment in Moscow to help oversee the immense task of ripping apart the Communist planned economy, a task Nemtsov calls “the job of a kamikaze.”
“That’s when I knew the country was finished,” he recalls in a later interview, one of several moments of foreboding.
“Shock therapy” changes punished ordinary Russians as prices soared, factories stalled and the welfare state disintegrated. Having declared for free markets over corruption, Nemtsov ran into the powerful business owners who thrived in the chaos and gobbled up valuable assets. Under attack by the media controlled by these oligarchs, Nemtsov fell out of favor.
As the film plays out, some of Nemtsov’s associates almost casually confess how they abandoned him to maintain their influence.
“I realized that my relationship with him would be toxic for my business, my partners and my colleagues,” Mikhail Fridman, one of Russia’s richest men, says, adding that this decision remains “one of my great regrets.”
Others second-guess the decision by Yeltsin’s supporters to fix the 1996 election so that the ailing president could defeat Communist Gennady Zyuganov; Fridman, with 20-20 hindsight, suggests that a Communist victory could have saved Russian democracy.
The downfall of Nemtsov and his allies unfolds as a tragic series of mistakes, after which they find themselves out of power and the focus of blame for the hardships of the 1990s. Opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who came to prominence in 2011, recalls asking Nemtsov not to support him publicly.
“I saw him as a man of the 1990s, a good man but one who brought political problems,” Navalny says.
Ever upbeat, Nemtsov carries the fight to the street; when demonstrations are broken up, he hands out leaflets. Harassed in Moscow and unable to win election to Russia’s parliament, he campaigns for a provincial seat. Pushed out of the political process, he prepares reports on corruption within Putin’s administration.
The only time Nemtsov is shown alone is at the end of the film, walking down a Moscow street. Moments later, in the final scene, that beating heart flatlines and the screen goes dark.
Five men went on trial for Nemtsov’s murder in a Moscow military court last year, but no verdicts have been returned and the case is ongoing. Nemtsov’s family and friends say his killing was a political hit; pro-Putin officials have dismissed the shooting as a cynical attempt by the Kremlin’s fragmented and unpopular opposition to attract attention.
For some believers in Russian democracy, “The Man Who Was Too Free” is heartbreaking to watch. Sobs broke out during a recent showing in a packed Moscow theater, becoming a chorus at the end.
But a trio who stood vigil Wednesday at the unofficial shrine on the spot where Nemtsov was killed saw cause for optimism in his life and in their own persistence.
“The Russian people are still alive,” said a man with a Russian flag draped over his shoulders who gave only his first name, Mikhail.
“We’ve been here for 741 days,” he said. “And we will always be here.”
At least until the May 9 Victory Day holiday, they will.
After that, city officials say, they’re going to close the bridge for much-needed repairs.
Natalya Abbakumova contributed to this report.