Boris Nemtsov and the End of Two Eras

The slain Russian politician as a young reformer and fading dissident

As remembrances poured in over the weekend for murdered Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, writers appeared to mourn not just a man but a moment in Russian politics, when critics of President Vladimir Putin seemed to be at the height of their power. That moment, many acknowledged, had passed well before Nemtsov was shot four times in the back on Friday night. But his death, wrote Christian Caryl at Foreign Policy, "presages a grim new era of darkness in the country's political life."

Nemtsov, who is to be buried Tuesday in Moscow, died a secondary figure in a weakened opposition. "[H]e was surpassed by people like [Alexei] Navalny, who was younger, more charismatic, and less tarnished than Nemtsov, with his reputation as a man who cared just as much for women (so many women) and fine dining as he did for politics," wrote BuzzFeed's Miriam Elder. Nemtsov himself had acknowledged in an interview days before his death that the power of the opposition in general was nowhere near where it was after protests roiled Moscow in 2011 and 2012, following flawed parliamentary elections and Putin's announcement that he would seek a third term as president. "Three years ago, we were an opposition," he told the Financial Times. "Now we are no more than dissidents."

Nemtsov was also the face of a short era that ended more than a decade before the rise and fall of Putin's opposition. The brief term Nemtsov served as deputy prime minister under Boris Yeltsin was covered in the U.S. press as a promising step on Russia’s way to democratic and free-market reforms following the collapse of Soviet communism. Yeltsin's appointment of Nemtsov in March 1997, The Washington Post's David Hoffman wrote at the time, was “the strongest signal yet that Yeltsin is determined to reanimate Russia’s economic transformation.”

According to Hoffman's account, Nemtsov, then 37, was reluctant to leave Nizhny Novgorod, the region where as governor he had earned his reputation as an economic reformer. In a television interview a month before Yeltsin tapped him to come to Moscow, Nemtsov had said that it was "impossible to do things" in national government. "I don't think I can save Russia," Hoffman reported him saying. "I am a provincial. I don't feel good in Moscow.” Yet he went, telling Hoffman that the country needed a new generation of leaders. “We need to get rid of the drunk old men at the top,” he said. Elsewhere, he was reported to have compared going to the Kremlin to a kamikaze mission—but, he had said, some kamikazes survive.

Nemtsov was initially greeted with enthusiasm in both Russia and the West, where commentators appear to have seen in him a harbinger of a Western-style future for post-Soviet Russia. The young reformer, according to a 1997 BBC profile of him by Angus Roxburgh that Elder flagged, "may be destined to be the man who finally leads Russia into a more normal, more democratic and prosperous future."

"The danger for Boris Nemtsov," Roxburgh said then, "is that he may have peaked too early. His reforming zeal is bound to earn him enemies." Nor did that reforming zeal translate easily into actual reform. During Nemtsov's tenure, a small group of powerful businessmen consolidated their wealth as the Russian government rapidly sold off state-owned industries to the well-connected.

A year and a half after Nemtsov went to Moscow, Russia's currency had collapsed, ordinary Russians were relying on a barter system to support themselves, and Nemtsov was out of government. Looking back on his tenure in a 1998 interview with Hoffman, he acknowledged his failure to implement his promised reforms. "What we couldn't do is stop crony capitalism—at all," he said. "The resistance of the oligarchs was so strong; they had the strong support of the Kremlin. ... They were against our reforms."

Nemtsov stayed in politics, first serving in parliament and later needling the Kremlin as an activist, albeit not always a successful one. He kept organizing protests even when barely anybody showed up. In a final interview with Polish Newsweek in the last hours of his life, he was getting ready for another protest, this one against Putin's policy in Ukraine. "We all feel the effects of this insane policy," he said. "We can’t remain indifferent. That’s why we take to the streets."