The gangland-style murder of top Putin critic Boris Nemtsov on Friday night seemed like something from the bygone, lawless Moscow of old, when biznesmeny dropped like flies in the no-holds-barred scramble for Russia's post-Soviet riches. Unknown men drew up in a car, shot him in the back four times, and escaped. Camera operators and photographers gathered around his body as it lay for two hours on a bridge just behind the Kremlin, with the onion domes of St. Basil's Cathedral in the background.
If anything, though, Nemtsov's death marks yet another nail in the coffin of the Russia of the 1990s and the hopes it could emerge to become a free, democratic liberal, Western — just "normal" — country. Back then, Nemtsov, 55 when he died, was one of Russian politics' rising stars. Boisterous, telegenic, and hard-living, with near-flawless English, many even saw him as a potential successor to Boris Yeltsin, Russia's erratic first president, who flirted with democracy and rule by fiat as he flitted between the vodka bottle and the hospital. Even after 1999, when oligarchs and backroom politickers colluded to install Vladimir Putin over Nemtsov and others in the hopes the former KGB man would be more pliant, he tried to see the bright side.
"Under his leadership Russia will not become France," Nemtsov wrote in a 2000 New York Times op-ed, referring to Putin. Putin would tame the oligarchs, restore the ruble, and enshrine the rule of law, he argued. "Russia could do considerably worse than have a leader with an unwavering commitment to the national interest," Nemtsov wrote. "And it is difficult to see how to do better."
Fifteen years of Putin's rule has made things look very different. Nemtsov's star gradually fell, and the hopes of a democratic Russia with it. First, he was swept from government as Gazprom, the monolithic citadel of the entrenched Soviet gas elite he fought while in Yeltsin's government, became the driving force behind Putin's new social contract, which dazzled ordinary people with petrodollars in exchange for a rollback on rights and reforms. Then, in 2003, he lost his seat in Parliament after Putin turned it into a compliant tool of the state; its own speaker later called it "no place for discussions." Governor's elections of the sort he battled through when running the industrial heartland Nizhny Novgorod went a year later.
Soon, Nemtsov was all but out of the game altogether, reduced to what Russians call "nonsystemic politics." He set up multiple political parties that fell apart as their leaders bickered over the affections of an ever-dwindling electorate. He organized protests that never attracted more than a few thousand devotees. Blacklisted from TV, he published reports exposing corruption in Putin's inner circle that, over time, were acknolwedged with a shrug even by what remained of the free Russian media. He even lost the increasingly dubious title of the fractured, sometimes hapless opposition's leading light to the younger, funnier, more charismatic lawyer Alexei Navalny.
Despite it all, Nemtsov soldiered on, unwavering in the belief he could inspire Russians to make their country better through democratic change. He told an interviewer two weeks before his death that he was scared Putin would have him killed, but "not all that much"; he knew almost nobody apart from his own 87-year-old mother took the prospect seriously. He resisted the temptation to go into exile. Just hours before he was shot, he took to the old liberal bastion of Ekho Moskvy radio to promote an anti-Putin protest scheduled for this coming Sunday.
With Nemtsov's death, imagining a Russia where independent judges send corrupt officials to jail and where Putin's war in Ukraine is acknowledged with national shame instead of barely concealed pride is now harder than ever. The opposition Nemtsov led that campaigned for "another Russia" is now faced with another Russia entirely — different, darker, and more dangerous. Since the invasion of Crimea one year ago on Thursday, Putin's approval ratings have not just survived the isolation and economic crisis it provoked, but gone through the roof to 84 percent. In the past week alone, tens of thousands marched through Moscow demanding "purges" of top liberals. Russia's top political policeman proposed doing away with the notion of adhering to international law — a move that would essentially abrogate the freedoms enshrined in the country's constitution, which is ignored almost entirely.
Nemtsov's allies were divided on whom to blame for the murder. Some pointed a finger at the Kremlin, since the crime took place literally just outside its walls, swarming with guards and security cameras. Others suspected the hand of rogue zealots like the Moscow-born former east Ukraine militia leader Igor Strelkov, who returned from Donetsk vowing to wage war against a "fifth column of national traitors" first identified by Putin.
But that speculation is pointless, because we're never going to find out. Whoever pulled the trigger didn't just kill Nemtsov: With him goes the last hope of a Russia where the truth will out and these things won't happen anymore. Dmitry Peskov, Putin's spokesperson, said the murder was of an "obviously provocative nature," meaning that someone else did it to make Putin look bad. He promised the president would supervise the investigation himself.
The same was said of the murder of journalist Anna Politkovskaya in 2006, shot on Putin's birthday; of the brutal poisoning of spy Alexander Litvinenko that same year; of the attack on opposition reporter Oleg Kashin, beaten within an inch of his life in 2010. So, too, for the many other murders of lesser figures who rub someone just too far the wrong way, like small-town newspaper editor Mikhail Beketov in 2008 and human rights activist Nataliya Estemirova in 2009. So often, the pattern is the same. The president extends his condolences to the family. The hapless hitmen are found, or stand-ins for them. The case drags on for years, with not a word on the men behind the killing. Eventually, people stop caring, and the process repeats itself.
As the years went on, Nemtsov and his ilk saw their numbers dwindle, and the prospect of the change they fought for dwindle further and further away with them, but tried to stay upbeat. "Hope dies last," Russians are fond of saying. This time, hope may have died with him.