Three hours before he was murdered, Boris Nemtsov had strutted confidently into the studio of one of Moscow’s liberal radio stations. He was wearing jeans and a light blue, long-sleeve top that hung loosely over his broad shoulders.
During the interview that followed, Nemtsov displayed his customary air of charisma. He was handsome, charming, vivacious.
A few hours later, his dead body lay for all to see in one of the main streets of Russia’s capital, the imposing shape of the Kremlin glimmering as a surreal backdrop to the scene. It seemed unreal, as if staged.
Few could believe it. This was Boris Nemtsov, a former deputy prime minister and governor of Nizhny Novgorod Oblast, a district with a population of over 3 million. A prominent figure in Russian politics, dead. And only two hours after an interview in which he called on people to come to a march against President Vladimir Putin, against the war in Ukraine and the country’s economic collapse. It was only a few weeks after he gave another interview in which he said he was afraid Putin might have him killed. It was almost too ridiculous to be true.
Nemtsov was shot four times in the back, as Russian opposition figure and former chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov put it, “once for each child he leaves behind”.
Less shocking than the murder itself were the absurd theories that followed not long after Putin vowed to assume “personal control” of the investigation. This statement, directed mainly at Nemtsov’s mother as a form of consolation, would likely have the opposite effect. She had repeatedly warned her son to tone down his anti-Putin rhetoric for fear of his life. She would know that, judging by the investigations of the murders of journalist Anna Politkovskaya and businessman Boris Berezovsky, “personal control” meant the President would personally ensure that the investigation went nowhere.
While most Western media has omitted this fact, Russian counterparts are at pains to point out that, at the time of his death, Nemtsov was in the company of a 23-year-old Ukrainian model — an example of his promiscuity and a not-so-subtle hint of a Ukrainian connection to the murder. As is customary in Russia, the propaganda has begun. A state-owned Russian paper has published some of the whodunit theories of the country’s top investigators:
- It was the Ukrainians. Nemtsov was very close to Ukrainian politicians and oligarchs who may have been paying him to destabilise Russia. When they realised he had failed at his job of single-handedly overthrowing the Russian government (Putin’s approval rating has soared despite the falling ruble), they decided to kill him;
- It was the Russian opposition. They killed him as a martyr to garner support for the March rally and destabilise Russia;
- It was a crime of passion. The woman with whom Nemtsov was walking at the time of his death was a Ukrainian citizen and his lover. It is now apparent that she had recently flown to Sweden for an abortion. While it’s unknown whether the baby was Nemtsov’s, investigators are considering that conflict may have arisen because of this; and
- Boris Nemtsov could have owed someone a big sum of money. In fact there was already an incident when he quarreled with his companion over $700,000.
A program on Russian state television that ran on Saturday night pursued the line of inquiry as related to Nemtsov’s Ukranian companion. There were two guests.
The first: Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the leader of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, a right-wing extremist who would give Liberal Senator Cory Bernardi a run for his money.
The second: a deputy speaker in the Duma (the Russian parliament), Sergei Zhelezniak.
Zhirinovsky began answering the question of who he believed was behind the murder by yelling at an invisible adversary that the opposition figure had brought his death upon himself. He was constantly opposing everything, Zhirinovsky spat as he poked his finger at the air. What was he doing with a beautiful Ukrainian model in the middle of the night? Nemtsov was more than 30 years older than his companion, Zhirinovsky yelled jumping from one disjointed thought to another. Everything was going well in this country and he had to go and ruin it.
Then Zhelezniak chimed in with the martyr theory. In a calmer manner, he echoed Putin’s comments that the murder had a “uniquely provocational character”. Support for the opposition had been waning in Russia, he said, and they had to resort to desperate measures to destabilise the government. A martyr would garner support and more might come to the rally on March 1.
Another member of the Duma then rose from his seat and completed the usual circle of culprits. This stinks of the United States, he said, to hearty applause.
This is the kind of propaganda that Nemtsov spoke out against in his last interview. Advertising the anti-crisis and anti-war march that was to be held on March 1, Nemtsov listed the organisers’ demands. They included immediate cessation of the war in the Ukraine, an investigation into corruption in the top levels of government and the inclusion of the opposition on state television. Evidently, no opposition members were invited to the above program.
Nemtsov, who is often portrayed as the enemy of the state on Russian television, argued for the basic tenets of democracy. Only the truth could fix Russia, he said, and the truth could only be heard if state television allowed a variety of opinion.
“Everything in this country is built on lies,” Nemtsov told Moscow-based radio station Echo of Moscow on the night of his murder, proposing that a debate needed to be had on state television between himself and Putin, where he would ask him the following questions:
“Why are Russian soldiers being killed (in the Ukraine), and you, as the commander in chief, Mr Putin, renounce these soldiers and lie and that they are not fighting there? And we see the graves of these soldiers. We see them in Kostroma, these graves. We see them in Pskov, we see them in Nizhny Novgorod, where I worked as a governor. Why do you, the commander in chief, renounce your own soldiers? Do you think you have the right to be the supreme commander after that?”
The opposition had been quashed, said one of the presenters, after lamenting that such debates were non-existent on Russian television.
“The people are being lied to. I’m only a man, right? When they begin to call you the ‘fifth column’ or a traitor, it is very difficult to keep it together, but, nevertheless, we must endure. Look, the truth is stronger than all their intelligence services, all of them.”
Not long after these words, Nemtsov was dead. Perhaps his killers also knew the power of the truth.