Gunned down in a gangster state
Published by The Mail on Sunday (1st March, 2015)
Boris Nemtsov knew he might one day be silenced. Now the shocking picture of his body prostrate in the shadow of the Kremlin stands as a chilling symbol of Vladimir Putin’s gangster style of presidency.
It is almost irrelevant whether Putin personally ordered the killing or merely created the circumstances in which critics of his rapacious regime and adventurism in Ukraine are gunned down in cold blood.
For Nemtsov’s courageous and consistent criticism of Putin is underscored now in his own blood. I spent time with this charming, charismatic politician during the brief flickering of the ‘Russian Spring’ in 2011 and 2012, protests that rattled Putin.
He told me he saw it as his patriotic duty to oppose a regime leading the nation to ruin. ‘People are tired of corruption, tired of criminals, tired of Putin’s brutality and stupid remarks,’ he said.
But while impatient for change, he was scared of seeing street unrest turn into another explosive revolution. ‘Peaceful protest is the way to separate Putin from the people,’ he said.
I watched as he grew frustrated in chaotic meetings of people leading the protests – then joined him in a television studio as he had to apologise for belittling supporters as ‘scared penguins’ in bugged phone calls leaked to the media.
Yet Nemtsov’s own bravery could not be faulted. As other opposition leaders were jailed, exiled or placed under house arrest, he continued to campaign against the former KGB chief who runs his country like a mafia boss.
His death came hours after a radio interview denouncing Putin’s ‘mad, aggressive’ policies and on the eve of a rally today against the war in Ukraine. Nemtsov was working on a report highlighting Russia’s involvement in the separatist revolt in eastern Ukraine.
These were dangerous activities amid the ugly mood of nationalism inflamed by Putin. Smear lists of ‘traitors’ and ‘fifth columnists’ are bandied around by broadcasters and on the internet, with Nemtsov’s name always among them.
Just as with the murders of dissidents and defectors such as the journalist Anna Politkovskaya, the renegade spy Aleksander Litvinenko and the anti-corruption lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, we may never know precisely who ordered the killing.
Yet few doubt killings such as this bear the hallmarks of the old KGB – just as the mysterious bombings of residential buildings that began three weeks after Putin became prime minister, sparking his savage onslaught in Chechnya, also did.
Many admirers of Nemtsov’s articulacy, good looks and liberal reforms expected him to get the top job after Boris Yeltsin appointed him deputy prime minister in 1997.
How different Russia might be today if Nemtsov had won the keys to the Kremlin. Instead he is dead, testament to the darkness that has descended on his great nation under Putin.