20 years under Putin: a timeline

On February 27, Russian democratic opposition leader Boris Nemtsov was shot dead in the center of Moscow. Leonid Martynyuk, Nemtsov’s colleague and co-author, discusses the opposition leader’s political career and puts forward a theory about who could have ordered his killing.


Over 50,000 people went to a march of mourning for Boris Nemtsov in Moscow. Photo: drugoi.livejournal.com


The murder of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov is a personal tragedy, but also a symbolic one, representing an attack on democracy in Russia. Nemtsov’s entire political life was connected to democratic values.

In 1987, as a young physicist possessing a candidate of physico-mathematical sciences, Nemtsov wrote an article arguing against the construction of a nuclear power plant in the Gorky region. He wrote it at the request of his mother, who was involved in civic activism: “You are a physicist, you can talk about it in such a way that people will believe you,” she told him. And so he did. His article provoked a wide public response. He began receiving invitations to participate in rallies and protests. Residents of Gorky saw that this young scientist was not only a brilliant and intelligent speaker, but also someone who knew how to communicate with people and enjoyed it. Encouraged by Perestroika-seedlings of Gorbachev’s democracy, Nemtsov became an energetic civic activist.

The more public freedom expanded in Russia, the more success Nemtsov enjoyed in his political career. After becoming a member of the Congress of People’s Deputies of the USSR in 1990, Nemtsov attracted the attention of Russia’s future president, Boris Yeltsin. Young, energetic, able to talk about complex topics in simple terms, and ready to take up arms to defend democratic values, Nemtsov was a natural politician. In 1991, at the peak of democracy in Russia, the new government called for Nemtsov, who was named governor of the Nizhny Novgorod region at the age of thirty-two and was later reelected to that position by popular vote. By 1993, Nemtsov’s management skills were obvious: he proved to be an effective crisis manager; he was able to quickly find the right solution to any problem at hand; and he successfully dealt with logistical challenges.

A thorough democrat, Boris Nemtsov was in his element in Russia’s new democratic system. There was no state media in the Nizhny Novgorod region, which was a rare thing even in the Russia of the ’90s. People called the region a “land of untamed journalists.” Throughout his life, Nemtsov encouraged independent journalism. It was a matter of principle for him.

In 1994, the first Chechen war began. Soldiers, including from Nizhny Novgorod, were dying. Nemtsov collected and brought to Yeltsin one million signatures against the war. He knew that the president favored him but took this step without Yeltsin’s approval. He acted not as a subordinate, but as a citizen. The Russian president was forced to sign a peace treaty with Chechen rebels. That year, according to opinion polls, Boris Nemtsov became the most popular politician in the country.

And he remained successful in this sphere for as long as democracy in Russia, marked by political competition, fair elections, and debates, was alive and well. As a democrat, he could not have competed in a corrupt system, playing by its rules. He stuck to his democratic principles and never betrayed them.

Starting in the mid-’90s, though, democracy began to decline in Russia, and it’s been declining ever since. In 1997, at the request of Boris Yeltsin, the young governor of the Nizhny Novgorod region entered a government that had a very low approval rating. By that time, the majority of Russian media outlets and part of the legislative branch were under oligarch control. Principled and incorruptible, Boris came into conflict with two of Russia’s most influential oligarchs. He refused to sell cheaply the state-owned telephone holding Svyazinvest to Boris Berezovsky and Vladimir Gusinsky. The oligarchs wanted to get even. They had two major Russian TV channels and several newspapers and radio stations at their disposal. Boris Nemtsov’s poll standings began to drop.

In 1999, there were still remnants of democracy in Russia. Nemtsov could still appear on TV and radio and in print media. During the 1999 parliamentary elections, he won a seat in the State Duma and became leader of the Union of Right Forces (SPS) caucus.

Within a few years of coming to power in 2000, Vladimir Putin had obtained control over almost all Russian media outlets, as well as the country’s wealthiest businessmen. The police and security forces have been complying with Putin’s orders instead of the law with ever-increasing frequency. As a result, Nemtsov’s SPS party was banned from television, the police repeatedly seized their campaign materials, and businessmen were less and less eager to financially support the opposition leader. Since 2003, when he lost his seat in parliamentary elections, Nemtsov has never again worked on the federal level.

In 2009 and 2013, Nemtsov participated in regional elections. After becoming deputy of the Yaroslavl Regional Duma a year and a half ago, he began an active struggle against corruption in the region despite the antagonism of Russia’s current authoritarian regime.

Nemtsov spent the last several years trying to oppose dictatorship as best he could by forming the Solidarity opposition movement and RPR-PARNAS party, by publishing denouncing reports and online videos, and by traveling all around the country doing outreach and awareness-raising work.

Around the world, media coverage of the killing has put forward multiple theories about who might be responsible for Nemtsov’s death. I, on the other hand, have only one theory: the murder of Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov was ordered by the Russian authorities.

In his activities, Nemtsov used only democratic instruments, whereas the authoritarian regime stopped at nothing. He was repeatedly attacked by members of the pro-Kremlin Nashi movement (nicknamed Putinjugend in analogy to Hitlerjugend). Russian secret service operatives bugged his phone and shadowed him constantly. Pro-Kremlin forces labeled Nemtsov a “fifth columnist” and regularly persecuted him on state television.

With the beginning of the war in Ukraine, the remnants of democracy in Russia were destroyed, and it has at last turned into a fascist state. And while the silencing of a voice such as Nemtsov’s might seem a logical step in the process of the rise of fascism, his murder nonetheless came as a shock to the opposition, and to all those who shared his democratic values.

Around the world, media coverage of the killing has put forward multiple theories about who might be responsible for Nemtsov’s death. I, on the other hand, have only one theory: the murder of Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov was ordered by the Russian authorities. I will only state the facts.

First of all, Boris Nemtsov’s murder took place a few hundred yards from the Kremlin, Vladimir Putin’s official residence. This territory is under constant control of the Russian secret services, including the Federal Protective Service (FSO), is equipped with multiple security cameras, and is continuously patrolled by police and secret service operatives. It has been three days since the murder, and yet the perpetrators have not been caught. This means no effort to catch them has been made.

Second, the assassins were moving in their car along the Bolshoi Moskvoretsky Bridge from the Kremlin, which is the most secure area, equipped with surveillance cameras and patrolled by security agents. Yet, according to witnesses, the killers somehow managed to arrive at the scene and flee in a car without license plates. This could only be possible if the Kremlin’s secret services and Nemtsov’s killers worked as a team. Former key Kremlin strategist Gleb Pavlovsky openly wrote on his Facebook page: “Have you ever tried driving by the Kremlin along the Vasilievsky Slope on a Friday evening in a white car without license plates? Even without slowing down and shooting. Just try it.”

Third, Boris Nemtsov constantly suffered aggressive attacks by members of the Nashi, Putin’s Red Guards. Assailants threw ammonia in Nemtsov’s face. He received multiple threats of physical violence. In Putin’s Russia, only the secret services can do such things. The police took statements from Nemtsov’s lawyer, but his assailants have never been brought to justice.

Fourth, the murder took place two days before the planned Spring march, a major anti-war opposition rally. Boris Nemtsov was a key—if not the key—organizer of this demonstration. In Putin’s Russia, key organizers of big opposition rallies are always shadowed by secret service operatives in the days leading up to the event. Thus, if the secret services had not known about the planned murder beforehand, Nemtsov’s assassins would have been apprehended at the scene of the crime.

Fifth, Nemtsov was dictator Putin’s personal enemy—not his competitor, his opponent, or his political rival, but his personal enemy. Boris Nemtsov was behind the most powerful anti-Putin publications. His reports “Putin: Results,” “Putin: Corruption,” “The Life of a Galley Slave,” “Winter Olympics in the Sub-Tropics,” and other works proved in a conclusive and consistent way that Putin is none other than a leader of a mafia clan who is personally involved in stealing billions from the Russian budget. These expert reports were published online and in millions of print copies. Suffice to recall the murders of Putin’s other critics—Alexander Litvinenko, Anna Politkovskaya, and Sergei Yushenkov—to realize the extent to which Nemtsov was risking his safety.

Sixth, Nemtsov was one of only a few leaders of the Russian opposition who openly accused Putin of instigating a military conflict in Donbass and claimed that pro-Putin rebels were responsible for attacking the Boeing 777 in 2014. In January 2015, Nemtsov began preparing yet another expert report, titled Putin and the War. He had been contacting families of soldiers killed in Ukraine’s eastern regions and collecting evidence proving the involvement of Russian military forces in the Ukrainian conflict. This report, too, was to be published online and in thousands of print copies. On the morning after the killing, during a search of Nemtsov’s apartment, investigators seized documents, records, and computer hard drives of the murdered politician.

Seventh, Less than three weeks before the murder, Nemtsov himself said that he was afraid of being killed on Putin’s orders.

As of today, a full-fledged fascist regime has been established in Russia. And there is only one person who could have ordered Russian secret services to kill Boris Nemtsov—and that person is Vladimir Putin.

Boris Nemtsov died from four shots in the back, a few hundred yards from the Kremlin walls. Democracy in Russia died along with him.