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The Soviet-era Echoes of Nemtsov's Assassination

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

On March 3, 2015 several thousand mourners in Moscow attended a memorial service for former Russian deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov.

Late on the evening of Feb. 27, the 55-year-old Nemtsov and his Ukrainian girlfriend walked across a bridge not far from the Kremlin. As a snowplow passed, an assassin (perfectly positioned) fired four bullets into Nemtsov. The snowplow obscured the view of the closed circuit television security camera monitoring the bridge. The assassin leaped into a car, which sped away.


Though Nemtsov served in Boris Yeltsin's rocky yet hope-inspiring government, the mourners of March 3 didn't traipse to Red Square to honor the deceased Russian political leader. In death's repose, Nemtsov made a statement. His body lay in state at Moscow's Andrei Sakharov Museum and Public Center (for Peace, Progress and Human Rights).

Sakharov was a Russian physicist, Soviet-era dissident and 1975 Nobel Peace Prize laureate. The Center's collection contains displays devoted to documenting the Soviet Union's totalitarian dystopia and -- yes -- endemic evil.

The permanent exhibits have names that sketch the USSR's wretched history. One is particularly relevant: "Resistance to Unfreedom in the Soviet Union."

In December 2014, the Russian Ministry of Justice designated the Sakharov Center a "foreign agent." The Moscow Times reported that human rights activists vehemently objected to the designation. Soviet-era Kremlin propagandists used "foreign agent" as a synonym for "enemy spy."

According to his friends, Nemtsov was certainly no "foreign agent." He was something of a bon vivant -- he liked good wine, beautiful women and sharp clothes. However, he also possessed an especially admirable and historically vital character trait: personal courage.

In the crony-ridden and corrupt Russia run by dictator Vladmir Putin, Nemtsov's courage and charisma cost him his life.


Nemtsov had the nerve to publicly oppose Putin. He argued Kremlin corruption was denying the Russian people democracy and economic modernization. The end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union had seeded hope for political and economic freedom in the very land that for seven decades claimed Communism would bury these bourgeois Western notions.

Nemtsov had the courage to start a Russian democratic crusade. On March 1, he planned to lead a pro-democracy demonstration in Moscow. He also promised to reveal to the press new details of Russian Army involvement in Ukraine -- details that would expose Putin as a sociopathic liar.

Russian soldiers have talked with Western reporters, so I doubt these revelations were earth-shattering. But here is the political dynamite: Nemtsov was a charismatic Russian patriot challenging Putin on his home turf.

Hence his murder. Nemtsov told his friends he was being followed by state security agents. Where, oh, where on Feb. 27 were the police who tailed him? The Christian Science Monitor opined that "it's hard to imagine that his killing could go unnoticed (by policemen watching him)."

Indeed. Now explain the provident snowplow obscuring the camera as the assassin fires and makes a quick escape. Mere coincidence or professional choreography? This precision has the operational characteristics of Soviet-era KGB "wet work." Wet work is slang for cold-blooded assassination.


Putin is arguably the biggest beneficiary of Nemtsov's death. His murder sends this message to would-be Russian freedom fighters: opposition to Putin no longer means risking vicious personal attacks and a stint in jail. Opposition risks death.

This is the Soviet Union Sakharov condemned. Former-KGB colonel Putin has bewailed the collapse of the Soviet Union as the 20th century's greatest historical tragedy.

Putin has now assured the world that he will personally direct the investigation into Nemtsov's murder and will find out who killed him.

Putin's 21st-century Russian tragedy deserves its own wing at the Sakharov Center.

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