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A tribute to Nemtsov

A review of Boris Nemtsov and Russian Politics: Power and Resistance. Edited by: Andrey Makarychev, and Alexandra Yatsyk. Publisher: Ibidem-Verlag (part of the series SPPS edited by: Andreas Umland), Vol. 181, Stuttgart, 2018.

When I hear the name Boris Nemtsov, Russia’s alternative history often comes to my mind. I ask myself: what would today’s Russian Federation look like if there were more people like him? I then imagine the 1990s, when privatisation was performed in a more legal way so it could not become – as the Russians called it – prichvatisation (in English the word prichat means “capture”) and the free market was seen as something more than an opportunity to make the rich even richer, and that democracy was not associated only with chaos.

January 2, 2019 - Agnieszka Legucka - Books and ReviewsIssue 1 2019Magazine

With these thoughts in mind, I ask myself how was it even possible that there was such a person in Russia like Boris Nemtsov who remained faithful to his convictions until his tragic death on February 27th 2015. On that day, Nemtsov was shot near the Kremlin and his executers were most likely acting on the command of Vladimir Putin.

Strong and open critic

Nemtsov was, as he would call himself, “a strong believer in the free market economy, freedom and democracy”. He was also a strong critic of Putin’s policies and activities, and received disdain from the Kremlin. However, what decided on Nemtsov’s tragic fate was not his criticism of the Kremlin’s policies but a report that he had written showing evidence of Russia’s direct participation in the war in Donbas.  By so doing Nemtsov proved that Russia was actively involved “in a war that was not there”. This term actually suggests that the Kremlin had successfully manipulated the majority of Russian citizens (and many across the world) that the conflict in eastern Ukraine was taking place between the so-called separatists and the undemocratic – to put it mildly – government in Kyiv. Russian propagandists labelled it a “Ukrainian crisis”, suggesting it was an internal problem of the unstable state, one that does not have a protector in Moscow.

To show his opposition to the Kremlin’s policies and intervention in Ukraine, Nemtsov organised a large anti-war demonstration in Russia’s capital. Known as the March of Peace, it took place in September 2014 and brought 50,000 people to the streets of Moscow. Not surprisingly, he became an enemy of the Russian power elite who at that time sought legitimacy for their activities in Ukraine, with slogans like Krym Nash (Crimea is ours) and Russkiy mir (the Russian world).

The recent book Boris Nemtsov and Russian Politics: Power and Resistance is a collection of essays, edited by Andrey Makarychev and Alexandra Yatsyk, which acts as a sort of tribute to the charismatic and exceptional politician. Overall the book consists of nine essays  which are preceded by an foreword written by Zhanna Nemtsova, the daughter of Nemotsov. She expresses special appreciation to the man who, as she states, was driven by values and principles. She stresses that her father stayed true to his ideals, even in the most difficult times of the Putin presidency. Most illustratively, she mentions a moment when a journalist asked Nemtsov whether “Putin needed him?” Nemtsov’s response was clear: “I do not care whether Putin needs me or not – our country needs me.” All the essays are written in this spirit – emotional and kind, as if they were a reflection of a meeting with the extraordinary man.

Legacy

In the introduction, Makarychev and Yatsyk call Nemtsov the most tragic figure in the modern history of Russia. However they write that Nemtsov’s death illuminated the political core of the current regime which tolerates, if not initiates, illegal action against those who are arbitrarily considered its “foes”, “traitors”, or members of the “fifth column”. It was also a sign of the end of an epoch. Nemtsov’s murder, in other words, showed that there is no room in today’s Russia for people like him. To put it bluntly, Russia is no longer a country for those who were responsible for reforming the state after the Soviet Union’s collapse in the early 1990s. The authors also point out that a post-Nemtsov Russia no longer offers room to those who are driven by democratic values of which Nemtsov was one.

The essays here offer a variety of portraits of Nemtsov. They were written by people who were analysing his work in politics, or who travelled to Nizhny Novgorod in the early 1990s (Nemtsov was the governor of the Nizhny Novgorod oblast between 1991 and 1997). The testimonies of the latter are probably the most valuable part of the book, since Nemtsov’s legacy as governor is often overlooked.

Most of the essays in the volume paint a very similar picture: the Soviet Union was in a deep economic crisis and Nizhny Novgorod was on the periphery of Russian politics until a charismatic politician suddenly came to power and initiated liberal free market reforms. This picture becomes more complex, however, when we add Nemtsov’s academic background at the Lobachevsky State University and his work at the Radiophysics Research Institute. While describing the former as “a microcosm of the liberal hard sciences milieu … one that had been propitious to the nurturing of unconventional values”, Tomila Lankina claims that Nemtsov’s academic past is crucial for understanding his governorship. As evidence of his unexpected connections with academia, Alla Kassianova discusses Nemtsov’s relations with the Los Alamos National Laboratory, which was the birthplace of the first US atomic bomb. Indeed, during Nemtsov’s governorship Nizhny Novgorod and Los Alamos became sister cities.

Lankina also argues that Nemtsov’s legacy as governor should be seen in connection with the most vibrant period in the history of the Russian Federation. As a governor, who held this position during the Boris Yeltsin years, when regional bosses were capturing whole regions promoting local authoritarianism and allowing massive corruption, Nemtsov was like no other. Under his rule, Nizhny Novgorod turned into an island of openness. Nemtsov was known for making sure that excessive concentration of power in the executive was kept in check.

All said, Nemtsov’s life and career were not free of problems and challenges. What mattered the most was how he handled them. When Nemtsov became governor he did not have his own administrative staff and his close connection to Yeltsin was not always useful. Thus, he decided to appoint new people to the local districts but without taking any revolutionary steps. In addition, Nemtsov managed to neutralise the most influential actors in the region – the directors of large industrial enterprises. With them he concluded several formal and informal agreements. As a result, they started to pay taxes and some businesses gained informal access to regional decision-making process while Nemtsov’s economic policies attracted national media attention. Under Nemtsov, Nizhny Novgorod became a showcase of economic reform. The NBD-Bank was established to support privatisation, local businesses, and other social and economic development projects. Nemtsov managed to open Nizhny Novgorod to foreign investors.

An unfinished project

Even in the 1990s Nemtsov did not always adhere to Kremlin policy. In 1995, for instance, he openly opposed the war in Chechnya and his relations with Yeltsin became chilly for some time. Reflecting upon this fact, Miguel V. Liñán asked an important question: Why did the Chechen terrorists, who were blamed for the murder of Nemtsov, want his death if he was always against the war in the North Caucasus? In turn, Andre Mommen writes that the “young reformer” did not succeed in imposing all the reforms he had hoped. Many scandals damaged his image, which was seen as a part of Russia’s new capitalism. And after his resignation as governor, the “fuel of change” disappeared from Nizhny Novgorod. The region lost its attractiveness. After Nizhny Novgorod, Nemtsov did not have the same kind of political success again. In explaining this, Henry E. Hale noted the decline of pro-western liberalism started to occur at that time in Russia.

Keeping that in mind, all the authors in the collection remember Nemtsov for his attempts at challenging the oligarchs and Putin’s political system as well as the Kremlin decision to start the war in Ukraine. Nemtsov’s criticism toward Putinism was dangerous and he knew it. Yet, he strongly believed in Ukraine’s transformation for which he paid the highest price. Without a doubt Nemtsov knew that expressing active support for Ukraine and his open opposition to the annexation of Crimea, he had crossed the red line.

On a final note, I would like to emphasise that Boris Nemtsov and Russian Politics not only allows us to  get to know  Russia’s “white crows” (as people like Nemtsov are called), but it allows us to understand Russia itself. We should not ignore this as indeed one day there may be a chance for an alternative model of government to form in Russia.

Agnieszka Legucka is a professor at Vistula University in Warsaw and an analyst with the Polish Institute of International Affairs (PISM). In her work she focuses on the foreign policy of the Russian Federation.

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