It has taken me over a week to put into words what I have felt since events a mere few yards from the Kremlin walls last Friday. Emotions ranging from incandescent fury to despair, now gradually settling on a stubborn yet frail resilience of sort.
Penning a few succinct thoughts in the wake of Boris Nemtsov’s death is no easy task; a number of laudable obituaries have already been published in the past week. As I have also previously written here, assessing the legacy of a Russian politician who rose to prominence during the 90s is a considerable challenge, especially for someone such as myself who grew up in Moscow at the time, yet not of the age or maturity to somewhat digest the turmoil and change taking place outside. The Boris Nemtsov I, however, wish to comment on is the one I watched for the best part of a decade as a passionate yet distanced observer of Russia’s politics and its opposition circles, always desirous of a political culture and system more befitting and appreciative of its citizens.
There are several reasons for which I admired Nemtsov; the first was his steadfastness and honesty. On the evidence of so many of his peers of the 90s, it would have been easy for him to have melted away into opposition groups nominally critical of the ruling government, in the hope of reclaiming some of his previous stature. Nemtsov though preferred to operate, in the latter half of his political career, from the sidelines of Russian politics and on his own terms; his unflinching condemnation of Russia’s involvement in Eastern Ukraine, a thorny issue even for segments of the liberal opposition, was a recent case in point.
He was one of few candid Russian politicians, transparent about his relative opulence and previous activities in government. A dogged and skilled researcher, it is to a large degree because of Nemtsov’s efforts that the Rotenbergs and Timchenkos of our age penetrated a degree of the public conscience, Putin’s previously unimpeachable personal reputation was pierced and the needless profligacy of the Sochi Olympics exposed. His infectious charisma was an absolute rarity in Russian politics; few are those politicians whose almost every interview is entertaining and watchable too, their biting comments on the political realities of the day, infused with nonchalant satire, as repeatedly humorous as Nemtsov’s.
He did on more than one occasion, like most politicians, overstep the mark, capable of uttering frankly illogical statements; some of these deeply frustrated me and I sometimes questioned his enduring significance. But I broadly agreed with his prudent and reasoned criticisms of Putin’s Russia, as well as healthy proposals for redressing them, and admired the consistency of these.
It is however Nemtsov’s short-lived experience as a Yaroslavl deputy, serving from September 2013 until his untimely passing, which for me serves as the most illustrative example of his political talents. I was living in the town of Yaroslavl in early 2012 when Yevgeny Urlashov, a local opposition figure, defeated the ruling party against all the odds in the mayoral elections. The result was particularly resonant at a time of continuing political protests in Moscow. A year later though, Urlashov was detained and transferred to a Moscow jail, charged with bogus bribery charges. The ‘Yaroslavl spring’ appeared to have died a sorry death.
Nemtsov’s RPR-Parnas party entered the fray for the upcoming Yaroslavl regional elections, expressly pinning its hopes on Yaroslavl’s supposed standing as a ‘protest region,’ as perhaps manifested by Urlashov’s election and a record low vote for United Russia in the 2011 Duma elections. Heading the party’s electoral list, Nemtsov embarked on a positive and energetic campaign, frequently attending Urlashov’s hearings in Moscow in his support, on several occasions offering to act as a bail bondsman, also quickly educating himself as to local issues and diagnosing sensible solutions. Despite widespread falsifications on voting day, Nemtsov scraped into the Yaroslavl regional parliament.
It may have been easy then to accuse Nemtsov of having become a parovoz, a formerly senior politician searching anywhere for a position of power, no matter how seemingly lowly, before moving on to bigger things; the notion was dispelled almost as quickly as it surfaced. Despite his illustrious background and status as his party’s sole representative in the Yaroslavl parliament, Nemtsov proved capable of working across party lines, earning himself the respect of fellow deputies. Nemtosv’s list of achievements in such a short space of time is remarkable: he tirelessly scrutinised the regional government’s budget, constantly querying levels of official expenditure and proposing a series of anti-corruption laws which the ruling governor partially relented to; he exposed the property assets of the governor and in doing so just about destroyed his reputation, also uncovering a major corruption scandal concerning the regional government’s procurement of cancer drugs, which ultimately resulted in the resignation of its vice-governor; he also sought to introduce a law, the first such one in Russia, which would freeze utility tariffs in the region, likewise campaigning actively against the controversial abolition of mayoral elections in the towns of Yaroslavl and Rybinsk. A ferocious legislator and debater, most politicians could only dream of such a track record in a political lifetime.
Perhaps most strikingly though, Nemtsov had promised during his electoral campaign to donate every penny of his parliamentary salary towards the construction of sporting playgrounds in Yaroslavl schools; the initiative coincided with his recurring comments on roots of the demographic crisis in Yaroslavl and Russia overall. Nemtsov apparently attended the opening of every such playground, over two dozen of which have been built thus far; he had hoped to extend the project to every school in Yaroslavl by the end of his five-year tenure.
Word has it that he intended to build on his local success by running for the State Duma the following year, using a potential parliamentary seat, representing Yaroslavl, for a tilt at the presidency. Now the stuff of dreams.
There where a capable, intelligent and passionate political opposition is allowed to properly exist, and perhaps prosper subsequent to the electorate’s desires, real change and advancements for the benefit of the local population are eminently possible, even in spite of the efforts of an entrenched kleptocratic and intransigent elite. In a country devoid of any real politics for the past fifteen years, there can be an appetite for a political arena also characterised by values and ideas, and not just the butt end of endless cynicism and apathy. Nemtsov’s brief time in Yaroslavl, and his achievements elsewhere too, have highlighted this for me. The fight for a fairer and freer Russia is ours alone.