On September 28, 1994, then-President of Russia Boris Yeltsin, came to the U.S. for the official opening of the new Russian embassy in Washington D.C. With him was a 35-year old, energetic, democratic politician named Boris Nemtsov. When Yeltsin introduced Nemtsov to Bill Clinton, he said: “Let me introduce you to this guy, keep an eye on him. This young man is as good as me, and he is about as big as me, and he’ll be the president of Russia.”
Nemtsov didn’t become president of Russia. He is dead. Presumably shot by Putin-directed killers within sight of the Kremlin walls, Nemtsov’s large following of mostly young, freedom-hungry Russians became too much of a threat for Putin and his cronies. Nemtsov’s death is just one in a long line of people who have lost their lives because of their opposition to Russia’s president.
Remarkably, an entire generation of Russians that has never known a political leader besides Putin, is now growing into adulthood. After 18 years in office as either president or prime minister, Putin still has a firm grip on power. However, his officially proclaimed approval rating of 86% is about as fake as his lame attempts (complete with bogus opposition parties) to portrait Russia’s elections as free and democratic.
We came to Moscow with a mission: short of speaking our minds over tea with Putin, we wanted to visit the Bolshoy Moskvoretsky Bridge where Boris Nemtsov was murdered. We came to pay tribute to a man who courageously stood up to Putin’s authoritarian rule. We quickly found the location where Nemtsov was assassinated on February 27th, 2015 and were surprised to find a makeshift memorial complete with fresh flowers, candles, pictures and signs. The memorial, which is guarded by Nemtsov supporters and members of the United Democrats Party during day AND night, definitely is a thorn in the eyes of the government. Moscow’s municipal workers have removed the flowers and pictures of Nemtsov (“cleaned up the sidewalk”) 60 times during the past 2 years only for fresh flowers and new pictures to re-emerge only hours later.
At night, violence erupts at the memorial with increasing frequency. Just last month, 36-year-old Ivan Skripnichenko stood guard at Nemtsov’s memorial when he was attacked by a pro-Putin thug. Ivan had his nose broken and walked away with a couple of black eyes only to die in hospital mysteriously a few days later. Intent to spread fear among Nemtsov supporters, the government has not succeeded in their campaign of intimidation. In his poem, one unidentified activist expresses the feelings of many:
I'm on the bridge
yesterday it was covered in flowers
but the city has been put at the mercy of vultures,
and someone is injecting fear into this city.
I'm not afraid, they didn't succeed.
I'm here at the very center of emptiness —
Broad bridge, a man shot ...
Yes, it is very easy to throw away flowers.
But it's much more difficult to cover up why they're there.
You remove one voice and a thousand more rise up. Taking Boris Nemtsov’s place is anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny, a fearless politician determined to run in next year’s presidential election. His platform: decentralization of policy decision-making, a heavy tax on the oligarchs who robbed the country of resources during privatization, an end to Russia’s military ventures in Ukraine and Syria, and hospitals and roads instead of palaces for bureaucrats (source: www.navalny.com).
Running against Putin in the presidential election will be an uphill battle all the way. Navalny has already been arrested on phony charges several times, and Putin is using many tricks from his KGB arsenal to stop Navalny from gaining popular support. Let’s just hope those tricks do not include murder.