Accessibility links

Breaking News

Boris Nemtsov's Mother: 'This Is Unbearably Hard For Me'

Boris Nemtsov pictured in 2011.
Boris Nemtsov pictured in 2011.

This is unbearably hard for me, but I suppose it must be done. Actually, I should have -- at least on his birthday -- told him about all the good in him while he was still alive. But I always thought praising one's relatives was like bragging. So I was quiet.

Now I will try to remember it all. There is no reason to be embarrassed now.

Borya was born in Sochi, where I ended up purely by chance. I was born in 1928 in the city of Gorky (at that time, it was still Nizhny Novgorod).

My father was a member of the Communist Party since the age of 21. He once heard Lenin himself speak and was fanatically devoted to Communism. He was the most honest man there is. During the war, he was responsible for distributing bread to the workers at the plant. Everyone got 400 grams according to their ration cards. My father never brought home one single extra crumb.

In 1952, I graduated from the pediatrics department of the Kirov Medical Institute in Gorky with honors. I worked in Murmansk. Then I worked in Gorky and then in Sochi. In 1966, the children and I returned to Gorky.

Borya started school in Sochi. He was a little less than 7 years old and at first they didn't want to take him. But he had been reading since he was 5, and when the director heard him read out loud, they accepted him.

Suspicion And Indifference In Moscow One Year After Nemtsov Killing
please wait

No media source currently available

0:00 0:01:46 0:00

WATCH: Suspicion And Indifference In Moscow One Year After Nemtsov Killing

Already in the sixth or seventh grade, Borya started earning money by unloading trucks at a dairy store. He'd go there in the morning before school. Of course, they didn't pay much. In the summer, the children all had to work on the collective farms both in Nizhny Novgorod Oblast and in Krasnodar Krai. During his university years, he earned pretty good money as a tutor.

Bringing In The Drunks

Borya lived in normal conditions for the first time when he became governor. In Gorky (later, Nizhny Novgorod), he never had his own home. He had offers and people advised him to get something, but he refused and lived with his family in my two-room apartment. Later they moved into a state-owned dacha at Zelyony Gorod (a settlement in a forested area outside Nizhny Novgorod).

When I scolded him, he said that if he takes an apartment for himself, then everyone else in his government would follow his example and abuses would take root. By the way, during his time in office, no one privatized Zelyony Gorod or built themselves houses there.

I worked at City Children's Hospital No. 1 for many years. We lived near the hospital in a two-room apartment in a Khrushchev-era building. At first there were two of us, then five, and later eight. Borya often visited me at work, and everyone in my laboratory knew him. They also knew him at the hospital's reception desk -- he would bring in drunks with head injuries or beaten faces for bandaging. The hospital staff would help them and later they'd tell me about it, laughing.

He was not more than 9 or 10 then, and this happened more than once.

Boris Nemtsov's mother, Dina Nemtsova, at a farewell ceremony in Moscow on March 3, 2015.
Boris Nemtsov's mother, Dina Nemtsova, at a farewell ceremony in Moscow on March 3, 2015.

Toward the end of his school years, Borya became particularly interested in physics and mathematics. He had a very smart and talented teacher who awakened in him a love for these subjects. Having finished school with a gold medal, Borya enrolled in the radiophysics department of the Lobachevsky State University in Gorky.

By his third year, science was his whole life. After he defended his Candidate of Science dissertation, he continued writing articles. If I remember correctly, he had more than 60 articles published. He was a close colleague of physicist (and Nobel laureate) Vitaly Ginzburg, who predicted a bright future for Borya.

If it wasn't for perestroika in 1986, Borya would have defended his doctoral thesis as well -- he had already begun working on it -- and embarked on a career in science. But fate had other plans.

Early Activism

In 1987, it was decided to build an atomic heating plant (AST) within the city of Gorky. This wasn't to be a normal nuclear power plant. An atomic heating plant is a reactor that is used to heat water -- which becomes radioactive -- that is then pumped through heating pipes into local residences. As a children's doctor, I told Borya that we either have to do something or move out of the city. Borya suggested a meeting with the staff of the hospital where I worked.

At that time, it wasn't possible to publicly speak out against government decisions. But perestroika was under way and people were slowly starting to raise their heads.

PHOTOS: Russians Say Farewell To Boris Nemtsov

So Borya wrote an article for the newspaper Leninskaya Smena called Why Am I Against The AST? And that was the beginning of the active public resistance of the entire city to the proposal. Borya was inundated with letters from ordinary citizens and scientists and others. He was 27 years old, and a special box appeared at the institute where he worked with the label "For Letters To Nemtsov."

Borya decided to meet with Academic Andrei Sakharov. Soon there appeared a long interview with Sakharov in which he spoke out sharply against the AST.

Activists from Voronezh joined us; they were planning to build the same kind of AST there. In short, the opposition became so strong that they canceled the project.

That was when Borya first became known and respected throughout the city. He was drawn into public life, the life of the country. Everything was interesting and important to him. In 1990, he ran for a seat in the Russian parliament, the Supreme Soviet of the RSFSR, and defeated11 other candidates. He was 30 years old.

No matter where he worked, Nemtsov worked with full effort and responsibility. Once I visited his family in Zelyony Gorod when he was governor. He came home late with a pile of documents and didn't go to bed until he'd read and signed off on them all. That's how his days were -- until late at night. Plus the phone calls.

When he was working in the government in Moscow, he would come home from work so exhausted he could barely make it to the second floor. Once the phone rang at 2 a.m. It was the secretary of Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin. I told them I wouldn't wake him up. Borya scolded me, but I don't regret it.

Borya loved his children and was a very responsible father. He thought his children should be taken care of and should get a good education. He always went to parents' night at their schools. His children spent a lot of time with him. They always celebrated his birthday. All the children -- Zhanna, Anton, Dina, and Sonya -- gathered together on his birthday and this brought him great joy.

Borya was intelligent, an intellectual, although he cursed a lot (although I, by the way, never heard it even once).

The last time I saw him was December 2014 in the Hotel Volna in Nizhny Novgorod. I thought that he looked thin and distracted. He didn't volunteer anything about his health or his problems. I should have asked him. Maybe I could have helped somehow. It just never occurred to me that everything was so dangerous.

Borya loved people. He died without putting anyone else in danger. The woman who was with him was not harmed. He didn't have any bodyguards. He didn't have a car or a driver.

If it hadn't been for the fight against the AST in Gorky in 1987. If only he hadn't gone to Moscow in 1997. If only more people knew who Nemtsov really was. If only....

I always believed in a better fate, in a guardian angel. That is human weakness.

Dina Nemtsova is the mother of slain Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov. This piece originally appeared in Novaya Gazeta and was translated by Robert Coalson.

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

If you are in Russia or the Russia-controlled parts of Ukraine and hold a Russian passport or are a stateless person residing permanently in Russia or the Russia-controlled parts of Ukraine, please note that you could face fines or imprisonment for sharing, liking, commenting on, or saving our content, or for contacting us.

To find out more, click here.