NIZHNY NOVGOROD, Russia -- In 1988, three years before the Soviet Union collapsed, residents of Gorky, a city 400 kilometers east of Moscow, gathered on the central square in protest against plans to raze parts of its historic center for an expanded subway system.
Emboldened by the atmosphere of perestroika and glasnost, the economic and political reforms launched by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, they pitched tents and camped out for three weeks until the city acquiesced to their demands and promised to leave surrounding buildings intact.
Boris Nemtsov was a 28-year-old researcher at the local physics institute when he approached the crowd to gather signatures against another controversial project: a nuclear power plant in Gorky. It was two years after the Chernobyl disaster in Ukraine, and Nemtsov was among a group of local activists determined to scupper the plans.
It was the first foray into politics for a brilliant young physicist who would oversee Gorky’s transformation from a secretive development center for weapons of mass destruction into Russia’s “laboratory of economic reform,” winning acclaim for bringing the free market to the provinces and building private enterprise on the ashes of the centralized Soviet economy.
Stanislav Dmitriyevsky, who was in the crowd that day as a 22-year-old democratic activist, remembers being struck by the contrast between Nemtsov -- a young, witty academic with distinctive black curls and a mischievous smile -- and the staid, stone-faced, middle-aged bureaucrats who ran the city administration.
“He embodied this whole generation of young democrats who came to power, with all their flaws and delusions,” Dmitriyevsky, now an opposition activist in a very different Russia, told RFE/RL in an interview in the city, which regained its original name, Nizhny Novgorod, in 1990. “But for all his pluses and minuses, he was alive.”
February 27 marks five years since Nemtsov was gunned down in Moscow as he strolled with his girlfriend along a bridge a stone’s throw from the Kremlin. His killing stunned the country, sent a chill through civil society, and prompted many to reflect on what Russia might have become if his meteoric political rise in the 1990s had continued -- if he, and others like him, had come to power at the end of the decade rather than Vladimir Putin and others with roots in the Soviet security services.
There was a real chance of that happening.
After a public game of tennis with Nemtsov in Nizhny Novgorod in the summer of 1994, President Boris Yeltsin told a reporter that the man he had made governor had “grown so much he could be considered for the presidency."
For years, Nemtsov was considered Yeltsin’s likely successor.
But by the time he was killed in 2015, Nemtsov had instead become one of Russia’s most prominent opposition politicians and one of its most vociferous critics of Putin, the man Yeltsin ultimately chose to succeed him in 1999 -- and who has been president or prime minister ever since. The murder took place at a time of dwindling political freedoms and a climate of jingoism ushered in by Moscow’s military intervention in Ukraine. Nemtsov was a thorn in the government’s side without a clear political platform to oppose it.
In 2017, five men from the Chechnya region were sentenced to prison for Nemtsov’s murder, but relatives and government critics suspect that the slaying was ordered at a much higher level. They fear that justice may never be done because a full, honest investigation could come too close to the Kremlin or to Ramzan Kadyrov, the strongman Putin relies on to rule Chechnya.
In Nizhny Novgorod, where Nemtsov arrived in 1976 as a 16-year-old student from the Black Sea coastal city of Sochi, and where his precocious talent and determination catapulted him to the position of regional governor 15 years later, many have moved on. But many others remember the renegade who once saw the city as his political stage but who ultimately left it in pursuit of the greater challenges -- and potential prizes -- available in Russia’s capital.
When Nemtsov launched his campaign against the nuclear plant, Nina Zvereva noticed the same qualities in him that struck Dmitriyevsky that day on the square. For her, probably the city’s best-known journalist at the time, the charismatic young physicist represented a breath of fresh air amid the staid coverage of the Soviet TV station where she worked.
“Our producers were losing their minds over these terrible talking heads who read off pieces of paper,” she said.
It was Zvereva who got Yeltsin to reveal his plans for Nemtsov on the president’s visit to Nizhny in 1994, an exchange that was immortalized in a documentary released ahead of the second anniversary of Nemtsov’s death in 2017.
In Nemtsov, Zvereva told RFE/RL, “I saw the magic of a free person, someone who laughed, said what he thought, and didn’t sit, dress, or talk like the others.”
Dmitry Bednyakov was another of the young reformers working in Nizhny Novgorod, a government expert involved in vetting various proposed laws. He met Nemtsov in February 1990, during a break between sessions of the local government, and learned after a brief conversation that they were living in the same building on the city’s southern outskirts -- Nemtsov on the 10th floor, Bednyakov on the second.
“He’d return from work later than I would,” Bednyakov said. “He’d approach my window, throw a snowball at it, and I’d open it. He’d ask, ‘You got something to eat?’ I’d say, ‘Come on over.’”
When Nemtsov, buoyed by his successful campaign to scupper the nuclear plant project, announced in 1990 that he was running for a seat in the Supreme Soviet, or parliament, of the Russian Republic, Zvereva offered to become his adviser. Among other things, she said, she helped him tidy up his disheveled, academic appearance and reinvent his scruffy wardrobe.
He ended up defeating 12 other candidates – all of them Communists -- to win a seat representing Gorky.
And when, in November 1991, Yeltsin appointed Nemtsov governor of the region, he picked Bednyakov as Nizhny Novgorod’s mayor. The Soviet Union was in its final weeks, and Russia was facing an uncertain transition from central planning to a free-market economy. Compounding the obstacles they faced, Gorky had been closed to foreigners for decades, as a hub of a nuclear industry whose secrets were protected by the Soviet state.
But its status as an academic hub meant the authorities allowed certain Western academic journals and other foreign literature to infiltrate it. And under Nemtsov’s tenure as governor, it was groups like USAID and the World Bank that helped his team sell off government-owned farmland and enterprises. Operating out of the medieval fortress in the city center, he tapped the talent of experts flying in from Britain, the United States, and former Soviet satellites undergoing similar economic transitions. Within two years, Bednyakov said, they had privatized all the stores, cafes, and restaurants in the city, Russia’s fifth-largest.
“He had this idea to make Nizhny Novgorod a test region -- for land reform, for privatization, for eurobonds,” Zvereva said of Nemtsov. “The idea was to use it as an example of development that the rest of Russia could follow.”
Nemtsov’s reforms spurred economic growth, prompted gushing headlines in the Western press, and garnered praise from leaders including British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who visited the city in 1993. Bednyakov and Nemtsov ultimately drifted apart, advocating divergent policies and clashing over the appropriation of privilege and property to local entrepreneurs whom each man backed. In 1994, Nemtsov fired Bednyakov in one of many acrimonious episodes of his political career.
That career began taking a dive soon after 1997, when Nemtsov left Nizhny Novgorod for Moscow and the post of first deputy prime minister -- a move that would expose him to the bitter infighting and corruption that characterized politics in the capital.
“Fame got to his head. He left for Moscow famous and admired, as a protege of Yeltsin who had outgrown Nizhny,” said Zvereva. “But he offended a lot of people who had voted for him and had placed their hopes in him.”
Nemtsov would lose his job during Russia’s financial default in August 1998, which badly damaged the reputation of the Yeltsin-era reformers. And when Putin became president and began reversing many of the democratic reforms of the previous decade, Nemtsov refused to reach an accommodation with his government, even as many of his fellow reformers grudgingly did.
In an interview, Bednyakov recalled sitting in a restaurant during a visit to St. Petersburg in the late 2000s and watching Nemtsov walk past at the head of a large group of opposition activists protesting against the city government. The moment brought home for Bednyakov how much the two men had drifted apart politically since their professional partnership in Nizhny Novgorod. Nemtsov’s opposition to the government “sometimes took on caricature forms,” he said.
Today, Bednyakov is an avid Putin supporter who works as an advisor to the Nizhny Novgorod regional governor, Gleb Nikitin. Dmitriyevsky, on the other hand, remains active in the Russian opposition and collaborates with Human Rights Watch, the Helsinki Committee, and the embattled Russian rights NGO Memorial. He used to coordinate an annual march in Nemtsov’s honor, gathering residents to walk down the city’s main street holding placards with the late politician’s portrait and chanting slogans evoking hope of the kind of free Russia that some say was buried, symbolically at least, along with Nemtsov.
But in recent years, authorities have banned the march, citing its political undertone. Dmitriyevsky had always advocated taking to the streets regardless, whether approval comes or not. He’s against the willingness of some fellow activists in Nizhny to make concessions to the authorities, who this year granted permission only for a rally far outside the city center.
“A rally should be political,” Dmitriyevsky said. “We can honor someone at home, we can pray for him in church. But if you go on the street, you go with political demands.”
Nemtsov’s daughter Zhanna Nemtsova, who plans to attend a march and rally honoring Nemtsov in Moscow on February 29, said that her father’s legacy as a politician attracts people with political convictions.
“Of course, on memorial days, when there are manifestations or marches, the people who come follow politics and are not indifferent. They share my father’s political views,” she told RFE/RL in a telephone interview from Germany. “So I think it’s obvious that there’ll be some political demands during this march.
“My main demand is an investigation,” she said. “And that’s not a political demand. I want justice for my father.”
One of Dmitriyevsky’s final conversations with Nemtsov took place hours before his death, in the form of a Facebook exchange about the wisdom of challenging the government with unauthorized rallies. The day he was murdered, Nemtsov had been planning a protest against Russia’s interference in Ukraine. The authorities said it could be held in Maryino, on Moscow’s outskirts.
Dmitriyevsky said Nemtsov had suggested that it would be wrong to expose people to police batons, and that he was reluctant to encourage them to gather in central Moscow despite the ban. Dmitriyevsky replied that if Nemtsov caved to the government’s demands, he might never again secure a central location for a future march.
“Today you’ll go to Maryino,” he recalls writing to Nemtsov. “And tomorrow they’ll send you to the cemetery.”
Liliya Dubovaya, who worked with Nemtsov for years and authored a book about him, said his death marked a symbolic end for Russia’s opposition.
“It seriously demoralized the opposition. It fragmented in the aftermath,” she said. “Nemtsov had been the figure that united people, and would have been the one to bring the opposition together. Today there’s no one who can do that.”
Dmitriyevsky views Nemtsov’s killing as the final death pang for a certain vision of Russia’s future, a project that was already foundering when Putin came to power.
“What was his mistake, the mistake of that generation? They were focused on economic problems, first and foremost,” he said of Nemtsov and the team of young reformers he was part of in the 1990s. “And independent courts, trade unions, honest policemen, the welfare state, free media, civil society -- they would all arise of their own accord.
“There was no understanding that democracy is something that requires constant effort,” he added. “That was our naivete.”
Bednyakov, the former mayor, is helping organize Nizhny Novgorod’s official commemoration of Nemtsov, which will be held on February 27. Residents will lay flowers before a large portrait of the late politician that will be placed in front of the city’s main theater.
There were plans to open a museum dedicated to Nemtsov in the city. But after a push in 2016, they went nowhere. Today, affixed to the side of the apartment block where he once lived is a plaque with Nemtsov’s face, separated from the potholed street by a patch of muddy turf.
“In this building lived Boris Nemtsov,” it reads. “Governor of Nizhny Novgorod Region, 1991-1997."