As partners in Russia's struggling opposition movement, Garry Kasparov and Boris Nemtsov didn't always have the smoothest of friendships.
But the former chess champion says his respect for Nemtsov -- shot dead at age 55 a stone's throw from the Kremlin walls -- is absolute.
Nemtsov, who rose in the 1990s to the upper echelons of Russian government as a reform-minded deputy prime minister, went on to serve as a leading light for the opposition, co-founding the liberal Union of Rightist Forces and the Solidarity political movement.
Fifty-one-year-old Kasparov, who joined forces with Nemtsov in 2003 to fight what they saw as the growing authoritarianism of Vladimir Putin, says his friend could have easily followed other oppositionists who grew weary of the struggle and returned to the Kremlin fold. But he never did.
"Many people continue to talk about their liberal convictions," says Kasparov from the United States, where he lives in self-imposed exile. (The full text of the interview can be found in Russian here.) "Borya not only talked about wanting to see change in Russia, he made every possible effort to see that happen. And even when things seemed hopeless, meaningless, he still believed that you had to see things through to the end, to do what you can, what you should -- and whatever happens, happens."
'Invitation To Execute'
Nemtsov's vitality, Kasparov says, was a driving force in the massive Moscow street protests that accompanied Putin's 2012 return to a controversial third term as Russian president. "He practically gave off beams of energy," he says. "He was always on the move."
But after a brutal crackdown on protest participants, cracks in the relationship between Nemtsov and Kasparov grew more pronounced. Kasparov pushed for more radical action; Nemtsov argued that revolution should be avoided at all costs.
Now, Kasparov says, such debates seem "strange." "It's such a tragic irony that they killed the very person who wanted to do everything in his power to avoid a bloody scenario in Russia," he says.
Nemtsov, he adds, was a strong supporter of Ukraine's Orange Revolution in 2004 and the 2013-14 Maidan protests. But he didn't think the idea would travel. "Even though he completely supported those protests, he believed the Ukrainian scenario in Russia would be much more bloody" -- a point underscored, he says by the "spectacular" nature of Nemtsov's killing.
Asked whether a culprit will be found, Kasparov says the search is largely irrelevant. In a climate of increasing isolation, where Nemtsov was publicly vilified as a "fifth-column" traitor bent on destroying Russia, he says virtually anyone could have pulled the trigger.
"It's the result of the fascistization and militarization of a society that is being drugged with hatred, a society that lives in a state of war every day, where lots of people have weapons and are ready to kill," Kasparov says. "When they started displaying pictures of Boris and other prominent oppositionists around the city and on TV, it was an invitation to execute them."
"Putin is accountable for this bloodshed," Kasparov adds. "Including the blood of Borya Nemtsov."
'No Good Options'
Kasparov, who says the 2011-12 protests are the closest Russia has come to a peaceful shift in power, says Nemtsov's killing is unlikely to galvanize what's left of a tattered opposition.
"There are no good options left -- only bad ones and very bad ones," he says. "Mass protests by the middle class are increasingly unlikely, because this regime, which has never been allergic to blood, will shoot at the first threat it deems serious."
Kasparov, who has criticized the West's weak response on Russia, is slightly more optimistic that Nemtsov's assassination may finally force global leaders to sit up and take notice.
"After what's already happened in Russia and what's happening now in Ukraine, it's clear that this political murder -- and I'm sure that no one other than the Investigative Committee has any doubt that this was a political murder -- the leaders of Western governments will be forced, if not to immediately correct their policy toward Putin, then at least strengthen their determination to behave differently," he says.