Russia Opposition Rallies In Honor Of Boris Nemtsov

An estimated 25,000 people marched in Moscow in remembrance of the slain leader

People rally in memory of Boris Nemtsov in Moscow on February 27, 2016. — REUTERS
Feb 27, 2016 at 5:24 PM ET

Russia’s beleaguered opposition movement rallied in central Moscow on Saturday on the first anniversary of the assassination of Boris Nemtsov, one of President Vladimir Putin’s most high-profile critics.

These were streets that Nemtsov had marched through many times during his years as opposition leader, and on the warmest day of the year so far in the Russian capital, his former political allies and supporters retraced his steps in his honor. “Russia will be free!” they chanted, as a police helicopter buzzed low, and riot police in body armor looked on. “Heroes don’t die!” shouted others, before breaking into a sustained cry of “Nemtsov!” Independent observers estimated some 25,000 people had attended the march.

“The murder of Nemtsov was a terrorist act, and its main motive was to frighten society,” Ilya Yashin, a close friend of the slain opposition leader and a high-ranking member of his RPR-Parnas political party, told Vocativ ahead of the march. “Nemtsov was killed to silence those who don’t agree with the Kremlin’s policies. But this hasn’t worked.”

A popular deputy prime minister in the 1990s, Nemtsov was once a leading candidate to succeed Boris Yeltsin as Russia’s president (Yeltsin eventually plumped for ex-KGB officer Putin). On February 27, 2015, Nemtsov was shot dead within sight of the Kremlin walls as he walked home with his girlfriend from a Red Square restaurant. Five men from Russia’s volatile North Caucasus region have been arrested and charged with his murder.

Opposition figures, including Nemtsov’s daughter, Zhanna, suspect Putin’s handpicked leader of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov, of involvement in the shooting, and want police to question him. Nemtsov once said that the Chechen strongman, who frequently expresses his hatred for Russia’s opposition movement, had threatened to kill him. Putin awarded Kadyrov three state honors within nine days of Nemtsov’s assassination.

“I’ve no doubt that Kadyrov was directly involved in Nemtsov’s murder,” said Yashin, the opposition activist. “There is no way anyone in Chechnya would have carried out this killing without his approval.”

Although Kadyrov has denied any links to Nemtsov’s assassination, he was quick to praise the suspected gunman, a former Chechen police officer named Zaur Dadayev, as a “true Russian patriot.” On Saturday, Kadyrov, a 39-year-old former separatist fighter, rubbished allegations that he had ordered Nemtsov’s assassination. “He didn’t bother me in anyway. He was not on my level,” he told state TV.

More Putin’s Slide From The People’s Champion To A Ruthless Ruler

On Tuesday, Yashin presented a report in which he called Kadyrov a “threat to national security,” and accused Putin of allowing his Chechen protégé to build up a 30,000-strong private army. The report came after Kadyrov and his allies in Chechnya had issued series of threats against opposition figures. Earlier this year, in an article in the pro-Kremlin newspaper Izvestia, Kadyrov called Putin’s critics “enemies of the people” and “jackals,” and proposed locking them up in psychiatric hospitals. He also published on Instagram a video of Mikhail Kasyanov, the RPR-Parnas co-leader and former prime minister, in a gunman’s crosshairs. Kasyanov was accompanied by bodyguards as he attended Saturday’s march. (The video was later deleted by Instagram).

Moscow city officials had denied permission for an official memorial event at the Bolshoi Moskvoretsky Bridge, the scene of Nemtsov’s murder, forcing his supporters to instead finish their march on an avenue named after the Soviet-era physicist and dissident Andrei Sakharov. There was nothing the police could do, however, to prevent hundreds of people from pouring onto the bridge after the rally to lay flowers at a makeshift memorial. For some, the emotion of the occasion was too much. “Why?” sobbed an elderly woman, as the flowers piled up. “Why did they have to kill him?”

Despite repeated attacks by pro-Kremlin activists, opposition supporters have maintained the memorial to the opposition leader since the night of his murder. Russian authorities have rejected calls for the bridge to be renamed after the opposition leader. On Friday, Russia’s parliament also refused a request to observe a minute’s silence in honor of Nemtsov.

“I came out today to show that I am not afraid of these criminals in the Kremlin and in Chechnya,” said Viktor Shunin, a 33-year-old architect, as police with megaphones urged people to move off the bridge. In his hands Shunin held a sign with a play on Nemtsov’s first name so that it read, simply, ‘Fight!’

Memorial events also took place in around a dozen towns and cities across Russia, including St Petersburg, and Nizhny Novgorod, where Nemtsov made his name as a reformist governor in the 1990s. A march also took place in Kiev, the capital of Ukraine. Nemtsov was working on a report on Russian military involvement in eastern Ukraine before his death.

Although there were no reports of violence or arrests in major cities, the picture across provincial Russia was very different, highlighting the everyday dangers faced by anti-government activists. In Kemerovo, in west Siberia, six people were detained for rallying without police permission. In Voronezh, a small city to Moscow’s south, masked men attacked people at a rally in Nemtsov’s memory, while in Chelyabinsk, in central Russia, the organizer of a memorial march was briefly hospitalized after being assaulted by unidentified assailants.

In Moscow, as evening fell, people continued to lay flowers on the bridge where Nemtsov breathed his last. No one from the Russian government attended the memorial event.