My Friend Boris

Russia’s passionate opposition leader led a very full life, politically and otherwise. And his legacy will likely be just as rich -- and just as powerful -- in death.


Boris Nemtsov loved life.

In his case, this is not a cliché. He loved passionately whatever he did: his politics, sports, travel, scabrous jokes, food, and wine.

And he loved women, who were to him the best part of life. Devilishly handsome, tall, and still with a crown of dark curly hair even in his early 50s, he had not — as far as I could see — been lacking in reciprocity.

He was proud of his utterly un-Russian tan, acquired in his capacity as president of the Russian Surfers Association: fanatically devoted to the sport until a few years ago he trained in Venezuela for a month every winter. And while he was there, he told me, he gave advice to the anti-Chavez opposition.

But no one could have mistaken lack of gravitas in this bon vivant. Boris was from Gorky (now Nizhny Novgorod), the city in which Andrei Sakharov spent six years under virtual house arrest. I always thought that the young Boris must have gotten, by osmosis, the same stubborn devotion to freedom as foundation of human dignity — and the same unbending determination to guard it in himself and his compatriots.

A Jew and an intellectual (he held a Ph.D. in physics), he was elected and re-elected governor in that ancient Russian city on the Volga. He was the most promising young democratic politician in Russia in the mid-1990s; after Boris Yeltsin’s re-election in 1996, the president wanted to make Nemtsov first deputy prime minister in charge of reforms. Nemtsov refused. He loved his city and unlike most Russians did not care about living in Moscow. Yeltsin sent his daughter and top advisor, Tatiana, to personally convey the invitation. Boris finally relented (although, he once confessed, he found Tatiana “a bit heavy” for his taste).

Boris Yeltsin treated his young namesake like the son he never had, and Nemtsov repaid him in kind, with love and enormous respect to the end. (It was after he read my biography of Yeltsin 15 years ago that we became friends, though we first met at the World Economic Forum in Davos in 1995.)

Boris was also the favorite Russian politician of Margaret Thatcher. In turn, he worshiped her as a leader and a fellow anti-Communist conservative and would often call her for advice until he left the government in 1998.

It was as first deputy prime minister, that Boris came across an up-and-coming Kremlin bureaucrat by the name of Vladimir Putin. At the time, Putin was Nemtsov’s subordinate. “Absolutnaya serost” (“total grayness”), were the words Boris used to describe him when I asked how he remembered Putin.

By Boris’s standards this was a mild description of the current Kremlin ruler. Four years ago, when we were on panel together at a conference held in Moscow to mark Yeltsin’s 80th birthday, Boris had the audience in stitches (and tears) when he talked about his former boss. But there was a hush in the air when, as was his wont, he swiped at the current Kremlin’s occupant: “Yeltsin was president for nine years, when oil was $18 a barrel. How long would Putin have lasted at this price? They would have carried him out on pitchforks (vynesly by na vilakh) on the third day!”

Ten months later, on Bolotnaya Square in Moscow — along with Alexei Navalny and Sergei Udaltsov — Nemtsov led the largest pro-democracy protest rally in post-Soviet history.

In the coming days we will undoubtedly hear about disgruntled husbands as possible suspects. Or the “cursed 1990s,” with hints at financial shenanigans which finally caught up with Boris. (Like Yeltsin’s first prime minister, Yegor Gaidar, Nemtsov has never been found guilty of taking a kopek from the state treasury).

Anything is possible, of course, but, as with murders or suspicious deaths of several other regime’s opponents — such as Sergei Yuchshenkov, Anna Politkovskaya, Alexander Litvinenko — the truth may never be established so long as the current regime is in power.

Awash in crocodile tears, the Kremlin is liable to shower Nemtsov with official sadness and promises to investigate. But I don’t think any of this going to work. As a martyr and a symbol, in his death Boris will continue to be the same unbowed, unflinching presence and testament for liberty as he was in life. His funeral, which will bring tens of thousands onto the streets of Moscow, will be the beginning of his posthumous opposition.

Borya would have liked the sound of it.

Konstantin Zavrazhin/Getty Images

Leon Aron is the director of Russian studies at the American Enterprise Institute and the author, most recently, of Roads to the Temple: Truth, Memory, Ideas, and Ideals in the Making of the Russian Revolution, 1987-1991.
Tag: Russia

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