restricted access Encountering Boris Nemtsov in 1992
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Encountering Boris Nemtsov in 1992

It was in a context of change and upheaval in the spring of 1992 that I first met Boris Nemtsov, the new governor of the Nizhny Novgorod region. I both interviewed Nemtsov formally and ran into him socially at numerous openings, receptions, and political gatherings in Nizhny. Then in his thirties, Nemtsov had a reputation as a young reformer committed to a more liberal philosophy and to privatization. He had gathered around him a team of like-minded reformers from the Nizhny region. With a background in physics, Nemtsov had first gained prominence by opposing the building of a planned nuclear power plant in Nizhny; in the showdown with the old-line communists a few months before my trip to Russia in August, 1991, Nemtsov had sided with the pro-reform, pro-Yeltsin forces.

In office, Nemtsov soon gained a reputation, in Russia and abroad, as a liberal agent of change. He opened up Nizhny to political debate, encouraged the privatization of small shops and businesses, and gave his approval to the opening of a Nizhny Novgorod stock exchange. His [End Page 34] liberalizing, privatizing efforts attracted the attention of prime ministers Margaret Thatcher, John Major, and Alain Juppe, as well as U.S. Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, all of whom made pilgrimages to his city. Later on, Nemtsov would become the elected governor of Nizhny; in 1997 he moved to Moscow after having been appointed first deputy prime minister by Yeltsin. I followed his career over the years and met with him on several of his visits to Washington.

I was not as taken with Nemtsov as were others at this time. Perhaps that is my training as a political scientist; maybe it was to do with the skepticism and cynicism imbued after too many years in Washington. I found Nemtsov bubbly, enthusiastic, and personable, but also young and even boyish in his enthusiasms, inexperienced, naive, and overly romantic in his views of what could be accomplished in Russia at that time. Perhaps it was his physics background that led him to see too-simple and single-minded solutions to Russia’s manifold and complex problems, without adequate focus on the means in Russia’s chaotic and disintegrating economic and political system at that time to get there.

Actually, living in Nizhny at that time, I did not see much in the way of the touted privatizations of small businesses which was Nemtsov’s claim to fame; in fact, mostly what I saw was the state’s harassment of small businesses. And the large military-industrial complex in the city was, when I was there, in complete chaos and freefall, as it sought to transition from state control to privatization. Nor were the relations with the old-time communists with whom Nemtsov initially shared power in Nizhny managed well; eventually these reactionary forces staged a comeback, replacing Nemtsov. Meanwhile, because of excessive borrowing, Nizhny had sunk deeper into debt, there were charges of corruption under Nemtsov, and the oblast became more and more a political and financial dependency of Moscow.

I admire Boris Nemtsov because, whether in Nizhny or Moscow, he raised and carried the flame of Russian liberalism, freedom, and democracy. However, it is not enough to lift up a glorious banner; eventually as a politician you also have to deliver and provide results. But you have to be realistic about it. You cannot in the process stray too far from Russian political culture and the realities of Russian power politics; you cannot as a driver of the bus get too far ahead of your passengers or take them in a direction they no longer want to go. Nemtsov was a beacon of reform, but he was also, in Putin’s Russia, a liberal voice crying in an increasingly authoritarian and autocratic wilderness. Eventually he succumbed to another Russia, one that was not peaceful, joyous, and democratic, but aggressive, brutal, mean, ugly, nationalistic, non-liberal, anti-Western, and anti-democratic. [End Page 35]

Howard Wiarda

Until his death in 2015, Howard J. Wiarda was the Dean Rusk Professor of International Relations at the School of Public and International...


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