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  • Nemtsov and Democracy in Nizhny Novgorod
  • Sharon Werning Rivera (bio)

Just nine months after President Boris Yeltsin had appointed Boris Nemtsov as governor of Nizhny Novgorod oblast in 1991,7 a respected Western journalist highlighted the “energy [that] emanates from Governor Nemtsov” and noted “[t]he proposed role for Nizhny Novgorod as a crucible of economic revolution.”8 Not two years later, echoing the consensus view of the 34-year old Nemtsov prevailing at the time, another journalist characterized him as “a charismatic reform-minded governor.”9 But did Nemtsov’s reformist vision filter down to the political elites whose support was needed to implement his program?

Nizhny Novgorod under Nemtsov was one of the field sites for my dissertation research on Russian elite political culture that I carried out in cooperation with the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Sociology in the mid-1990s. As my local collaborators and I fanned out to interview department heads in Nizhny’s regional administration (administratsiya oblasti) and deputies in the oblast legislature (Zakonodatel’noe Sobranie), we found that access to both government buildings and our respondents was remarkably easy to obtain. This environment provided a welcome respite from the long days we had spent in Moscow trying to secure interviews with highly placed federal bureaucrats and State Duma deputies.10 It stood in even starker contrast with Tatarstan under Mintimer Shaimiev, where we were denied access to republic-level officials altogether. Instead, a representative of the republic’s presidential administration conducted the interviews for us and forbade the sessions to be tape-recorded, as had been our practice in Moscow and Nizhny.11

Moreover, the interviews we conducted reveal that Nizhny’s regional administrators and legislators were indeed more democratic, [End Page 36] more market-oriented, and less willing to pursue an aggressive foreign policy in the former Soviet Union than their counterparts in both Tatarstan and the federal government. Table 1 displays results that demonstrate these attitudinal differences most vividly. Nizhny’s elites were virtually unanimous that all citizens should have an equal opportunity to affect government policy, compared to slightly more than three-fourths of the Moscow sample and less than two-thirds of Tatarstan’s elites. In the realm of economic policy, Nizhny officials were again the most reform-oriented: whereas three-fourth of Tatarstan’s officials agreed that all heavy industry should be state-owned, only slightly more than half of those in Nizhny supported this proposition. Finally, Nizhny’s political stratum categorically opposed the reestablishment of the Russian state within the borders of the former USSR, whereas this proposition enjoyed considerably more support among federal elites.

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Table 1.

Attitudes of Political Elites in Nizhny Novgorod, Moscow, and Tatarstan in 1995 (% Agree)

Source: Author’s database.

In comparison to its neighbor on the Volga as well as to the “center,” then, Nizhny Novgorod during Nemtsov’s governorship stood out for the higher level of democratic, market-oriented, and non-imperialist values espoused by its regional leadership. To be sure, Nemtsov had not personally appointed all of the political elites in the oblast; regional deputies had been popularly elected in 1994, and Nemtsov had retained many “old cadres” in the regional administration, at least early in his tenure.12 But [End Page 37] as governor, he surely set the tone regarding the values and priorities of his administration. Nizhny Novgorod under Nemtsov illustrates how the spirit of free market competition, pluralism, and respect for the sovereignty of Russia’s neighbors can be fostered when a courageous reformer is in charge. Nizhny—and Russia as a whole—need more governors like him.

Sharon Werning Rivera

Sharon Werning Rivera is Associate Professor of Government at Hamilton College.


7. I am grateful to David Rivera for his helpful comments on this article.

8. Serge Schmemann. 1992. “New Leaders of Ancient City Try to Lead Russia to Reform,” New York Times, 9 August.

9. Alessandra Stanley. 1994. “Nizhny Novgorod Journal; Camelot on the Volga, With 2 Bold Antagonists.” New York Times, 29 April.

10. On the challenges of interviewing Russian elites, see Sharon Werning Rivera, Polina M. Kozyreva, and Eduard G. Sarovskii. 2002. “Interviewing Political...


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