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  • The Legacy of Boris Nemtsov
  • Stefan Meister (bio)

When I studied international relations at Nizhny Novgorod State University in 1999/2000, Boris Nemtsov had already left the city, having been appointed first deputy premier minister of the Russian Federation. While he served as governor of Nizhny Novgorod between 1991 and 1997, the region became a “laboratory of reform.” Beloved by international investors and Western politicians, his liberal reforms were often chaotic, but brought the region significant economic growth. I did internships in different departments of the regional administration during my year there and still met Nemtsov’s slowly dying ghost almost everywhere. Many young and well educated Russians, who had been appointed during Nemtsov’s two terms, were still there and tried to fight with the old bureaucrats, who had no interest in reforms, efficient structures or transparency.

But this young generation was leaving, with many going abroad. Nemtsov’s laboratory was slowly killing off all the hopes of the young, well trained people with international experience. As a member of the team working with liberal economist Anatoly Chubais, he also had to resign his position in the government following the crash of the Russian stock market in August 1998. The experiment was over. Nemtsov became one of the leading opposition politicians in the Putin era. As a former deputy prime minister, he was part of the Russian elite. That was the reason why Nemtsov was able to say and do things which other opposition politicians were never able to do without being sanctioned by the regime. His protection (krysha) ended on 27 February 2015.

Nemtsov stood for the group of the sometimes naive young reformers of the 1990s who really wanted to change Russia for the better. Only a few of these people were successful after 2000, when Boris Yeltsin left office. Nemtsov was one of them and, despite the growing influence of the old Soviet security mentality, he never lost his optimism. Nemtsov represented the other Russia; he had been part of the power structures, but [End Page 38] never stopped dreaming about a democratic Russia which lived according to the rule of law. He was a self-made man who managed to change the former closed city of Nizhny Novgorod and its region into a prominent testing ground for new ideas. At the same time, he represents the failure of post-Gorbachev Russia. He could change positions in the administration, but was not able to change his mentality.

His murder is the victory of the cynical Russia, which has been growing under Vladimir Putin. If Nemtsov, who was linked to Putin for some time, can be killed, no opposition figure is safe in today’s Russia. There is no place anymore for optimists, for politicians who want to break with the Soviet legacy. You have the choice: Either you leave the country, go into internal exile, or you might lose your life. All this stand for the beginning of a new Russia which started with Putin’s return in 2012. The current era has been completely cut off from the democratic achievements of Gorbachev’s time and the 1990s, a period now defined as a tragic accident of history.

Stefan Meister

Stefan Meister is based at The German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP).