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  • Boris Nemtsov:A Ukrainian Afterword
  • Yulia Kurnyshova (bio)

If Boris Nemtsov were alive, his place would likely be in Ukraine. Just like Mikhail Saakashvili, he could become a citizen and an office holder to try to implement some of his ideas in a country that served as an important reference point for him. This move would be possible, given that the situation in Russia has reached a point where political dissent is literally becoming life threatening. Nemtsov was aware of this danger and predicted a possible assassination attempt on himself only a few weeks before it happened.

His murder has not been able to overturn his own theory of the “Teflon Putin.” In an interview ten years ago, Nemtsov pointed to the fact that nothing “sticks” to the Russian President - in spite of the multiple casualties in Chechnya, or mass-scale economic and social deprivation all across the country, his approval rating remains high. This disconnect was not a paradox for Nemtsov, who put the blame on Russian media propaganda, even more cunning and malicious than under Stalinism. In Ukraine, in his opinion, the overall situation was not even close to that. Corruption – yes, perhaps as deadly as in Russia – but, at the same time, the passion for freedom and non-violence. At least that is how he saw the Orange Revolution.

Nemtsov was the only Russian politician who stood together with Ukrainians in the frosty Maidan of 2004. Together with the then leaders, Viktor Yushchenko and Yulia Tymoshenko, in an orange scarf, full of enthusiasm. For some Ukrainian politicians, his engagement with this country was even too much. In 2005, Oleg Tyagnibok, then a little-known [End Page 41] right-wing politician, proposed to the Verkhovna Rada a measure that would prevent Nemtsov from continuing to serve as an official adviser to the president, since this position would be tantamount to “interference in the internal affairs” of Ukraine. Ten years later, Nemtsov became a target for Russian senators who ganged up on him due to his participation - along with the “Right Sector” - in the “Vyshivanka13 March” in Odessa, protesting against Russia’s intervention in Ukraine.

After years spent in direct contact with Ukraine, Nemtsov hardly idealized its leaders. During the Euromaidan, then President Viktor Yanukovych banned him from entering the country. As for the current leaders of Ukraine, Nemtsov thought that the most essential for them would be to make a choice – to work for the country’s future, or for their electoral ratings.

His active position on Ukraine in the past year and a half elevated his dissent to a “mature opposition” to Putinism. The evolution of his views was heavily influenced by the understanding that after the annexation of Crimea and the outbreak of the war in Donbas, Putin’s regime had crossed a red line. The liberal Nemtsov did not limit himself to mere liberal language. He not only led protests against the war in Ukraine, but also collected empirical material for an investigative report on Putin’s crimes in Ukraine. His language was not politically correct or neutral, but filled with damning contempt, which was typical for late Nemtsov. What no one dared to say publicly, he did. Even here in Ukraine, no one has written about the war better than he did.

None of the Russian opposition figures supported Ukraine so consistently and vividly. Of course, there were Garry Kasparov and Valeria Novodvorskaya, but they paid comparatively less attention to Ukraine. Nemtsov had a clear take on the annexation of Crimea and considered it a crime. Some of his predictions were quick to come true. For example, reflecting on the reasons of the current conflict, he hypothesized that the Kremlin would eventually trade a ceasefire in Donbas for lifting economic and political sanctions against Russia. In this scenario the question of the legality of Crimea’s inclusion into Russia would be removed from the agenda, and Western countries would recognize the peninsula as Russian territory, if not formally, then de facto. It is obvious that today the question of Crimea is practically withdrawn from the international negotiations, and the West periodically alludes to the possibility of lifting the sanctions.

Nemtsov was among the...