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Thousands of Russians Queue Up to Say Goodbye to Murdered Opposition Leader Boris Nemtsov

Government critics said they feared that the era of democratic reforms had died along with Nemstov, who was gunned down near the Kremlin on Friday.

by Alec Luhn
Mar 3 2015, 4:50pm

Image via Reuters

Thousands of mourners waited hours in the cold on Tuesday to pay their last respects to former deputy prime minister and opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, who was killed with four bullets to the back just steps away from the Kremlin on Friday night.

The line to get into the Sakharov Center in central Moscow, where Nemtsov lay in an open casket surrounded by grief-stricken well-wishers and mounds of flowers, stretched more than half a mile around the block. Hundreds were still waiting when police and organizers began closing off the entrance, sparking minor scuffles and cries of protest. Those who didn't get in frantically tried to pass flowers to others already inside. 

"It's a horrible occasion, but it's good that people came," popular blogger Andrei Nechayev, who once served as economics minister and had known Nemtsov for years, told VICE News, his eyes still moist. "That means they don't believe the official propaganda that for the past two years has insulted Nemtsov and dragged his name through the mud."

"This is a tragedy for everyone," Dmitry Gudkov, the only outspoken critic of Vladimir Putin left in parliament, told VICE News after bidding a final farewell to his fellow opposition leader. "The epoch of democratic reforms has gone with him, and I fear that it will never come back."

As pallbearers carried the coffin to the sound of a small boy playing a violin etude, those standing outside chanted "Russia will be free" and "Heroes never die!," a slogan from the pro-Western protests in Ukraine last winter that Nemtsov vocally supported. Mourners placed flowers on the hood of the hearse as it took Nemtsov's body for burial in the Troyekurovskoye cemetery on the city outskirts.

"My father was a clean, honest person," Nemtsov's son Anton said. "For us he was a father, not a politician. I know that he's now in heaven."

At Troyekurovskoye, the late politician was lowered into a grave surrounded by fir boughs, and well-wishers including Nadezhda Tolokonnikova of Pussy Riot laid flowers. 

As first deputy prime minister under President Boris Yeltsin in the 1990s, Nemtsov was widely expected to be his successor, but fell from grace following the 1998 Russian financial crisis. To this day, many still blame him for his role in the market reforms and privatization that impoverished much of the population.

In the ensuing decades, Nemtsov became a highly visible opposition activist and began filing complaints and writing reports on corruption, including a damning indictment of the Sochi Winter Olympics. Fellow activist Ilya Yashin said Nemtsov had been preparing an exposé on Russia's military support for rebels in east Ukraine, but few believe that such materials will ever see the light of day after investigators conducted searchers of Nemtsov's apartment and office.

While Russia's investigative committee has suggested Ukrainian intelligence services or even Islamic terrorists organized Nemtsov's gangland-style killing, opposition leaders have argued that the murder was likely inspired by an atmosphere of paranoia whipped up by state-controlled television. Putin has warned of a "fifth column" of "national traitors" threatening to undermine the country as it faces off against the West over Ukraine. https://news.vice.com/article/russian-opposition-blames-kremlin-propaganda-for-killing-boris-nemtsov

Although several opposition leaders came to pay their respects on Tuesday, a judge denied the most prominent anti-Putin activist, Alexei Navalny, permission to attend. Navalny is serving a 15-day jail term for unlawful organizing after he was arrested handing out fliers in the subway, the latest in a string of legal troubles he has faced since helping to lead the 2011-12 wave of street protests.

Sandra Kalniete, a Latvian member of the European Parliament, and Polish senate speaker Bogdan Borusewicz said they had been denied entry to Russia to attend Nemtsov's funeral, apparently as part of retaliatory measures against the European Union travel ban on Russian officials involved in the Ukraine crisis. European Parliament President Martin Schulz called the entry bans a "high affront to EU-Russian relations." 

Russian authorities allowed Nemtsov's Ukrainian girlfriend Anna Duritskaya, who is the only known witness to the murder, to fly back to Kiev overnight after three days of questioning by investigators. Duritskaya told independent channel TV Rain on Monday that she saw the assailant get into a light-colored getaway car but didn't see his face or the license plate.

The newspaper Izvestia, which is known for often receiving official leaks, reported on Tuesday that investigators now suspect Ukrainian intelligence services of organizing the hit on Nemtsov with pro-Kiev fighters from Russia's Chechnya republic. In an odd twist of logic, investigators reportedly fingered Adam Osmayev, a Chechen who was charged in 2012 with a failed attempt to assassinate Putin, for killing the pro-Kiev opposition leader. Putin's spokesman has called the murder a "provocation" against Russia, drawing criticism that the Kremlin could be pressuring investigators to produce evidence for this hypothesis.

Although an estimated 50,000 people attended a memorial march for Nemtsov in Moscow on Sunday, his legacy is mixed in Russia as a whole. As a free-market reformer in the 1990s, he helped lead the sell-offs of state assets that made a few well-connected oligarchs fabulously rich even as everyday Russians lost most of their savings. In a survey of social network users published on Tuesday, 28 percent of respondents said Nemtsov was a traitor who wanted to sell out to the West, and 10 percent said they viewed him negatively. Only 17 percent said they viewed him positively. 

But those at the funeral events on Tuesday argued that Nemtsov's most important legacy was the example he set as an outspoken activist. One emotional man even read a poem next to the open casket calling on those present to "Fight for a new Russia! For a more open Russia!"

Businessman Sergei Nikonov said he had always supported rival liberals from Yabloko, the Russian United Democratic Party, rather than Nemtsov, but still came to "pay respect to a person who fought, who gave his life trying to make everyone's lives better."

The blogger Nechayev said he hoped Nemtsov's murder could unify anti-Kremlin parties and leaders, but few mourners believed that the killing would revitalize the opposition movement, which has stagnated amid the patriotic fervor over the annexation of Crimea and the Russia-backed rebellion in east Ukraine.

"They've destroyed the opposition now," said Valentina Kazachenkova, a pensioner queuing to pay her respects. "People are too zombified, we need to change something with television. It says America is our enemy, [the opposition] betrayed us, we need to kill them."

"Maybe that's what happened" to Nemtsov, she added.

Follow Alec Luhn on Twitter: @ASLuhn