President Vladimir Putin’s address to the Federal Assembly (upper chamber of the Russian parliament), delivered by two weeks ago (February 20), was disappointing to each segment of its audience. The assembled elites and rank-and-file bureaucrats duly applauded Putin’s instructions to channel more funds to social problems; but they certainly have no intention to execute such directives. The population registered the supreme attention to shrinking incomes and spreading discontent; but it does not expect any improvements. Whereas, international partners noted that of all of Russia’s foreign policy instruments, Putin relied most heavily on bellicose missile threats. Disenchantment aside, Russian politics tends to take a respectful pause after a high-profile, guidelines-setting event like the presidential state-of-the-nation address, and this year was no different. The pause ensued and provided appropriate background for an event that the authorities would have probably preferred to ignore—the fourth annual march in memory of Boris Nemtsov (Novaya Gazeta, February 24).
Nemtsov, a former deputy prime minister and a well-known leader of the anti-Putin opposition, was gunned down on a bridge near the Kremlin on February 27, 2015. Four years later, some 10,000 people walked in his footsteps under the watchful eye of about the same number of police (New Times, February 24). No clashes or usual detentions were registered this time, and most of those who took the risk of defying the official disapproval were surprised to find that the somber cause could still attract thousands of participants (Ezhednevny Zhurnal, February 25). Indeed, many like-minded individuals had already opted—or were forced—to leave Russia, adding to the millions pursuing a better future for themselves abroad (Svoboda.org, January 19). Official data is badly distorted, but the intention to emigrate has grown strong among the professional classes—and even stronger among the youth (Rosbalt, February 8). This outflow aggravates Russia’s long-term demographic problems, forcing the government to recently admit that the country’s population continues to shrink (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, February 27). This statistical fact is significant for the economy, since the growing shortage of high-skilled Russians undermines the drive toward modernization; but its political significance is even greater, exposing the lie about broad public support for Putin’s “patriotic” course.
The main driver of this course is Russia’s undeclared war against Ukraine, and Nemtsov was a resolute and bold opponent of this aggression. He was not afraid to stand against not only Putin’s warmongering but also against the majority of Russians, who still rejoice at the annexation of Crimea and profess a negative attitude toward Ukraine (Levada.ru). The costs of this breach of international law and betrayal of trust of what had been one of Russia’s closest neighbors keep piling up (Newsru.com, March 1). Over the least five years, Russia has become an international outcast, stuck in an unwinnable confrontation with the West and punished by a progressively tightening sanctions regime (Novaya Gazeta, February 28). The situation in the pseudo-separatist and de facto occupied Donbas region, meanwhile, is increasingly grim and hopeless (Svoboda.org, February 25). Putin is afraid to show weakness by accepting any compromise on this deadlocked and deadly war, but he cannot find any way to a meaningful victory.
The investigation into Nemtsov’s murder produced a body of evidence leading to Chechnya, where it hit a wall of denials and non-compliance. The Kremlin has little formal control over Ramzan Kadyrov, an arrogant strongman installed by Moscow to pacify Chechnya back in 2004 and who has since matured into a despotic ruler with a vast criminal network. Moscow police is reluctant to interfere with the activities of the Chechen “mafia,” which can swiftly mobilize a gang of 50 street-fighters for sorting out a minor conflict (Moskovsky Komsomolets, February 15). Kadyrov even sent some of his para-militaries to gain real combat experience in Syria. As such, he feels quite invincible to any attempts to prosecute his crimes. The United States Congress, nevertheless, keeps demanding a proper investigation of Nemtsov’s murder and has written that into the draft legislation known as the Defending American Security From the Kremlin Aggression Act (DASKA) (Vedomosti, February 28).
Of all of Nemtsov’s unfinished political crusades, the one that hits squarely at the heart of Putin’s system is the battle against corruption. It now has a new champion in Alexei Navalny, who has mobilized a network of committed activists and employs new technologies to expose the many dirty deals of the Russian elites, from Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev to the criminal clans in the North Caucasus (FBK-Info, February 21). The authorities routinely hit back by prosecuting many of Navalny’s friends and followers, but his organization holds firm under pressure (Navalny.com, February 26). Navalny’s name has become a marker of trouble among Putin’s courtiers. In the squabbles for assets, like in the attack on the Baring Vostok investment fund founded by Michael Calvey, false accusations of giving support to Navalny can have a devastating political impact (Dozhd TV, March 1).
Putin never mentions Navalny by name. And in his recent address to the Federal Assembly he completely avoided discussing corruption as well, despite previously claiming he would prioritize this deepest of all social problems (Open Media, February 20). The same wall of silence surrounds Nemtsov’s name, but the memory refuses to dissipate (Moscow Echo, March 1). People remember him for different reasons, but for Putin’s elites, increasingly uncertain about the near future and squeezed by sanctions, Nemtsov remains a unique case of a top-level politician who walked away from the entanglements and privileges of power—and had no regrets.
The bridge where Nemtsov took his final steps is always covered with flowers, and volunteers guard this memorial against officials’ persistent attempts to erase all signs of the crime. This vigil not only represents the opposition’s demand that the political plot targeting this popular rebel be exposed. It is also a reminder of when Russia turned away from its future and started to sink into the quagmire of fake patriotism, shameless autocracy and corruption. Putin tries to glorify his decaying rule by rewriting and reimagining history, but he can neither invent a plausible prospect for recovery nor close the page on the periodic political murders of his critics. His promise to assert Russia’s greatness rings increasingly hollow, and the public demand shifts toward fairness and decency—qualities generally foreign to the country’s leaders. Nemtsov, with his easy smile and stiff spine, walked away from their bazaar and, even in death, leads the march toward a better Russia.