Speaking at the Women in the World summit in London on Thursday, journalist and activist Zhanna Nemtsova, daughter of assassinated Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, said that she blames the Russian government for the murder and spoke to the difficulty of pursuing any kind of investigation under increasingly repressive conditions.
In early July, Nemtsova (no relation to the author of this article) made a firm decision to leave Russia, where she had grown up and received a great education, where she lived near her family and friends, and where she pursued a successful journalistic career. Her home country was also where her father, the former deputy prime minister, criticized president Vladimir Putin’s policies, and where he was shot in cold blood on a sidewalk outside the Kremlin walls last February. Decided, done. An ability to make firm decisions runs in Zhanna’s family.
Her mission now is to push ahead with the “hopelessly stuck investigation” into her father’s murder, she told me with youthful energy when we spoke via Skype, earlier this month, about her efforts to preserve her father’s memory and create mechanisms for support of the Russian opposition. “I know perfectly well, I will never live in Putin’s Russia.”
Zhanna’s transition was smooth and swift. She moved from Moscow to Berlin, where she now works as a reporter at the Russian department of international broadcaster Deutsche Welle. Her reason for leaving Russia was simple: Nemtsova was not prepared to accept censorship. Although she defended her former employer, RBK television channel as “non-propagandist,” she was aware, she told me, that one day some editor would forbid her political commentary, would stop her from expressing certain views on the situation in Russia. “The thing is, I love freedom, so I can say what I think without looking back to check that I stay on the same page with [Kremlin official] Vyacheslav Volodin, deputy chief of the presidential staff.”
Zhanna’s voice sounded strong. “There is no such freedom in Russia. Any statement against Putin is read as political activism and an attempt to overthrow the constitutional — read Putin’s — regime.”
Back home, she was aware that questions about her employment were raised at the very top Kremlin level. As her father’s daughter, as a professional journalist and, above all, due to her own strong character and beliefs, Nemtsova could not allow anybody to mute her free speech. But even from outside of her home country, Zhanna is working to change Russia: organizing a foundation named after her father — one that would not only help her father’s friends but also grant awards to courageous Russians.
Eight years ago, her father also made a brave and crucial decision — to join the Russian opposition and compete with Putin’s inner circle of powerful men. Nemtsov’s 2007 book, Confessions of a Rebel, explained why he was reentering Russian politics after a break of a few years—in order to prevent Russia from rolling back to imperialism and degrading in all spheres of life. “He was an idealist, faithful to his ideas,” Zhanna said of her father. “He was a unique man. There are very few, probably not more than 1,000 men like him in the entire world who are always convinced of their views. My father’s personality combined bravery and patriotism. He loved Russia and believed he could make a difference.”
“Russia is an aggressive country. It’s aggressive toward its own people who are politically active, and it’s outwardly aggressive, as we see in Ukraine and Syria,” Nemtsova said on Thursday. “Russia is a very repressive country, it’s a criminal country, it’s not a country based on law.”
Over the past 15 years I interviewed Boris Nemtsov dozens of times, when he was deputy prime minister, a Duma deputy, a businessman, a leader of the opposition and an official once again. His last position was as a member of a regional legislature, the Yaroslavl parliament. He possessed qualities unique for a Russian politician. He was charismatic, accessible and always offered vivid examples to illustrate every argument he introduced. Nemtsov believed in the constitution and publicly explained, again and again, that nobody should stop Russian citizens from expressing their opinions. One day, I saw Nemtsov standing alone in the rain on a sidewalk outside Petrovka 38, the Moscow police headquarters, with a banner in his hand, demanding punishment for those who attack journalists. I recalled that day in my conversation with Zhanna, how impressed I was by her father’s stamina. He stood alone, in rain and snow. “Oh, he was alone because it was a single picket!” She exploded in laughter, immediately brightening to that image of her courageous father.
But dark memories clouded that moment of joy. “Yes, my father demanded justice and freedom for various people, including Limonov, who later commented on my father’s murder in a disgraceful way that holds no water. ”
Along with some Russian officials, Limonov rejected the view that Nemtsov was killed for being an opposition leader, and hinted that the politician was murdered for trivial reasons by his “little enemies.” The liberal opposition has insisted that the order for Nemtsov’s murder came from the Kremlin, and that the Putin-backed leader of Chechnya and his associates were involved in the execution of the order. As a representative of the victim, Zhanna had no legal right to put forth any scenario for her father’s assassination.
On the night of the tragedy, February 27, 2015, Zhanna was with her mother when a friend called with the news. “That night I heard my mother scream so loudly, I thought some criminals were strangling her,” Zhanna recalled. Not believing the news, she checked CNN’s website, she said. “Something like that could happen only in Putin’s Russia.”
Eager to counter any distortion regarding the case, Nemtsova was clear that her father had never expected an assassination. “He might have joked about that, but I would never agree with anyone who now says that my father expected that they could kill him,” Zhanna told me. “In Russia, we have a very powerful instrument, propaganda,” she said at Thursday’s summit. “It’s criminal propaganda. It creates the atmosphere of hate and uncontrolled violence. My father had been attacked for the last ten years, when he was in opposition to Putin.
Not just by the press, but literally, physically.” He applied to the state for security, but never received a response, she said.
Politics was never her thing, Nemtsova told me, once again bursting into laughter. “A politician cannot declare that she dislikes going to street protests, and I don’t like them.”
But one winter, she and a friend joined Nemtsov for a political protest a few hours before their planned New Year party. Zhanna celebrated that New Year without her father. He spent that night in jail, “on a bare floor with his head on his shoes,” as he later told her.
Given that level of dedication to his political beliefs, Nemtsov found time for a surprisingly full personal life. Zhanna joked that it is “unclear how many” brothers and sisters she has, saying that her father tried to be loving and supportive to everybody.
Irina Yasina, an activist and human rights defender, confirms his affection for his family. “I remember his 50th [birthday] and how much I admired seeing all his wives and children at the same table,” she told me. “His first child, Zhanna, of course was always his pride, she is very talented and thoughtful.”
“Putin is not forever, he’s for a long period of time but he’s not forever,” Nemtsova told the crowd on Thursday in London. “Probably in 20 years we will know the truth. If we do not do anything, you agree to the fact that life is not important … After the Soviet Union disappeared, we didn’t fight for our rights. Now, we have to.”
Asked what her father would think of her activism if he were alive today, Nemtsova said only, “He would have been shocked with me. He thought I was brave, but not that brave.”
Additional reporting by Linda Kinstler