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Boris Nemtsov: The Death of the Intermediary

Nemtsov was the rare figure who could move between Russia’s public and private politics. From slon.ru.

by Greg Yudin 9 March 2015

Every political murder mobilizes friends and enemies of the victim. That’s the sure sign that it’s a political murder, regardless of the killer’s motive. When supporters know they can no longer keep silent, when those who kept silent can no longer remain isolated, and when the opponents subconsciously feel like defending themselves, it means we have witnessed a political murder.

 

In these circumstances it’s complicated to define the real aim of the crime. A victim quickly becomes a symbol, so some claim it was a shot at all of them, while others deem the victim’s death insignificant. But this time it wasn’t just “any oppositionist” killed, but an exceptional politician whose name was Boris Nemtsov.

 

Neither side can see a reason for his murder, since Nemtsov’s political authority seemed negligible. At least according to Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, who said, “Nemtsov was not a threat” in Russian politics. But that is only true if you see it from Putin’s perspective.

Boris Nemtsov takes part in a March 2014 march for peace in Moscow alongside fellow opposition leader Ilya Yashin, right. Photo from the Facebook page of the Solidarity movement.

 

There are two kinds of politics in Russia: public and backstage. Backstage politics exists deep inside the Kremlin administration. The main resource of this type of politics is status in the political elite, and the only way to achieve it is to be promoted. For example, some positions in the government are still elective, but only formally. That’s why parliament is no longer a place for debate. Backstage politics is closed to society, so those who have access to the back door of Russian political life and leak its secrets are highly sought-after by the crowd.

 

Nemtsov could not be considered a substantial figure in Russian backstage politics. He made the decision to become a public politician with his eyes open. Doing so robbed him of any “backstage” power and influence he had held as a major ex-politician in Russia, but that’s what happens when a powerful political figure from the past starts to gather people for protest and is put under administrative arrest from time to time. An insider becomes a public politician.

 

Public politics takes place on the streets, in mass media, on social media, literally anywhere it’s possible to make a public statement. It has become more important since 2011: before then it would have seemed unthinkable that tens of thousands of protesters on the streets and oppositionists demanding Putin’s resignation would be discussed on federal television. In the wake of that movement, the government passes frankly populist laws and previously apathetic lawmakers seek to regulate all aspects of Russians’ lives.

 

Nemtsov was a powerful public politician. The threat of revolution has been a key topic on Russian TV channels lately, and Nemtsov was always there to take the blame for any potential riot. Many people say he was insignificant. The criteria of what is significant and what is not are subjective, but that he was one of the major figures of all the protests in Moscow is beyond doubt. Regardless if he was promoted to lead those protests or rode other oppositionists’ fame, Nemtsov was the one to do it. He successfully bet on public politics as early as the 2000s, and the line of mourners upon his death proved him right.

 

However, this is not Nemtsov's only role in contemporary political life in Russia. Backstage and public politics don’t exist independently. Some of the elites occasionally use the tools of public politics to lobby some of their interests and vice versa. That usually requires an intermediary, someone who fits both the backstage and public formats.

 

Nemtsov was the right person for that. Easygoing and always ready to help, almost everyone related to Russian politics has some good memory of him. He knew the opposition crowd and was always the one to solve conflicts among its different factions. And it’s no secret that he also financed some of the events. At the same time he belonged to the elite thanks to his past status, lifestyle, and friends. Nemtsov had always shown up with the influential political and economic authorities, making him the perfect intermediary who could use the masses in favor of particular elites and vice versa. Nemtsov demonstrated these skills during the protests in 2011-2012, when he was the one to escalate the conflict between society and the Kremlin and to have control over the situation.

 

In his own book Nemtsov calls himself “a rebel.” But there’s a difference between rebellion and revolution. When Louis XVI heard about the storming of the Bastille, he exclaimed, “This is a rebellion!” Rochefoucauld-Liancourt corrected him: it was no longer a rebellion, but a revolution. Revolution changes the basics of the regime while rebellion replaces particular politicians in the existing political system. Nemtsov wasn’t a revolutionary; he lived in a new unstable system of mutual manipulations between masses and elites. And his role in this system was clearly significant.

 

The shots fired at Nemtsov are shots fired at those in the elite who, while in the background, try to use public politics to raise their status backstage. They are shots aimed at efforts to help the streets influence the authorities peacefully, without revolution. Nemtsov irritated those authorities who believed that the protests were organized by their rivals – because Russians themselves would be incapable of any politic effort.

 

As Russia’s resources diminish, no one is sure that Putin’s pie can be cut up to satisfy everyone. In this regard no one wanted to put up with a public political opponent.

 

Nemtsov’s death leaves Russia still struggling with the question that Nemtsov was trying to answer: can we argue without killing each other?

Greg Yudin is a senior research fellow at the Laboratory for Studies in Economic Sociology at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow. This commentary originally appeared on slon.ru. Translated by Evgeny Deulin
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