The scariest thing about the murder of Boris Nemtsov is that he himself did not scare anyone. “He was no threat to the current Russian leadership and to Vladimir Putin,” said the Russian president’s press secretary, Dmitri Peskov, eerily echoing comments the president made in 2006, when the opposition journalist Anna Politkovskaya was killed. By this Mr. Peskov meant that the Kremlin did not kill Mr. Nemtsov, a former first deputy prime minister, who was gunned down in central Moscow on Friday night.
In all likelihood no one in the Kremlin actually ordered the killing — and this is part of the reason Mr. Nemtsov’s murder marks the beginning of yet another new and frightening period in Russian history. The Kremlin has recently created a loose army of avengers who believe they are acting in the country’s best interests, without receiving any explicit instructions. Despite his lack of political clout, Mr. Nemtsov was a logical first target for this menacing force.
Russia is a country at war — it has been waging battle against Ukraine for a year — and like any country at war, it has focused much of its rhetorical effort on the domestic opposition. The word “opposition” itself is misleading: It suggests having access to media and electoral and social mechanisms, when those have ceased to exist in Russia. More accurately, there are a number of individuals in Russia who are capable of gathering small groups of supporters, waging limited local electoral action, transmitting messages through the tiny remnants of independent media and occasionally organizing street protests.
In the small space available to the Russian opposition, Mr. Nemtsov occupied a unique place. He had become active in politics during perestroika, and in 1991, when Mr. Nemtsov was 32, President Boris Yeltsin appointed him governor of the Nizhny Novgorod Oblast, an important industrial region on the Volga River. Nemtsov was one of the youngest people among the political players of the 1990s, and he seemed to embody the new era: He did not come from the Communist Party nomenklatura, he extolled political and economic reform, and his patronymic indicated that he was Jewish — a fact that he, breaking with the custom of the Soviet era, did not try to hide. In 1997, Mr. Yeltsin asked him to come to Moscow to join the cabinet, and there was talk of him succeeding Mr. Yeltsin as president.
But the ailing Russian president seemed capable neither of giving up power nor of running the country. He chose potential successors fast and disposed of them ever faster, eventually alienating anyone with political capital. In 1999, Mr. Yeltsin finally settled on a former KGB agent named Vladimir Putin, setting his original anointed successor, Mr. Nemtsov, on a path to opposition politics.
That road was neither easy nor direct for Mr. Nemtsov. First he tried to do political business with Mr. Putin: He headed a party that had seats in the first Putin-era Parliament and even fielded a presidential candidate. But as Mr. Putin refashioned Russia into an authoritarian country, Mr. Nemtsov was forced out of what passed for electoral politics, and became one of the first establishment politicians to sound the alarm about the nature of Mr. Putin’s regime.
For years almost no one was interested in what Mr. Nemtsov had to say. He and his handful of allies would stand outside Moscow subway stations handing out brochures with their reports on high-level corruption. These were difficult reading: The writing was overwrought, reminiscent of the agitprop of old. And Russians seemed to be living too well to be interested in the quality of their government. When they finally started paying attention to corruption, they listened to a man almost two decades younger than Mr. Nemtsov, the blogger Aleksei Navalny, who spread the message in a much hipper way.
When Russia suddenly erupted in protest in December 2011, Mr. Nemtsov found that he was perceived as an old fogie. On May 6, 2012, when the police cracked down on a peaceful, legal protest, Mr. Nemtsov staged an impromptu sit-in at the foot of the Big Stone Bridge across from the Kremlin with a group of men all young enough to be his children. The protests fizzled, but Mr. Nemtsov stuck with them. He was a lead instigator of a protest march planned for March 1 in Moscow. Following his killing, remaining organizers scrapped plans for the march in favor of a vigil in Mr. Nemtsov’s memory.
While it is true that this activity hardly threatened Mr. Putin’s hold on power, Mr. Nemtsov made every internet list of “enemies of Russia” circulated by the Kremlin’s supporters.
In the almost three years since Mr. Putin returned to the presidency, and especially in the year since Russia annexed Crimea, the Kremlin has increasingly focused on the enemy within. A new movement called Anti-Maidan marched through Moscow two weeks ago calling for violence against the “fifth column.” At least one of the signs carried at the march named Mr. Nemtsov as the organizer of the Ukrainian revolution.
Less than a week after that march, and just before the one he had organized, Mr. Nemtsov was gunned down while walking a bridge that spans the Moscow River right in front of the Kremlin. It is under constant camera and live surveillance. The message was clear: People will be killed in the name of the Kremlin, in plain view of the Kremlin, against the backdrop of the Kremlin, simply for daring to oppose the Kremlin.
Masha Gessen is the author, most recently, of Words Will Break Cement: The Passion of Pussy Riot.