I was mid-meltdown thanks to ongoing, recurrent, emotionally draining computer problems. The TV, languishing in “Mute”, was tuned to a news channel, which we set it to almost as a default. Somewhere in the midst of me freaking out and sobbing (real tears!), more than my fair share of “Why me?”s and a serious case of PLOMS (or, Poor Little Old Me Syndrome), I glanced at the TV, and noticed the news breaking across the right hand scroll bar on my screen.
Boris Nemtsov had been shot dead on a bridge in Moscow. I gasped out loud. Suddenly my stupid computer issues didn’t seem quite so important.
I met Boris Nemtsov, back in 1998 or 1999. This was back in the stone age before cell phones and selfies, so sadly, I don’t have any photos. It’s is too bad. I’d love to be able to post a photo. I’d love to have a photo at all, but I digress. I was a Russian Studies major in college and he came to speak on our campus. I was asked to attend a dinner the Russian Department was hosting in his honor, before going en masse to his talk. Sure, I said. I’ll have dinner with a visiting dignitary, no problem. Surprise surprise, I found myself seated directly across the table from him. Because that’s not too much pressure. Hi, Guest of Honor. You get to feast your eyes on me during your entire meal. At least I had good lipstick that day.
When you’re that near someone for a prolonged, talky-type dinner, you can’t help but get some insight into what makes him tick. I have some distinct memories.
Boris Nemtsov worked to make us feel comfortable. He engaged with the students at the table, seemed interested in carrying on conversations, and (to my recollection) was neither dismissive nor self-aggrandizing nor arrogant. He was witty and smart. That’s not to say he didn’t have an ego, but he still made the people he was interacting with feel like their opinions mattered.
Which is really quite charming. And a powerful skill to have, if you’re…oh, I don’t know. A politician, trying to get people on your side.
He ate with his arm around the top of his plate, and I had the distinct impression that if I were to try and take his plate before he was ready he would have stabbed me in the hand. If I were judging body language, I would say he was used to fending off older brothers or schoolmates or something. Or maybe it meant nothing and he just ate that way.
He liked watermelon Jolly Ranchers. I know, because I gave him a handful, to quell a tickle in his throat before giving his talk. Watermelon Jolly Ranchers should be a staple in diplomatic meetings, as they clearly create a bridge between cultures. World peace through watermelon Jolly Ranchers? It’s as good a plan as any I’ve seen.
The attention Boris Nemtsov paid to people didn’t slip away from memory as soon as he walked out the door. Two weeks later, after touring several colleges in the US, he was back on my campus and indeed, in one of my classes. He walked right up to me and said, “You. I remember your face.” I joked that I wasn’t sure if that was good or bad. We laughed, he waggled a finger at me.
In Russia’s current political climate, it would paralyze me with fear. Not-noticed is better.
So here’s the thing: it’s not like Boris Nemtsov and I were buddies. He never wrote, he never called. And I’m not starry-eyed and delusional. Of course he had skeletons. Of course he made enemies. And I’d be surprised to find out that he was untouched by the corruption that generally accompanies global politics and enterprise, even though he promoted transparency in politics. But he was shot in the back, killed in the street, most likely for political reasons. It was well-orchestrated, and a block away from The Kremlin. It would be like someone who didn’t like the president getting mysteriously murdered on the White House lawn. There’s a message in that.
Nemtsov’s death isn’t an intellectual exercise, an academic imagining of what it would be like to live someplace where you could be killed for a difference of opinion. It isn’t part of a movie, and Jason Bourne isn’t going to break through a skylight and topple the corrupt regime who thinks it’s become untouchable. It was real. It happened. Right now his kids, his mother, his wife, his girlfriend (who was holding his hand as he was shot, poor traumatized thing), his friends, and mourners all across Russia are coping with the ache of his sudden and irreversible loss.
While Vladimir Putin enjoys an 86% approval rating.
The best I can say about Vladimir Putin is that he exudes awkward, kissing-a-child-on-the-belly-creepy-Grandpa-ness. The worst and most likely thing I can say about him is he’s a sociopathic former KGB officer, and now the madman is running the asylum. He’s already got a string of jailed or dead journalists and dissidents and human rights advocates and political opponents behind him, and his list of dead and/or nullified enemies has just grown by one.
Putin, chillingly, called Nemtsov’s murder a “provocation” (then sent police into Nemtsov’s apartment and confiscated relevant personal belongings, like his computer) saying that it was done by an enemy of the state who wants to provoke a negative reaction in order to make Russia look bad. Oh, right. Because the state is the real victim here. Joseph Stalin, former dictator of the USSR and a murderous psychopath in his own right, called the murder of Sergei Kirov a “provocation”, then used that as an excuse to implement the show trials and the Great Purge of the 1930s. I’m not saying that’s what’s going to happen next. I’m just saying that history indicates this isn’t going to get any prettier.
Will we ever know, for sure, what happened to Boris Nemtsov? I doubt it. They may find “a shooter”, there may be someone who faces a trial, but I doubt anyone will expose a brain behind the operation. It will take a Herculean effort to convince me that Putin wasn’t directly behind this. Others have pointed out that even if he didn’t order Nemtsov’s killing, he’s certainly fostered an atmosphere of rabid nationalism, intolerance, and fervent lawlessness, which gives implicit permission for loose cannons to run off fully-cocked. But I think that’s letting Putin off the hook. I think he did it, I think he ordered it, I think he was watching out the window of the Kremlin when it happened. I think it’s time to seriously worry about what’s happening in Russia, if we haven’t started doing so already. I’m afraid it’s too late for Jolly Rancher diplomacy. Was Boris Nemtsov a threat to Putin’s regime? He was, as much as any charismatic man with a strong opinion is to a sociopath drunk on his own power.
I am shocked and saddened and horrified that Boris Nemtsov is gone. I liked him, and he was nice to me. But what’s worse is, I worry that this death is just the tip of a giant, bloody iceberg.