A Reformer Remembered 

On the occasion of democratic reformer Boris Nemtsov's death, a reporter recounts his turbulent time in Russia.

click to enlarge back10_russia.jpg

Maxim Shemetov/Reuters

Let me run through my list:

There’s Yuri Shchekochikin, a Russian investigative journalist who wrote for Literaturnaya Gazetta and died suspiciously of possible poisoning. Paul Klebnikov, the American editor of Russian-language Forbes magazine, who probed sleazy business deals among powerful oligarchs, was gunned down near his Moscow office. Paul Tatum, a pioneering American businessman, was shot 11 times at a Moscow subway stop that I used to frequent.

Add to the list Boris Nemtsov. The 55-year-old democratic reformer and bitter critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin was shot down Feb. 27 while walking near the Kremlin.

What do these people mean to me? I dealt with them in one capacity or another when I reported from Moscow for Business Week magazine during the 1980s and ’90s. Those were historic times. A huge, ossified system was collapsing with incredible speed and a new, uncertain one was evolving.

Working in Moscow was like living here in the 1960s. Politics and culture were turned upside-down. It seems childishly naive now, but many Russians and foreigners actually believed that the country might morph into a prosperous and peaceful place where basic human rights were respected.

Much of the early debate was dominated by a wonky group of 30-somethings who were bright, articulate and imaginative. The pack included economists Yegor T. Gaidar and Grigory Yavlinsky as well as Nemtsov, a tall, dark-eyed nuclear physicist from the provincial city of Nizhny Novgorod. It’s the same city where Nobel Prize-winning scientist and human rights champion Andrei Sakharov was held under house arrest for years.

Highly intelligent, Nemtsov defended his doctorate in nuclear physics at the age of 25. He got into politics in 1986 just after the Chernobyl disaster when he protested the building of a local nuclear power plant.

Mikhail S. Gorbachev’s policies of perestroika and glasnost were freeing debate for the first time in decades. Nemstov was so swept up that he bravely worked with Boris Yeltsin to overcome a 1991 coup against Gorbachev. In return, he was appointed to a top position in his hometown, which he quickly turned into a hands-on laboratory for free-market reforms and open expression.

Unafraid of ruffling feathers, he insisted that contracting become more transparent. He simplified registering new businesses to stop bureaucrats from extorting bribes. The media and arts flourished. His city became a must-see stop for foreigners getting a sense of how change might go.

Some of his endeavors were less than successful. He favored shock therapy to break up the old command system of running the country. One result was a brief period of 2,000-percent inflation when many disillusioned Russians saw their life’s savings wiped out overnight. He was an architect of a daring but ill-fated program to turn Russia into a capitalist nation within 500 days.

One of his biggest steps was his support for voucher privatization, a scheme largely hatched at Harvard University. Ordinary citizens were given stock shares of state-owned businesses. Not knowing what to do, many sold their paper to sly investor groups, giving rise to the exclusive oligarchs who now control whatever domestic wealth they haven’t exported.

In 1997, Nemtsov was promoted to deputy prime minister overseeing the bloated and corrupt energy sector. Ever-fearless Nemstov said, “As to what I have to do in Moscow now, that is the function of a kamikaze.” He’d been considered a possible successor for the ailing Yeltsin but the job went to Putin, a little-known former KGB officer who had hopped on the reform bandwagon.

Soon, Nemstov was warning of a new Putin dictatorship. Putin quickly used secret police, beatings and prison as political weapons. Imprisoned opponents included Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a rich oil oligarch, and members of the all-female Pussy Riot punk band who wrote sarcastic ballads about him. Probing journalists such as Anna Politkovskaya were slain while independent media outlets were shut down.

Nemtsov held firm. Arrested three times, he still revealed shady deals such as $50 billion in construction payoffs at the 2014 Winter Olympics at Sochi.

Last year, the stakes suddenly became enormously larger. Putin seized Crimea from Ukraine and set up an insurgency in eastern parts of that nation. Some 6,000 people have died since in fighting. Armed conflict, perhaps nuclear, with the West is a real, if unimaginable, possibility.

A couple of weeks ago, Nemtsov agreed to stand in for a jailed reformer at a Moscow protest rally. There, he planned to release evidence showing that real Russian soldiers acting under Putin’s orders were doing the fighting in Ukraine, not local rebels.

It wasn’t to be. On an unusually warm winter evening, Nemtsov and a friend were strolling across a downtown Moscow bridge that I’ve crossed many times. Six or seven shots rang out. A man jumped into a car that sped away. And Boris Nemtsov ended up on my macabre list. S

Peter Galuszka is a contributing editor whose business blog, the Deal, appears at Styleweekly.com. He served as Moscow bureau chief for Business Week from 1986-1989 and again from 1993-1996.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.



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