The February 27, 2015 murder of Russia's liberal opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, a popular former deputy prime minister and one of the most prominent faces of the country's fragmented opposition, hit many Russians like an attack against them all.
Banners in a memorial march attended by tens of thousands in Moscow a few days after the killing declared “I am Boris.” and “Heroes don’t die.”
Nemtsov was “a symbol of the opposition, a symbol of freedom,” and “a symbol of the European way” to democracy, political ally Irina Khakamadze commented to Current Time at the time.
Watch Current Time's live broadcast of Russia's Boris Nemtsov memorial marches on February 29, 2020:
While suspects in the crime were detained a week after Nemtsov’s death, the ultimate motive for the killing remains debatable. Investigators alleged that five men from Chechnya had assassinated the politician just for money.
Yet, five years later, Nemtsov’s family, supporters, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) strongly doubt that conclusion.
Arguing that Russia’s investigation left “many important questions unanswered,” OSCE Parliamentary Assembly Special Rapporteur Margareta Cederfelt demanded on February 20, 2020 that Russian prosecutors reopen the case.
Moscow has given no indication that it will do so.
To help viewers assess the facts themselves, Current Time revisited some of the milestones in the official investigation into who killed Boris Nemtsov.
February 27, 2015
A Murder Within Sight Of The Kremlin
Fifty-five-year-old Boris Nemtsov was killed on Moscow’s Bolshoi Moskvoretsky Bridge at 11:31 p.m. on February 27, 2015. Three hours before his death, he had been interviewed at the independent radio station Ekho Moskvy, where he spoke about Russian President Vladimir Putin’s responsibility for the nearly year-old separatist war in eastern Ukraine, and about corruption in the Russian government.
After the interview, Nemtsov met his girlfriend, 23-year-old Ukrainian model Anna Durytska, in a café in GUM, the iconic shopping gallery on Red Square, and started walking with her to his home on Malaya Ordynka Ulitsa, on the opposite side of the Moscow River.
Investigators later determined that, as he had been for the past few weeks, Nemtsov was followed.
As the couple crossed the Bolshoi Moskvoretsky Bridge, located just past the Kremlin’s Beklemishevskaya Tower, a shot rang out, hitting Nemtsov in the back. Durytska later told investigators that she had initially thought the sound was an exploding firecracker.
Six shots were fired at Nemtsov from a 9-milimeter Makarov pistol: He was hit in the head, heart, liver, and stomach, and died at the scene.
Durytska told the Russian TV-digital outlet Dozhd (Rain) that she saw no one with a gun; just a light-colored passenger car driving along the bridge. She said a utility vehicle driver told her how to reach the police and an ambulance, but this statement did not lead to another witness. Durytska did not recall the driver’s face.
An outspoken critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin, Nemtsov had been expected to take part in a March 1 procession in Moscow to demand solutions for Russia’s economic crisis and democratic reforms. Anti-corruption activist Aleksei Navalny and Nemtsov, who had been working on a report about Russia’s military ties with separatists in eastern Ukraine, organized the event.
Instead, the demonstration became a memorial march.
Its tens of thousands of participants demanded that the government find and punish Nemtsov’s murderer and the person or people who had ordered the crime.
Speaking to the Interior Ministry on March 4, President Putin demanded that the ministry “rid Russia, once and for all, of the shame and tragedies” of acts of violence like the “savage” murder of Nemtsov in central Moscow.
March 1, 2015
Initial Theories And Investigator Krasnov
Thirty-nine-year-old Igor Krasnov, an experienced government investigator who specialized in Russia’s ultra-right-wing groups, headed the official investigative group into Nemtsov’s murder. He previously had received acclaim for investigating the 2009 murders of human-rights lawyer Stanislav Markelov and Novaya Gazeta journalist Anastasia Baburova by the neo-Nazi group BORN.
Within a few weeks of his death, Russian media began to consider the possibility that ultranationalists were also involved in Nemtsov's murder. Another popular theory held that Nemtsov’s support for French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo’s decision to publish cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad had prompted his assassination by an outraged Islamic extremist. Neither of these theories was confirmed.
Rather, Nemtsov’s colleagues and family linked – and continue to link – his murder with his sharp criticism of President Putin’s foreign and domestic policies, his past clashes with Chechen strongman leader Ramzan Kadyrov, and his calls for an investigation into the reported role of Chechen security forces in the conflict in eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region.
On March 1, Russia’s Investigative Committee announced that it would pay an award of 3 million rubles (about $50,000 at the time) for information that advanced the investigation into Nemtsov’s killing.
But Krasnov would not be on hand to evaluate any such information. On May 15, 2015, he was promoted to oversee an Investigative Committee department handling “particularly important cases.”
Nemtsov family lawyer Vadim Prokhorov later told the news site openDemocracy that he believed that Krasnov had been “kicked upstairs” after the family requested that Kadyrov and individuals close to the Chechen leader or linked to the Interior Ministry’s Chechnya-based Sever (North) battalion be questioned about the politician’s death.
Russian media described his removal as a routine personnel change.
On January 22, 2020, President Putin named Krasnov – by then, the Investigative Committee’s deputy chairman – as Russia’s Prosecutor General.
March 7, 2015
Detention Of Suspects
While the Investigative Committee officially officially handled the Nemtsov case, the February 20, 2020 OSCE report found that “inconsistencies in the dates in the case files suggest that a parallel investigation took place.” According to “[o]ther independent investigators,” the Federal Security Service (FSB), Russia’s primary domestic intelligence and security agency, appears to have run that investigation, the report noted.
Eight days after Nemtsov’s death, on March 7, 2015, it was the FSB, rather than the Investigative Committee, that announced that five murder suspects, all men, had been found. The suspects were all from the republic of Chechnya in Russia’s North Caucasus.
The main figure, Zaur Dadayev, a thirtysomething, former deputy commander of the Interior Ministry’s Sever battalion, was detained in Ingushetia, a Russian republic that neighbors Chechnya.
Тhe Federal Narcotics Control Service later stated that it had brought in Dadayev as part of a narcotics investigation. During his interrogation, he reportedly confessed that he had shot Nemtsov.
In Moscow’s Basmanny District Court, Dadayev stated in August 2015 that he had been tortured and pressured into making this confession. He alleged that he had been threatened with rape, beaten with an electric shock rod, and that the confession he made on camera had been dictated by police. The court rejected a criminal investigation into these charges.
It turned out also that Dadayev had been on vacation the day of Nemtsov’s murder. The following day – Saturday, February 28, 2015 – the deputy Sever commander had resigned from the Interior Ministry.
Soon after Dadayev’s detention, four additional Chechen suspects, all with various ties to the former battalion officer, were also taken into custody: the brothers Anzor and Shadid Gubashev, Khamzat Bakhayev, and Tamerlan Eskerkhanov. A sixth suspect, Beslan Shavanov, blew himself up with a grenade during his detention in Grozny, the Chechen capital.
All five suspects declared themselves innocent. They are the only individuals who have been charged for Nemtsov’s murder.
March 16, 2015
Ruslan Geremeyev: The Man Not Questioned
The name of Ruslan Geremeyev, a former major in the Sever battalion, first appeared on the Russian news site RBK in connection with the Nemtsov murder on March 16, 2015.
Geremeyev, who had been Dadayev’s direct superior, would become one of the most mysterious figures in the case; an individual about whom much was reported and alleged, but who was never named as an official witness or suspect.
At a 2016 hearing, the concierge of a residence at 46 Veyernaya Ulitsa in Moscow testified that Geremeyev owned one of the building’s apartments that had been used by at least four of the five defendants before Nemtsov’s murder, the Russian news site Zona reported. The concierge had recorded in a notebook the exits and entrances of all the building’s residents and guests.
Security cameras also had identified Dadayev driving Geremeyev in a Mercedes ML with the government license plate number 007.
Russian media reported in the middle of March 2015 that investigators intended to question Geremeyev as a witness. The Investigative Committee, however, made no official announcement about this.
Novaya Gazeta later established that Germeyev is the nephew of influential State Duma deputy Adam Delimkhanov, a member of the ruling United Russia party with close ties to Kadyrov, and of Senator Suleiman Geremeyev, also from Chechnya.
By late March, the Russian news site Rosbalt reported that a squad of armed men was guarding the retired Sever battalion commander in his native village of Dzhalka in Chechnya.
One of the investigators, Aleksandr Kamashev, later testified in court that he came to Geremeyv’s house, but no one opened the door. For that reason, Kamashev said, investigators did not question him.
In April 2015, investigators did, though, manage to question the then commander of the Sever battalion, Alibek Delimkhanov, the brother of Adam Delimkhanov, after Chechen leader Kadyrov intervened.
However, Kadyrov facilitated no such access to Geremeyev.
In late April 2015, the Rosbalt news site, citing an anonymous law-enforcement source, reported that the former Sever commander had left Russia for Abu Dhabi, capital of the United Arab Emirates.
In 2019, the U.S. Treasury Department included Geremeyev on their Russian sanctions list as a person possibly connected to Nemtsov’s murder.
Who Is Rusik And Is He Alive?
At the end of May 2015, the prominent Russian daily Kommersant, citing a source in the Nemtsov investigative group, wrote about a new figure in the case: Ruslan Mukhudinov, a former driver for Ruslan Geremeyev.
The Investigative Committee reported that Dadayev had testified that a certain “Rusik” had promised to pay 25 million rubles (about $342,465 at the time) for killing Nemtsov. Rusik also allegedly had supplied the suspects with a car, pistol, and gun cartridges, Kommersant reported.
A shortened version of Ruslan, the name “Rusik” could have applied to either Geremeyev or Mukhudinov.
The investigators, however, maintained that Ruslan Mukhudinov, rather than Geremeyev, had offered to pay off the suspects for both trailing and killing Nemtsov.
A cleaning lady, Zarina Isoyeva, who tended to the two Moscow apartments where the murder suspects had lived, later confirmed in court that Mukhudinov alone had been called Rusik.
Dadayev, stating that he had been tortured, later rejected his testimony about Rusik, but that appeared to make little difference in the case.
Toward the end of the Nemtsov investigation in 2017, Ruslan Mukhudinov was named as the person who had not only organized the murder, but, also, along with “some individuals,” had allegedly ordered it. The prosecution’s case, however, put the contract price now at “not less than 15 million rubles,” or about $232,000 at the time.
Vadim Prokhorov, the lawyer for the Nemtsov family, stated that he considered Mukhudinov one of those who carried out the murder, rather than the crime’s organizer or client.
The driver himself, however, was never questioned. In early July 2015, Rosbalt, citing unnamed sources in the investigation, questioned whether he was still alive. Mukhudinov had last been seen in Chechnya on March 6, 2015.
A search was declared, but even now, after almost five years, his whereabouts are unknown.
October 14, 2015
Kadyrov And ‘The Patriots’
In April 2015, the children of Boris Nemtsov requested that Kadyrov be questioned in connection with their father’s murder. Government investigators on October 14 dismissed the idea that Kadyrov could be involved in the crime as “only a lawyer’s speculation.”
In late November 2016, Kadyrov stated that he would answer investigators’ questions about Nemtsov’s murder if subpoenaed.
Kadyrov himself, however, spoke out about the murder more than once since the detention of Zaur Dadayev. “I knew Zaur as a genuine patriot of Russia,” he said in August 2015.
On Instagram, he described Beslan Shavanov, the suspect who killed himself, as another “courageous fighter.”
Kadyrov noted that Dadayev “could not take a step against Russia,” despite his religiosity and supposed distress at Charlie Hebdo’s caricatures of the Prophet Mohammad; illustrations that Nemtsov had supported as an expression of freedom of speech. (Dadayev’s stance on Charlie Hebdo later disappeared from the prosecution’s case.)
Kadyrov also had flattering words for Ruslan Geremeyev, naming him “one of the best fighters.”
“Everyone knows” that the five suspects in the Nemtsov case had no connection to his murder, he asserted.
In November 2016, when the Nemtsov case had already gone to court, Kadyrov called the murder a provocation and the slain politician himself “an enemy of Russia.” After the sentencing, the Chechen leader declared that “people not guilty of anything” had been sent to prison.
October 3, 2016
Murder With A Moot Motive
The Nemtsov murder case went on trial before a jury in the Moscow District Military Court in the fall of 2016. (The case was heard before a military court since, at the time of the murder, Dadayev was serving in the Interior Ministry’s Sever battalion, the state-run TASS news agency reported.)
Prosecutors charged that Dadayev had shot Nemtsov and that Anzor Gubashev had driven the getaway car, a silver ZAZ Chance. The remaining defendants were charged with having helped organize the murder.
Prosecutors alleged that the killing was a contract murder in exchange for 15 million rubles – a crime covered under Russia’s Criminal Code Article 105, Part 2. They identified no further motive.
The pistol fired at Nemtsov was not found. Security camera recordings from the territory adjoining the Kremlin – an area generally monitored by the Federal Guard Service – also were not presented in court.
The Federal Guard Service told Kommersant that it is not responsible for monitoring the Bolshoi Moskvoretsky Bridge, where Nemtsov was shot. It earlier stated that its cameras near the site had been turned off for repair or had recorded only indistinct images.
For physical evidence linking the murder to Dadayev, prosecutors noted that a trace of gunpowder had been found on the defendant’s hands. The DNA of Dadayev, the Gubashev brothers, and the late Shavanov was reportedly found in the ZAZ Chance. The prosecution alleged that the vehicle had been used to follow Nemtsov as well as to take Dadayev from the scene of the shooting.
Nemtsov family lawyer Viktor Prokhorov asked that the court drop the charges against Bakhayev for insufficient evidence. His DNA was not found in the Moscow apartment used by the other suspects.
With his colleagues, Prokhorov again demanded the questioning of Kadyrov and General Viktor Zolotov, who commanded the Interior Ministry’s troops at the time of Nemtsov’s killing.
Both requests were rejected.The accused retracted all their previous statements and pled not guilty.
June 29, 2017 - July 13, 2017
The Verdict And Its Consequences
On June 29, 2017, the Moscow District Military Court’s 12-member jury found the five defendants guilty of Nemtsov’s murder and the illegal possession of firearms and ammunition.
Roughly two weeks later, Judge Yury Zhitnikov sentenced Zaur Dadayev to 20 years in a maximum-security correctional facility. Anzor Gubashev received a prison term of 19 years; Shadid Gubashev 16 years; Temirlan Eskerkhanov 14 years; and Khamzat Bakhayev 11 years.
Lawyers for the accused stated that they would appeal the convictions.
Eskerkhanov and the Gubashev brothers had filed a suit against the Russian government in the European Court of Human Rights for bad conditions in their prison cells and during their transfer to court as well as the lack of a prompt judicial review of the grounds for their detention.
Twelve days after the suspects’ sentencing, the Court ruled that Eskerkhanov be paid 6,000 euros (at the time, just under $7,000) in compensation on these counts. (The Gubashev brothers’ petition was denied for a breach of confidentiality about their “friendly-settlement negotiations” with the Russian government.)
No online public record of Russia's compensation payment could be found.
The Nemtsov family also was dissatisfied by the investigation and court procedure.
With still no trace of the person who had ordered the murder, family lawyer Prokhorov told reporters that justice had not been done.
The family’s lawyers maintained that that person is Ruslan Geremeyev. They alleged that Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov was shielding him, with the central government’s cooperation.
The Nemtsov family asked that the case be returned to the Prosecutor General’s office and that the accused be judged not just for murder, but for an attempt on the life of a government and public figure. The Supreme Court declined the petition, upholding its classification as a contract murder -- a classification that spared Dadayev from a life sentence, RFE/RL's Russian Service noted.
On the eve of the fifth anniversary of the murder, the OSCE called on Russia to conduct a new investigation and also to transfer the investigation’s materials to the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov responded that the international investigation contradicts Russian laws. The Foreign Ministry stated that the case contains a state secret – a claim denied by Nemtsov’s relatives.
During the Nemtsov murder trial’s 80-some court sessions, which were open, no mention was made of any state secrets.