A march of thousands through downtown Moscow on February 29 to mourn the 2015 murder of Russian opposition politician Boris Nemtsov morphed into a political protest against President Vladimir Putin, with participants both lambasting the Russian leader’s “dictatorship” and lamenting the loss of a “fighter” for democracy.
Carrying a loud speaker, Nemtsov’s former colleague, 36-year-old opposition activist Ilya Yashin initially led the procession, shouting “Russia without Putin! Russia without Putin!”
“It’s not just a march in memory of Boris Nemtsov, but a march for his ideas, for those ideas that he stood up for,” commented participant Boris Zatulevsky.
The first public demonstration authorized by the Moscow city government this year, the event attracted people ranging from members of the Right Bloc, a movement of nationalists and conservatives, to supporters of LGBT rights.
With that framework in mind, the procession’s organizing committee took a “principled decision” to “politicize” the march and address “many timely” topics, said Kirill Goncharov, a young member of the liberal opposition party Yabloko, one of the march’s organizers.
Many banners demanded “Who killed Nemtsov?” or the imprisonment of the person or persons -- as yet unidentified by investigators -- who ordered the politician’s 2015 murder.
Some posters called for a law against domestic violence, defended abortion rights, or stated simply “We don’t believe TV propaganda.”
Still others tried to channel Nemtsov by declaring “Boris against poverty” or “Boris against torture.”
Photos of those deemed political prisoners featured prominently.
“Those people who supported Putin 10 years ago or supported Putin after the annexation of Crimea, should change their opinion” after the recent sentencing of the so-called Network defendants, asserted one university student holding a photo placard of Ruslan Kostylenkov, a young man charged with forming an extremist group to overthrow the government.
But Moscow political analyst Konstantin Kosachev cautioned that the march’s political slogans have a limited audience. An agenda of civil-rights topics will “interest citizens only in Moscow and St. Petersburg,” he said.
“For the majority (of Russians), socio-economic issues are more interesting than the political, and there aren’t socio-economic slogans here.”
The non-governmental protest monitor White Counter estimated that 22,300 people attended downtown Moscow’s Nemtsov march. Police put the number at 10,500. Organizers had planned for up to 30,000.
In Russia’s “second capital,” St. Petersburg, around 800 people turned up for the start of a sanctioned march in the city’s downtown, Current Time reported. Police estimated 500, while organizers claimed 2,000 participants.
Those numbers dropped precipitously elsewhere in the country, with some estimated numbers for similar events well under 100.
The major Siberian city of Yekaterinburg posted a gathering of around 500 people, but outside of the city center. Elsewhere in the region, around 30 people turned up at a banned march through Novosibirsk; 50 attended an event in Irkutsk, while in Krasnoyarsk, just over 10 people gathered at a monument to victims of Soviet political repressions.
“The memory of Nemtsov doesn’t really provoke Russia’s cities to speak out about their positions” on policies, commented Andrei Kolesnikov, chairman of the Russian Domestic Politics Program at the Carnegie Moscow think-tank.
State-run news agencies TASS and RIA Novosti zeroed in on the numbers to suggest lukewarm support for marchers’ demands.
“A protest for the sake of a protest is becoming a rather exhausting pastime,” observed Viktor Poturemsky, political analysis director for the private Institute of Social Marketing, TASS reported.
Turning the Moscow march into a “vinaigrette” of “various political slogans” only “blurred the reason” for the event, remarked Aleksei Martynov, director of the non-governmental International Institute of Newly Established States, to RIA Novosti.
But with authorized demonstrations by government critics rare in Moscow, many of the participants saw mixing politics with the memorial as entirely natural.
“People want to speak out on those topics that upset them and this is normal,” commented the late politician’s 24-year-old son, Anton Nemtsov.
Despite the variety of political banners and demands, Nemtsov added, “it’s a memorial march” first and foremost.
Resisting President Putin’s proposed changes to Russia’s constitution – measures seen by critics as prolonging the president’s hold on power – was the way many marchers chose to remember Nemtsov.
A co-author of Russia’s 1993 constitution, Georgy Satarov, termed Putin’s constitutional “corrections” a “rape of the constitution.”
“Our government has gone so far off the deep end recently that it’s impossible to put up with it further,” Satarov commented to Current Time.
He further denounced as “obscene” President Putin issuing an award to Federation Council member Suleiman Gemereyev on February 27, the anniversary of Nemtsov’s death. Gemereyev is an uncle of Ruslan Gemereyev, believed by many to have overseen the Nemtsov murder.
In the five years since the killing, Russia has “become less free,” said one middle-aged man, who, with his 20-year-old daughter, brought flowers to Moscow’s Bolshoi Moskvoretsky Bridge, where Nemtsov died near the Kremlin.
“Now already, no one says anything. It’s sad. We need things to be so that everyone expresses their opinion, everyone speaks freely.”
The Russian opposition today has no leader capable of spearheading such change, he added.
“Whoever did that got what he wanted, in reality,” the man said of Nemtsov’s killing.
Against that opinion backdrop, no state officials were seen attending Moscow’s memorial march. President Putin has remained silent. “For officials, of course, no Nemtsov at all exists,” said Kolesnikov.
On the February 27 anniversary of Nemtsov’s death, however, the pro-government Interfax news agency cited an unidentified law-enforcement source as saying that investigators’ “activity” on the case has not diminished at all since 2015.
“Transcripts of telephone conversations are being studied, information connected with this highly visible murder is being analyzed, physical evidence is being investigated,” the individual alleged.
Kosachev believes that this information was released simply to “calm down” those taking part in the march.
But some Moscow marchers stressed that Russians have no choice but to speak out about Nemtsov’s death and press for the changes they think are needed.
“Every citizen” is “obliged to be interested in politics,” commented one dark-haired man in a hooded parka.
“Don’t be apolitical,” he said. “Being apolitical is killing us.”