This year, many Russians are commemorating the fifth anniversary of the February 27, 2015 murder of opposition politician Boris Nemtsov in front of the Kremlin. Five ethnic Chechen men were sentenced to prison for Nemtsov’s murder, but those who organized and ordered the killing still have not been found.
Current Time Moscow correspondent Timofei Rozhansky spoke with Moscow City Council deputy Ilya Yashin, Nemtsov’s colleague in the Solidarity movement, about why the official investigation could not complete these tasks, and, also, about how Nemtsov’s death affected Russia’s political opposition to President Vladimir Putin.
>Find out more in Current Time's Russian-language special report about Boris Nemtsov's murder.
– Five years have passed since the assassination of Boris Nemtsov. Can we say, without a doubt, who killed him?
– We understand where the trails [of evidence] lead, we understand who the perpetrators are -- they are behind bars -- but we also understand perfectly that the investigation was blocked at some point and did not make it to those who commissioned [the assassination]. In fact, it did not even make it to the organizers. When the current prosecutor general, [Igor] Krasnov, as head of the investigative group, sent his employees to interrogate Ruslan Geremeyev, they were simply expelled from Chechnya.
We understand that the trail goes to Chechnya and disappears somewhere there. It’s completely possible that they should be looking further for it already in Moscow, in fairly senior government offices; possibly in the most senior government offices.
But for now, this question is open because the investigation, essentially, focused on the perpetrators, and the case about who commissioned (the murder), who organized it, was set aside as a separate investigation. It has stayed under the carpet at the Investigative Committee. Nothing is happening today.By the way, almost the same thing happened with the case into the murder of (journalist) Anna Politkovskaya. They also detained the perpetrators, and they turned the search for the client into a separate operation. The investigator has already retired, and the case is gathering dust. Apparently, it will be closed at some point because of the statute of limitations.
— Is it possible that not only the perpetrators, but the person who ordered the murder could also be in Chechnya?
— Hard to tell. I don’t think that those strange people who ended up behind bars had any real motive to kill Nemtsov. They didn’t create the impression of people who think anything much about politics. They were ordinary thugs from (Chechen leader Ramzan) Kadyrov’s North battalion who knew what to do when weapons were put in their hands.
Obviously, this is a political murder, and the clients’ motives were political. The investigation (named as the possible client) Geremeyev’s driver. That, of course, is an obvious fake. It’s clear that the client had political motives, and it’s understood that Nemtsov was killed, first of all, simply to intimidate those who shared a common value system with Boris.
— But could they do this without the knowledge of the head of Chechnya?
— I'm sure Kadyrov was in the know. I’m sure that Kadyrov, if he himself didn't order the murder, that he at least interacted with the client and discussed this murder.
— How could Nemtsov enrage someone so much that that person would opt for such a brazen murder?
— Nemtsov was a rather large-scale figure for the opposition. You might say that he was a pivotal figure. This (murder), of course, was a very strong blow to the entire democratic movement. Aside from that, he was a person known throughout the entire world; a person who had held the highest posts in Russia. He headed a faction in the State Duma; he was a governor, a parliamentary deputy, the government’s first deputy prime minister, and basically led the government during the most difficult years of the economic crisis.
Therefore, his murder showed that they can do absolutely anything they please with anyone in our country. It was, in many ways, it seems to me, a symbolic murder. It’s likely that some of the people whom Nemtsov criticized had personal grudges (against him); the people whose wealth, illegally acquired property, and so on he talked about. But I have no doubts that it was a political and symbolic murder.
— How did society respond to the murder in 2015?
— It was a shock to everyone. It seems to me that even now many have not recovered from the shock. You saw how many people came out the day after the news of Nemtsov’s murder. There was an enormous march that brought together more than 100,000 people in the very center of Moscow, near the Kremlin. This, of course, showed both how people relate to such reprisals and the real scale of Nemtsov as a personality.
Watch Current Time's Russian-language interview with Ilya Yashin
— Do you remember how you learned about the murder? You immediately went to the site, as far as I remember.
— I was in a nearby cafe, hanging out with friends. I got a call, in fact, from Nemtsov’s press secretary, Olga Shorina. Pretty quickly -- in 15-20 minutes -- I rushed off to the bridge by car and was really one of the first to get there. There was not even any police barrier there. There was literally one police car parked there. Nemtsov’s girlfriend was walking around there. Her eyes were absolutely devastated.
— Anna Durytska.
— Yes. Therefore, to be honest, when I was going to the bridge, I still hoped and thought that it was some kind of mistake, that there was some kind of attack. Maybe he was beaten, maybe some kind of incident took place. But the fact that a person can really be shot in the back, right next to the Kremlin, never hit me, and to this day, to be honest, it doesn’t make sense.
— There was no desire to head to Sheremetyevo (Airport), and then go somewhere else?
— Maybe in the very first minutes, but then, somehow, my comrades and I pulled ourselves together pretty quickly. And I realized that the main thing I had to do was to finish writing the report (about Russian military involvement in Ukraine’s Donbas conflict) that Nemtsov had begun writing, that we had discussed with him. I helped him with this report. He had just begun writing it. I realized that this was his last piece of work and it needed to be completed, finished all the way. We gathered a fairly large group of journalists, experts, and literally a couple of months later we published the Putin.War report. Actually, it was about the war with Ukraine.
— Could this have been the reason (for Nemtsov’s murder)?
— That’s unlikely. This was one of the first theories, but, judging by everything, the report was not the cause. There’s some kind of more global story going on here.
— How did the authorities react to this afterwards? Based on the reaction of Vladimir Putin -- at least, his public reaction -- was it possible to draw conclusions about whether or not he knew?
— Hard to tell. I know for sure from different people, who, one way or another, have access to government offices, that information was leaked that Putin was furious, that he demanded that (the culprit or culprits) immediately be found and the case be sorted out. We can only guess how much this version of events corresponds with reality.
But, frankly, it seems to me that, of course, such killings are impossible without an agreement at a very high level. I do not believe that Kadyrov could have the audacity to organize violence like this by the Kremlin walls – literally, under Putin’s windows -- without having received a nod, an agreement, a wink at a very high level; and possibly at the highest level (of government).
— Isn't that too crude?
— It depends from which side you look at it. On one hand, yes, it is, indeed, crude. It is an absolutely unequivocal message to society. On the other hand -- apparently, in the sick brain of those who thought this all up -- it had a certain aesthetic. The corpse of an opposition member is literally by the Kremlin walls. There’s a certain symbolism in that, which they are trying to make plain to society. So is it crude? Yes. But is there symbolism in it? Of course, there is. A leader of the Russian opposition shot, lying in a pool of blood literally by the walls of the Kremlin, under Putin’s windows. That’s the symbolism, you know.
— Do you remember how state-owned media reacted to this? How they presented it?
— To be honest, I didn’t really follow this, but when the detentions started – and they started quite quickly; literally within a week, they’d established who were the perpetrators and started apprehending them -- all this was presented as the investigation’s grandiose success, that this breakthrough had happened hot on the trail of the crime. And, in general, in the first stage, the investigation acted energetically, sparked a certain optimism.
But then, when Kadyrov received a state award from Putin’s hands, when the head of the investigative group changed, when it became clear that everything would be limited to the perpetrators, there was, of course, no optimism left, and it became clear how this thing was going to end.
— Krasnov was determined to find the person who had ordered the murder, no?
— Krasnov did his job. He’s really quite a professional person in this respect, and, at the first stage, when he, in fact, led the investigation team, he did everything necessary, in my understanding, to get on the trail of those who commissioned the murder. But at some point, obviously, the investigation was blocked on a political level. Not by Krasnov. It was he who was blocked. And, obviously, a political decision was made not to continue with the case and to limit it to the arrest, detention of the perpetrators.
— What strange things and inconsistencies do you see in the investigation that, perhaps, make it obvious that someone can’t reach an agreement with someone else?
— The most obvious thing is that the investigation did not even interrogate Ruslan Geremeyev, who was in Moscow together with all these bandits. There are recordings from surveillance cameras, where they enter and leave a hotel together. That is, this is a person who was directly connected with them. And the investigation summoned him among those citizens who were of interest to the investigation. It’s known that they sent an investigator to detain him, deliver him to Moscow, and question him. But he is still walking free. There still haven’t been any investigative measures taken against him. That’s obvious proof for you that the investigation was blocked.
I can’t find a single reason, except for a political one, why Geremeyev was not detained. And I'm not even talking about the questioning of Kadyrov, the questioning of General (Viktor) Zolotov, or the questioning of other senior officials for whom the investigation would undoubtedly have had questions if it really wanted to find the person who ordered the murder.
— And what questions are there for Zolotov?
— The fighters, who were detained, served in the Interior Ministry troops which Zolotov commanded. At the time, there was no National Guard. They were members of these units and formally subordinate to General Zolotov, who, as you know, is a close friend of Kadyrov. He went to visit him in Chechnya, visited his house. Kadyrov received him into his family circle. I don’t know how things stand now, but, at that time, Zolotov was obviously a liaison between the leadership of Chechnya and the president himself.
— Kadyrov publicly stated that Geremeyev was right not to cooperate (with the investigation). It’s likely that he’s not in the country now. If they’d questioned Geremeyev, then, probably, he would be in prison, too.
— Kadyrov, in general, publicly supported even those people who were detained, and he called other people patriots and heroes. He spoke about Geremeyev in a similar way. I think that Geremeyev is in Russia. I think he is in Chechnya, and, as you know, there is no extradition from Chechnya. If some Chechen bandit who is connected to Kadyrov manages to reach Chechnya, then, most likely, he will be unavailable for investigative bodies if he doesn’t have, of course, any conflict with Kadyrov. Kadyrov defends his own people.
— Nevertheless, the detainees received prison terms.
— Those who failed to reach Chechnya in time received prison terms.
— Do you think they just didn’t manage to get there in time?
— Of course. Geremeyev managed to reach Chechnya [in time], so he was not detained, but the others did not. That’s the whole story. They, in fact, were also flying there, only they didn’t fly directly to Chechnya, but they flew to a neighboring republic (Ingushetia), where they were detained. Had they flown directly to Grozny, they would have had time to escape to Grozny.
— And you think there would be no case (if they had made it there)?
— There would be a case, but the big question would be who would have ended up on trial.
— What happened to the opposition after the death of Nemtsov?
— The opposition experienced a rather serious crisis because Nemtsov was, as I said, a game-changing figure. This is a man who could do everything. Nemtsov’s uniqueness was that, on one hand, he had vast experience in public administration; he was a man who had held almost all possible positions in government. On the other hand, he was a genuine street leader of the opposition. He published reports, made public speeches, and could organize and lead rallies and marches. This was what made him unique: He knew how to do everything. And, at the same time, he was absolutely a team-player who could reconcile with and find a compromise between different parts of the opposition.
Therefore, after the murder of Nemtsov, a vacuum formed that was very difficult to fill. There was no one like that who could just come and become the new Nemtsov. There wasn’t such a person.
But the opposition survived this crisis and, it seems to me, that now the opposition has become stronger than several years ago. Some new channels of communication and some new structures have appeared. But this was a difficult growth, and the murder of Nemtsov, of course, on one hand, brought some parts of the opposition together and mobilized some people, but, on the other hand, it had a depressing effect on many people. I know many people who left (the country) after Nemtsov’s murder, including people whom I personally know. There’s no person who could become the new Nemtsov. No. Nemtsov was Nemtsov, and there won’t be a new Nemtsov. He was the way he was, and an absolutely unique person.