Feb 28 (Reuters) – It was near closing time on
Friday at the upscale Bosco restaurant that looks out onto the
illuminated red-brick walls of Moscow’s Kremlin. Boris Nemtsov
and his young, dark-haired girlfriend were finishing dinner.
A political reformer who had fallen foul of Russian
President Vladimir Putin, Nemtsov had been preoccupied for weeks
with details of an opposition march planned for Sunday.
Dinner at Bosco – dishes include beef with rocket salad and
balsamic sauce or duck liver with wild berries – had been
interrupted by telephone calls, a waiter told a Russian
newspaper. Nemtsov also broke off for an interview with a
Ukrainian radio station eager for the details of the rally.
Hopes were high that the demonstration, to condemn Putin’s
economic and foreign policies, would rekindle the flames of the
street protests that in 2011-12 posed the first public challenge
to Putin’s more than decade-long rule.
The pair were among the last to pay their bill in the
restaurant with its high airy ceilings and large windows. At
around 11 p.m. Nemtsov, 55, a tall athletic figure with a mop of
curly brown greying hair, escorted his girlfriend of some three
years, Anna Duritskaya, more than 30 years younger, out onto Red
Opposite them, across the cobbles stood the marble tomb that
still bears the body of Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin, whose
communist economic order Nemtsov helped dismantle after the 1991
collapse of the Soviet Union.
Nemtsov’s apartment was a half hour walk away at a leisurely
pace. The couple turned left, passing to their right the
candy-coloured onion domes of St Basil’s Cathedral. Beyond that,
soared the Kremlin’s Spassky Gate topped with glowing crimson
five-pointed star, another reminder of the Soviet past.
Further down the slope, they walked onto the Great
Moskvoretsky Bridge; but Nemtsov never made it across.
Less than three hours later, policemen were washing his
blood from the masonry and onto the banks of the Moscow River.
He had been shot four times in the back and head in one of the
worst shootings Moscow has seen in years.
Nemtsov had enemies politically and personally. Even among
the opposition, his outsized character pulled some into his
orbit and pushed others away, at times polarising the fractious
team of oppositionists.
But for Nemtsov, the biggest opponent sat in the Kremlin.
Only hours earlier, Nemtsov had given one of his last
interviews, criticising Putin, comparing his rule to the Nazi
Third Reich and promising an uprising from the streets.
“We need to work as quickly as possible to show the Russians
that there is an alternative, that Putin’s policy leads to
degradation and a suicide of the state. There is less and less
time to wake up,” Nemtsov told a correspondent for the Polish
edition of Newsweek.
“PUTIN AND WAR”
There was a time when Nemtsov’s own sights were set on the
country’s top seat of power. Amidst the chaos of the 1990s,
president Boris Yeltsin had marked out Nemtsov, then a young,
reform-minded deputy prime minister who had made fast friends
with the country’s richest and most powerful oligarchs.
Yeltsin had considered handing him the reins of power, but
ultimately ceded the presidency to a little known ex-KGB
officer: Vladimir Putin.
Photographs from Nemtsov’s political career as a deputy
prime minister and opposition lawmaker show very formal
interactions with Putin, the two shaking hands at a distance
with fixed smiles.
But in recent years Nemtsov had become a greater thorn in
Putin’s side, compiling reports on sensitive topics – one that
tried to expose the scale of corruption at the 2014 Sochi Winter
Nemtsov’s friends said his latest effort was to expose the
presence of Russian troops in eastern Ukraine, where NATO, Kiev
and Western governments say Russia has sent soldiers and weapons
to support an armed uprising there.
Moscow has denied the accusations repeatedly.
“Boris Nemtsov received threats in the past, mostly
anonymous ones. That was the nature of things,” said Nemtsov’s
fellow opposition leader Ilya Yashin.
While Nemtsov received threats, law enforcement sources said
he never went to the police to ask for protection. But as time
passed, his worries grew. In an interview on Feb. 10 with lesser
known Internet outlet Sobesednik, Nemtsov said that his mother
had started to worry that Putin could have Nemtsov killed for
his opposition politics.
The journalist asks: “After such conversations with your
mother did you begin to worry that Putin could kill you either
personally or through an intermediary?”
Nemtsov: “You know, yeah… a little. Not so much as mama,
Investigators say the killers drove past Nemtsov and
Duritskaya in a white Ford as they turned from Red Square onto
the bridge, firing six bullets from a Makarov pistol, the kind
used for years by Soviet and Russian police officers.
Four of the bullets hit their mark in Nemtsov’s back and
head, killing him immediately.
In the minutes leading up to the shooting, a law enforcement
source told Russian news agency Interfax that a spotter for the
attackers watched the pair turn onto the bridge before giving
the signal to attack – proof that the killing had been planned.
Opposition leader Alexei Navalny, whose star had eclipsed
Nemtsov’s in the years that followed the 2011-12 street
protests, met with Nemtsov on an infrequent basis, and usually
just to discuss logistics of protests, as they did several weeks
Navalny wrote on his Facebook page on Saturday he knew
people were following the leaders of the demonstration, which
planned to protest against the political and economic policies
the opposition says are leading Russia to ruin.
Weeks previously he had met in private with Nemtsov only to
have the former governor later recount to him in a phone call
how he was later called by a pro-Kremlin reporter to ask about
the details of the secret meeting.
“We all saw many times the publication of (video and voice
recordings) of Nemtsov,” wrote Navalny.
“I practically exclude that surveillance was not being
carried out on Boris Nemtsov last night,” he wrote.
It was a ten minute car drive to Bosco from the radio
station facilities of Echo Moskvy, one of Moscow’s last
independent minded media outlets, where Nemtsov did an on air
radio interview right before dinner.
Following news of Nemtsov’s death, Echo Moskvy editor in
chief Alexei Venediktov tweeted a photo of himself and Nemtsov.
“Today ahead of broadcasting, Boris asked me ‘aren’t you
afraid of having me on air?’ It wasn’t me who should have been
(Additional reporting by Polina Devitt, Alex Winning and Denis
Dyomkin; editing by Ralph Boulton)