Boris Nemtsov: Death of a Russian Liberal

By Mark Ames , written on March 2, 2015

From The News Desk

I bought a couple of bottles of Yarpivo in a Chinese-owned discount store around the corner here in Brooklyn, and poured one out for Nemtsov, who ended his life as a Yaroslavl city councilman. I never liked him much, but his murder was brutal, and frightening — and the dark fear it’s brought to Moscow is very real.

Nemtsov was a very different kind of liberal or “ultra-liberal” than what we think of as liberals. In the best sense, that means he was never a mealy-mouthed coward. But as one of the leaders of the 1990s liberalization catastrophe, Nemtsov was much more the problem than the solution to that problem. And even when he was in power in the late Yeltsin Era, serving as the half-dead boozer’s first deputy prime minister and heir-apparent, Nemtsov represented the very worst and shallowest in liberal Russia’s “virtual politics,” a kind of precursor to the manufactured PR-as-politics that was perfected under Nemtsov’s choice for Russia’s president in 2000: Vladimir Putin.

Boris Nemtsov first crossed my radar screen in early 1997, a few months after I launched The eXile in Moscow. He was hailed as the Second Coming of Liberal Jesus by the cream of Moscow’s foreign correspondent community, back when the American media still had the money to pack places like Moscow with full-staffed local bureaus. Not that all that staffing made their reporting any better—most of the reporting was regurgitated neoliberal pamphleteering and Peak Clinton jingoism; a case study in mass journalism malpractice. Every single western reporter was completely blindsided by the 1998 financial collapse, at the time the most catastrophic and complete financial collapse in modern history — all except our annoying satirical rag.

Which brings me back to Nemtsov, whom Yeltsin appointed as his first deputy prime minister in March 1997, just a couple of months after the The eXile came to life. Everyone in the west went ga-ga over Nemtsov, the young handsome free-market governor of Nizhny Novogorod. Larry Summers, who ran Clinton’s Russia policy from his post as deputy Treasury Secretary, hailed Nemtsov’s appointment sharing the first deputy premiership with Anatoly “Bonecracker” Chubais as the “an economic Dream Team.” When Nemtsov traveled to Japan, he wowed the world media by telling a meeting of Japanese businessmen he’d give them his personal cell phone number to call him if they were having any problems doing business in Russia.

Typical of the Anglo-American Nemtsovophilia we were up against was LA Times correspondent Carol Williams, who cheered him on in language that reads like a cheap parody of Soviet propaganda:

In the four months since he left the helm of this prosperous Volga river reform showcase to become first deputy prime minister in Moscow, the charismatic crusader has taken aim at the corrupt and the greedy who have made post-Soviet Russia a vast and terrifying gangland...

The 37-year-old former physicist has presided over the first promising signs of economic recovery since Russia jettisoned communism and, to the cheers of the struggling masses [yes, you read that right: cheering struggling masses—M.A.], has waged war against government fat cats junketing in imported luxury cars and chartered planes... That was the cheerleaders’ version—and it was backed by everyone rich and powerful the world over. Except in Russia.

In fact, Nemtsov’s Nizhny Novgorod “miracle” was, like everything else Nemtsovian, a matter of canny PR masking a brutal reality. Out of Russia’s 89 miserable regions in 1996 — when Russia was in the throes of the worst national economic collapse of any industrialized nation in the 20th century — Nizhny Novogorod ranked dead middle in terms of median income, despite attracting more foreign investment than almost any region. Nemtsov attracted foreign investment by reciting all the neoliberal platitudes in vogue in the 1990s, which made him a favorite of the World Bank set.

Nemtsov joined the Kremlin as the anti-corruption “young reformer” who promised Russia a fair, clean, “western” capitalism. The first thing he did was push a law forcing government bureaucrats to ditch foreign cars for Russian Volgas — which just happened to be produced in Nemtsov’s Nizhny Novgorod region. Then he lobbied through anti-corruption decrees that, upon closer reading, featured “loopholes through which an entire fleet of Volgas could be driven.” The decrees were supposed to end one of the worst examples of Yeltsin era corruption: rigged tenders for state contracts. Nemtsov’s reform decreed that in future, government tenders had to be open, transparent and competitive — except in cases when a closed non-competitive tender was deemed “the best method.” In other words, not only was nothing changed, but rigging tenders now were given legal gloss, thanks to Nemtsov.


A few months later, Nemtsov pushed for a new law forcing bureaucrats to disclose their incomes (but not their assets or their families’ assets) — but then was caught on tape arranging a bribe in the form of an obscene book advance, $90,000, with a Yeltsin family bagman/entrepreneur named Sergei Lisovsky. (A year earlier, Lisovsky, while working for Yeltsin’s 1996 re-election campaign, was caught in central Moscow hauling a Xerox copy paper box packed with 500,000 dollars worth of Ben Franklins.) Nemtsov’s leaked discussion with Lisovsky about the $90,000 “book advance” came just as he took credit for running one of the most controversial sell-offs of a state asset — the state telecommunications company Svyazinvest, which went to a consortium that included George Soros and Oneximbank, whose then-chairman is now Brooklyn Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov. Initially the Svyazinvest auction was PR’d as the cleanest and bestest Yeltsin-era state auction of public assets; and then it was discovered that the winner of the auction, Oneximbank, had funneled huge book advances to the very same US-backed “young reformers” in Yeltsin’s government, including “Bonecracker” Chubais, who were in charge of awarding Svyazinvest to the Oneximbank-led consortium.

The rigged auction — Nemtsov’s showcase for what “anti-corruption” governance looked like —led to the “bankers' war” between rival oligarch clans, the firing of many of Nemtsov’s fellow “young reformers” from government, and an open war of words between Nemtsov and the late oligarch Boris Berezovsky, whose consortium lost the auction. Berezovsky’s television stations were used to savage Nemtsov and his young reformers; Nemtsov responded by demanding Yeltsin fire Berezovsky from his Security Council. That was when Berezovsky hit back with one of those memorable lines that made it hard for anyone who remembered it, myself included, to ever take Nemtsov seriously again. To understand the context — Berezovsky was born Jewish, and Nemtsov was half-Jewish, in a country known for its, say, complicated relationship towards Jews. Berezovsky made a bunch of snide remarks about their Jewish patronymics (Boris Yefimovich Nemtsov and Boris Abramovich Berezovsky) in comparison to Yeltsin’s Russian-Christian patronymic (Nikolayevich), when he told an interviewer:

It seems to me that Mr. Nemtsov has a purely genetic problem: He is a Boris Yefimovich, at times he is a Boris Abramovich, but wants to be Boris Nikolayevich. You don't become a president, presidents are born. If Boris Yefimovich realizes this then I think that he will stop with his allegations.
In his vicious pithy way, Berezovsky showed up not just Nemtsov's delusional megalomania, but also his moral delusions as well. They were both creatures and agents of the same liberal revolution.

There were other sordid stories. Nemtsov was tasked with breaking up Russia’s natural monopolies and introducing fair, free-market competition. So he “took on” the state utilities monopoly, RAO-UES by placing his favorite young Nizhny Novgorod banker, Boris Brevnov, in charge of the company. Brevnov had by this time married an American woman who was one of the World Bank’s top officers in overseeing its investments into Nizhny Novogorod when Nemtsov was governor. Less than a year after Nemtsov put Brevnov in charge of the utilities monopoly, the company’s board of directors charged Brevnov with corruption and abuse of office, including the use of company jets to fly to Kentucky to pick up Brevnov’s wife, mother-in-law and dog and bring them back to Moscow. After getting fired from RAO-UES, Brevnov moved to the US and went to work for Enron.

By August 1998, Nemtsov's government went down in one of the largest and most devastating financial collapses of modern times.

The problem with Nemtsov’s politics wasn’t so much his adherence to radical neoliberalism, but his shallowness, his grotesque elitism, and his authoritarianism. Nemtsov is one of the top-down Russian liberals, cut from the same authoritarian cloth as Chubais, though not as wily as “Bonecracker” (so nick-named because in 1996, when Chubais summoned a meeting of top Russian newspaper editors to the Kremlin, he told the uppity editor of the then-independent Izvestiya newspaper, “You will write what we tell you to write or bones will crack”; a few months later, after Izvestiya broke the story on Chubais taking a $3 million interest-free loan from a banker who rigged an auction, that editor was out on the streets, and today Izvestiya is a wholly owned propaganda organ of the FSB.)

After the financial collapse, it looked like the entire rotten Yeltsin-era liberal elite was heading for exile or jail, until their savior on the white horse — Vladimir Putin — rode in from Lubyanka to save Russia’s liberals. The Nemtsov of our fantasies would say that it was somehow out of character for him to support an authoritarian spook like Putin in 2000, well after Putin launched the second bloody war in Chechnya.

In fact, the liberals thought Putin was their Pinochet savior, and that they would essentially control him, that Putin was one of them. Which he largely was, and in many ways still is — cut from similar liberal authoritarian cloth.

Here are some choice quotes from Nemtsov’s op-ed, co-authored with Ian Bremmer, in the New York Times published in early 2000, after Putin was named Yeltsin’s successor:

Some critics have questioned Mr. Putin's commitment to democracy. True, he is no liberal democrat, domestically or internationally. Under his leadership Russia will not become France. The government will, however, reflect the Russian people's desire for a strong state, a functioning economy, and an end to tolerance for robber barons -- in short, a ''ruble stops here'' attitude. Russia could do considerably worse than have a leader with an unwavering commitment to the national interest...

And it is difficult to see how to do better.

... Mr. Putin's vocal support for a free-market economy boosted the prospects of reform candidates in the parliamentary elections last month and provided a firm footing for meaningful economic reform to be passed this year.

The reformers are back... Deep down Nemtsov had no problem with Putin’s authoritarianism. His problem with Putin came after being ignored for too long. As George Washington University professor Peter Reddaway wrote in his book on the dark Yeltsin years, “The Tragedy of Russia’s Reforms: Market Bolshevism Against Democracy”, Nemtsov supported a Yeltsin proposal in 1993 to create an unelected upper chamber, the Federation Council, consisting of appointed oligarchs, in order to marginalize the then-powerful, opposition-dominated Supreme Soviet parliament. One of the reasons Yeltsin brought him into his government in 1997 was to protect Yeltsin and the all-powerful presidency, as enshrined in the authoritarian 1993 constitution — the same presidential powers that allowed Putin to become who he is. As Yeltsin’s presidential power was being threatened again by the Duma, Nemtsov made his position on reducing presidential powers clear: “For Russia, the weakening of presidential power would be extremely deleterious. Those who insist on transforming Russia into a parliamentary republic are consciously or unconsciously pushing the country toward chaos.”

Reddaway, one of just a handful of American academics who got the Yeltsin catastrophe right (along with Stephen Cohen and Janine Wedel), concluded:

Nemtsov was recruited by Yeltsin because, unlike Yavlinsky, he believes in the salutary role of authoritarian institutions for Russia, be they monarchical or presidential. This view is evident from Nemtsov’s book, in which Yeltsin is depicted as a ‘genuine Russian tsar.’
After Putin won with the support of the free-market liberals, Nemtsov remained happy for the next few years as a leading voice in the Duma. Even after his liberal party got hammered in the 2003 elections, Nemtsov remained in the loyal opposition. But over time Putin had no need for a discredited liberal from the Yeltsin era, and by 2007, Nemtsov started warming up to the more radical opposition led by our former eXile columnist Eduard Limonov and chessmaster Garry Kasparov.

Still, up through 2008 — when I was last in Russia before the Kremlin closed my paper and one of their goons made some scary pronouncements over the radio about me — Nemtsov, like the other leading 90s-era liberals, hedged his opposition to Putin. He never seemed willing to burn all of his bridges with the Kremlin and go all-in as a radical oppositionist, not like Limonov anyway.

I asked Limonov why Nemtsov, Khakamada and the others still seemed to be hedging their opposition to Putin in 2007 — if it was because they were too covetous of their cozy bourgeois trappings they’d acquired since the Yeltsin years. Limonov’s answer is worth quoting:

It’s much more simple than that. The Putin regime is a liberal regime, so it’s natural that liberals like Khakamada or Nemtsov do not seriously oppose it. Just look at Putin’s economic program: Low taxes, concentration of wealth in oligarchs’ hands, strict budgets. The Kremlin’s ideology is basically the same as that of Nemtsov’s and Khakamada’s, so of course it makes no sense to confront them as my organization does. They can only argue over the details of this liberalism, over who should own what and how it should be implemented.
Nemtsov’s politics since he went into opposition were little changed from his politics when he rode into Yeltsin’s Kremlin in 1997: anti-corruption. It’s the same neoliberal tune, and it always has a funny way of turning out badly every time. Anti-corruption is not a politics, it’s some kind of aspiration that always has a way of leaning neoliberal, oligarchical, and authoritarian, at least in our times it does.

During the Yeltsin era, there were so many assassinations and hits on journalists and political figures that no one can even remember them: Vladislav Listyev, the TV presenter whose assassination hit Russians harder than any other murder I remember from that era, believed to have been killed by Yeltsin’s top “family” oligarch Boris Berezovsky; investigative reporter Dmitry Kholodov, who was killed with an exploding briefcase while investigating Yeltsin’s defense minister; liberal firebrand Galina Starovoitova, gunned down in her apartment stairwell in 1998. We don’t remember any of these murders as the fault of Yeltsin, nor the hundreds killed when Yeltsin sent tanks against his parliament in 1993, nor the tens of thousands killed in Yeltsin’s war in Chechnya. Those murders, and the deaths of millions who went to their graves early from the shock therapy reforms, are the fault of impersonal forces, not free-market liberalism and its western missionaries and funders.

Pity and sympathy and outrage aren’t resources we distribute fairly or evenly. Nemtsov’s murder matters more than Starovoitova’s or Listyev’s or Kholodov’s mattered because we don’t know anymore where Russia is heading, or who exactly Vladimir Putin represents. We know he’s more popular than ever, and that Russian liberalism is more marginalized than at any time since the collapse of the Soviet Union, and underneath that has been a kind of lingering anxiety that maybe we had something to do with that, that maybe we were a part of the problem. Just like Nemtsov was part of the problem.

But now Nemtsov’s dead, his bloated naked torso beamed on Livestream for all to gawk at. His murder is frightening for Russians who live there, but for us out here, it’s something more than that — a kind of karmic salvation, retroactively absolving all who played a part in Russia’s tragic post-Soviet history, a narrative arc that made no sense until Nemtsov was murdered at the foot of Putin’s Kremlin.

[Illustration by Brad Jonas for Pando]