MOSCOW – It was near closing time on Friday at the upscale Bosco restaurant, which 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 and 2012 posed the first public challenge to Putin’s decadelong rule.
The rally now has been canceled, replaced with a march in Nemtsov’s honor.
The pair were among the last to pay their bill in the restaurant, which has high airy ceilings and large windows.
At around 11 p.m. Nemtsov, 55, a tall athletic figure with a mop of curly brown graying hair, escorted his girlfriend of some three years, Anna Duritskaya, more than 30 years younger, out onto Red Square.
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-colored onion domes of St. Basil’s Cathedral. Beyond that soared the Kremlin’s Spassky Gate, topped with a glowing crimson five-pointed star — another reminder of the Soviet past.Farther down the slope, they walked onto the Great Moskvoretsky Bridge.
Nemtsov never made it across.
Less than three hours later, policemen were washing his blood from the masonry 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 outsize character pulled some into his orbit and pushed others away, at times polarizing the fractious opposition.
For Nemtsov, the biggest opponent sat in the Kremlin.
Only hours before the attack, Nemtsov had given one of his last interviews, criticizing 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.
Former intelligence officials, analysts and activists said the killing of Nemtsov bore all the signs of having been planned and executed by professionals.
“This was a well-prepared murder,” said Gennady Gudkov, an opposition activist and former secret service officer, on Saturday. “There must be a powerful, influential organization behind it.” That may include a “rogue” organization intent on intimidating the opposition, he said.
World leaders, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, called on Putin to ensure that the murder is fully investigated.
“There is already a list of unsolved political murders and attacks in Russia,” the rights group Amnesty International said. “We cannot allow Boris Nemtsov to become just another name on this list.”
Putin on Saturday blamed the killing on foes trying to discredit the Kremlin. He condemned it as a “provocation” and said he was placing the investigation under presidential control; it will be led by Russia’s criminal investigative committee. In a telegram to Nemtsov’s mother, he promised the killers would be found so “the organizers and perpetrators of a vile and cynical murder get the punishment they deserve.”
There was a time when Nemtsov’s own sights were set on the country’s top seat of power. Amid 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: 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.
In recent years, Nemtsov had become a greater thorn in Putin’s side, compiling reports on sensitive topics — such as one that tried to expose the scale of corruption at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics.
Russian role in war
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.
“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 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, but still.”
Former Lithuanian Prime Minister Andrius Kubilius said Saturday that Nemtsov had considered asking Lithuania for asylum in 2012, saying he feared persecution by the Kremlin.
Kubilius said he had promised Nemtsov a safe haven in Lithuania during a private conversation on the sidelines of his party’s congress in 2012, but Nemtsov ultimately decided to stay in Russia.
“Nemtsov said he was feeling threatened that he could be arrested and put in jail” following the opposition’s protests against Putin’s third presidential term in 2012, Kubilius said on Saturday.
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.
A law enforcement source told the Russian news agency Interfax that in the minutes leading up to the shooting, a spotter for the attackers had watched the pair turn on to 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 previously.
Navalny wrote on his Facebook page on Saturday that he knew people were following the leaders of the demonstration, which planned to protest against political and economic policies that the opposition says are leading Russia to ruin.
Weeks previously, he had met in private with Nemtsov, only to have Nemtsov later recount to him in a telephone call how he was later called by a pro-Kremlin reporter asking about the details of the two men’s supposedly secret meeting.
“We all saw many times the publication of (video and voice recordings) of Nemtsov,” wrote Navalny. “I practically rule out that surveillance was not being carried out on Boris Nemtsov last night,” he wrote.
It was a 10-minute car drive to Bosco from the radio station facilities of Ekho 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, Ekho 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 afraid.”