MOSCOW – Thousands of Russians prepared Saturday to honor the memory of opposition politician Boris Nemtsov, who was gunned down near the Kremlin a year ago in the highest-profile assassination of Vladimir Putin’s rule.
Anti-Kremlin activists urged ordinary Russians to join them on a memorial march through central Moscow, with other commemorative events planned across the country and abroad.
Before the start of the march, Russians brought flowers and candles to the bridge near the Kremlin walls where Nemtsov, a jovial 55-year-old with a mop of black curly hair, was killed.
U.S. Ambassador John Tefft was among those who came to pay respects, laying a wreath with a ribbon saying, “From the American people.”
On the eve of the anniversary, lawmaker Dmitry Gudkov, one of the few independent voices in the Russian parliament’s lower house, said he suggested that deputies observe a moment of silence in Nemtsov’s memory, but most of his colleagues refused.
Authorities allowed the opposition to hold a march through the city center but forbade activists from marching to the bridge where Nemtsov’s allies have struggled to maintain a makeshift shrine.
“The march in Nemtsov’s memory is also a march demanding a normal country and normal state where contract killings in the form similar to public executions do not take place,” wrote top opposition leader Alexei Navalny.
Nemtsov, a former deputy prime minister in the government of Boris Yeltsin, was gunned down shortly before midnight on Feb. 27, 2015, while walking across a bridge a short distance from the Kremlin with his Ukrainian model girlfriend.
Putin, whose rule has seen the steady suppression of independent media and opposition parties since he came to power in 2000, branded the killing a “provocation” and promised an all-out effort to catch the killers.
“Who dared?” a furious Putin asked his aides after Nemtsov was hit in the back by four fatal shots, the country’s top opposition Novaya Gazeta reported this past week.
Within weeks, five men — all Chechens from Russia’s restive North Caucasus — were arrested and charged with murder.
The five detainees — including Zaur Dadayev, a member of a Chechen interior ministry battalion who is accused of being the gunman — are now awaiting trial for what investigators say was a contract killing carefully planned over months.
But Nemtsov’s family and allies insist the authorities have failed to bring the masterminds to justice and point the finger of blame at Chechnya’s Moscow-backed strongman, Ramzan Kadyrov — and the Kremlin itself.
Political observers and anti-Kremlin activists say that over the past year things have only gotten worse, with tolerance for dissent shrinking.
Earlier this month, men — apparently from the North Caucasus — threw a cake at Nemtsov’s ally, former prime minister-turned-opposition activist Mikhail Kasyanov and shouted threats at him.
The Kremlin downplayed the cake-throwing attack, saying it should be in no way linked to Kadyrov.
Two weeks later, unidentified attackers threw a cake at Navalny.
Both attacks took place shortly after the Chechen strongman posted an Instagram image of Kasyanov in the crosshairs of a sniper’s rifle and called the opposition “enemies of the people.”
“They are trying to make the harassment of the opposition look like a farce but this does not mean that directors of the cheap comedies would refuse more brutal genres,” liberal daily Vedomosti said in an editorial.