By Rob Hastings
Rob is Special Projects Editor at i. He won the Legal Reporting Award in 2019 and was shortlisted for the Washington Post’s Laurence Stern Fellowship and Amnesty’s Gaby Rado Prize in 2015.
November 13, 2022
Zhanna Nemtsova, the daughter of former Russian deputy prime minister Boris Nemtsov, is glad that London is naming a place in his honour
It was just after midnight that Zhanna Nemtsova suddenly woke in her Moscow flat to the noise of her mother screaming. “I heard her crying and yelling,” she recalls. “I thought perhaps an intruder had broken into the apartment because she sounded terrified.
“She came into my room and said my father was shot, he is dead. I said no, this is nonsense. I turned on my phone and I got a lot of messages from my friends and colleagues. I started to check the news and it was everywhere.”
Her father was Boris Nemtsov, a former deputy prime minister of Russia who in the late 90s was seen as a frontrunner as replace Boris Yeltsin as president. But history took a different road with Vladimir Putin coming to power, and Mr Nemtsov soon became one of his biggest political opponents.
When he was killed on 27 February 2015, Mr Nemtsov had been speaking out against the Kremlin’s proxy invasion of Crimea and Eastern Ukraine for over a year. Now he was lying cold on the Bolshoi Moskvoretsky Bridge with four bullets in his back. The one that entered his heart killed him instantly.
“I knew it was Putin who did it,” Nemtsova, 38, tells i. “Immediately I was like: it’s Putin, Putin, Putin! And I was right. He is responsible criminally – he ordered my father’s assassination.” Boris Nemtsov, whose body is seen here shrouded in plastic, was murdered in the centre of Moscow in 2015 (Photo: Sasha Mordovets/Getty Images)
Russian authorities deny any involvement. But Nemtsov was shadowed by an FSB agent linked to a political hit team on 13 trips for nearly a year before he was killed, an investigation by Bellingcat, The Insider and the BBC found in March.
Nemtsov is now commemorated at home and abroad as a martyr to the causes of democracy and freedom in Russia. Monday will see the latest tribute to his memory and values when his name is placed on the map of London. A road junction in Highgate will be named as Boris Nemtsov Place on Monday morning by the local authority, Camden council.
Its short distance from the Russian Trade Delegation and Defence Attaché’s Office is no coincidence. This is the latest location to be named in Nemtsov’s honour in cities around the world, each one a symbolic choice which might rile any visiting Russian state officials.
In Washington DC, Boris Nemtsov Plaza is outside the Russian Embassy. Kyiv has a Boris Nemtsov Square similiarly near to Moscow’s diplomatic centre, and Vilnius, Bratislava and Prague have also named areas after him. A sign for ‘Boris Nemtsov Plaza’ is visible near the Russian Embassy in the US capital, Washington DC (Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
The British addition to the list is thanks to the campaigning of Nemtsov’s trusted colleague Vladimir Kara-Murza. The Russian dissident, who holds British citizenship and worked in London as a journalist after studying at Cambridge, suggested the roundabout to the local council personally after walking around the area.
Kara-Murza will be unable to attend, however – having been poisoned by Russian agents twice in the past, he is now in pre-trial detention in Moscow after criticising the invasion of Ukraine earlier this year.
Although Nemtsova will not be at Monday’s event, she is touched by Camden Council’s accolade for her father. “There is a big Russian-speaking community in London,” she explains. “This gives them somewhere to meet and protest against Putin, as my father is a unifying figure for different opposition groups.”
Indeed, videos of his inspirational anti-Putin and anti-war speeches still go viral seven years after his murder. Nemtsova shows me a three-minute clip of him that was recently shared by a media organisation in Germany and attracted 1.5 million views within a day. “In this video, he speaks about Putin’s destiny, how he is doing crazy things to remain in power and that it will end badly,” she says.
In footage of a speech condemning Russia’s invasion of Crimea at a protest in 2014, Nemtsov tells a crowd: “We must say no to war. We must call for an end to this senile insanity. We must demand a Russia and a Ukraine without Putin. Glory to Russia! Glory to Ukraine!”
“It’s incredible that these old videos are still getting millions of views,” says Nemtsova, a journalist who is co-host of the podcast Another Russia with Ben Rhodes, a former adviser to former US President Barack Obama. She is also co-founder of the Boris Nemtsov Foundation for Freedom, a non-profit human rights organisation.
“People keep discovering Boris and praising his analysis of Putin’s policies,” she continues. “In 2008 he predicted that Russia would face sanctions, economic isolation and degradation. He understood the situation with Ukraine. Just one week before his assassination, he compared Putin to Hitler.
“He’s describing the things that are happening now. We are a pariah in the world, kicked out of international organisations. There is no trust in Russia any more. The bloody, brutal and senseless war in Ukraine is raging on. It’s absolutely inhumane, a full-scale catastrophe – and my father predicted it.
“My father was an anti-war crusader. He was probably the only one who understood Putin’s plans and now it’s clear why he didn’t want him to be around. So that’s why, with 90 per cent probability, I think Putin knew about it, he was in favour of it and he was the one who inspired this killing.”
The body of Boris Nemtsov covered with plastic on the Bolshoi Moskvoretsky Bridge, in view of Moscow’s St Basil Cathedral and a short distance from the Kremlin (Photo: AFP via Getty Images)
At the murder scene
News of Boris Nemtsov’s murder shocked the world. The Ukrainian President at the time, Petro Poroshenko, called him a “bridge between Ukraine and Russia”, saying: “The murderers’ shot has destroyed it. I think it is not by accident.”
Obama also condemned the “vicious killing”, saying: “I admired Nemtsov’s courageous dedication to the struggle against corruption in Russia and appreciated his willingness to share his candid views with me when we met in Moscow in 2009.” He implored the Russian government “to conduct a prompt, impartial, and transparent investigation”.
Five Chechen men were tried and found guilty over the murder in 2017, but Nemtsov’s family said this was part of a cover-up, with the court not allowing questions about Nemtsov’s political leanings to be heard.Russian police detaining Boris Nemtsov during a protest in 2007 (Photo: Sergei Kulikov/AFP via Getty Images)
The anti-Putin campaigner, Bill Browder, is among those who sees Nemtsov as a “legend”. In his book Freezing Order, he describes how Nemtsov was walking through Moscow with his Ukrainian girlfriend, Anna Durytska, when “an assassin jumped from a darkened stairway on the side of the bridge and shot Boris”.
Browder writes: “The authorities cleared the scene, and a street cleaning truck arrived. It sprayed water across the bridge, erasing any chance of a proper forensic investigation.
“The Russian government had announced that all CCTV cameras surrounding the Bolshoy Moskvoretsky Bridge had been switched off for “maintenance” the night before. This was utterly implausible… Everything the authorities did following his murder showed they had no intention of getting to the truth.
“Instead of chasing proper leads, they raided Boris’s apartment and office, seizing his files, computers, phones, hard drives, and anything connected with his political activities. They were more interested in knowing who was assisting him in his opposition to Putin than establishing who had killed him.”Zhanna Nemtsova with her late father’s colleague Vladimir Kara-Murza at hearings in Washington DC in 2018 (Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
“Everything the authorities did following his murder showed they had no intention of getting to the truth”Anti-Putin campaigner Bill Browder
When Nemtsova heard what had happened, she and her mother decided to travel to the scene. “It was not far away from my apartment, but it was raining and it was very cold, so I called a taxi to drive us there,” she says.
“The radio was on and a news reporter was talking about my father’s assassination. The driver said something like: ‘Why do you care about that?’ I said: ‘I’m his daughter.’ And then there was silence because he did not expect that.
“But what he said speaks a lot about the prevailing mood in Russia before the recent conscription announcement. ‘Ukraine is not my back yard, these are things that we do not understand and it will not affect us. It was a very important and revealing moment for me.
“When we got there, they had cordoned off the area, so you couldn’t get to the spot. They checked our passports. There was nothing to see because they had put my father’s body into a plastic bag and it was in an ambulance.”
The story behind Boris Nemtsov Place
The idea of naming the north London junction of Highgate Road, Highgate West Hill and Swains Lane after Boris Nemtsov came from Vladimir Kara-Murza, explains Georgia Gould, the leader of Labour-run Camden Council.
“He came to see me because we have the Russian Trade Delegation in the borough and London was a really important site for them,” says Gould.
“He’d gone around the local area and looked at potential locations. For me, it felt like a very small act we could take to support those risking their lives for democracy and freedom in Russia and fighting in Ukraine.”The junction in Highgate that will be named Boris Nemtsov Place (Photo: Google Streetview)
The borough has a history of supporting movements like this, she says, having named a street after Nelson Mandela in the 80s while the anti-apartheid campaigner was still in prison in South Africa.
Kara-Murza approached Gould just before he returned to Russia in April, she says. “I asked: ‘Are you sure you should be going back if that’s a risk?’ He said that he couldn’t ask people in Russia to come out on the streets and to defend democracy if he wasn’t prepared to be there himself.
“Very shortly afterwards, he was arrested. But he’s continued to support this from prison, which I think shows how much it it means.” His wife, Evgenia Kara-Murza will be attending Monday’s event on his behalf.Evgenia Kara-Murza (Photo: Joe Klamar/AFP via Getty Images)
Some local residents are concerned about potential safety risks of the area becoming associated with anti-Putin campaigns and say the council’s consultation was insufficient. They point to allegations of a Russian plot to harm Prague’s mayor, Zdenêk Hřib, in 2020 after he supported the city renaming the square in front of the Russian embassy in honour of Nemtsov.
Helen Rapley, who lives a short distance from the roundabout and is co-founder of the Highgate Village Green Preservation Society, says: “It’s just drawing attention to us. Boris Nemtsov has never been to Highgate, has nothing to do with Highgate… It’s completely unnecessary and possibly potentially dangerous.”
She also feels that Camden’s renaming decision was a fait accompli as Monday’s event was announced before the consultation of local residents had ended, which Rapley says didn’t last long enough and should have allowed more ways to respond.
Gould explains: “Because Evgenia was coming over to receive an award, we put some provisional plans in place. But we were really clear from the start that no final decision about whether the event should to go ahead would happen until after the consultation concluded.”
She adds: “We followed the standard consultation process for any kind of naming like this. Of 130 people who came forward, 58 per cent were in support. I was written to by a number of Russian dissidents in Camden, who said how much this act meant to them in showing solidarity to the campaign for democracy.”
Tens of thousands of Russian people marched in memory of Boris Nemtsov a few days after his murder (Photo: Sasha Mordovets/ etty Images)
Russian dissidents refuse to be silenced
The first person Zhanna Nemtsova met at the scene of her father’s murder was Vladimir Kara-Murza. “He is a person who is very much respected abroad,” she says. “He knows how to communicate to audiences in Western countries. It’s a very rare skill that I value very much. He’s very well connected and a good speaker who can convince people in Europe and the US to promote the Russian opposition.”
Nemtsov’s murder prompted a mass demonstration by people marching through Moscow, and protests have been since held on the anniversary of his death ever since. Among those to have attended is Alexey Navalny, Russia’s most famous opposition leader who has been jailed by Putin’s dictatorship after he survived a poisoning. Alexei Navalny takes part in a march in Moscow in memory of Boris Nemtsov in 2018 (Photo: Sefa Karacan/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
“Navalny is extremely courageous, very strong and an innovative leader. He created political YouTube and understood the potential of internet campaigning. He is also a good person, a decent and honest man,” says Nemtsova, who considers him a friend.
“I’m very worried about his health condition. He’s not only serving his term in a maximum-security penal colony, but he is regularly placed in solitary confinement which is a form of torture.”
“Navalny is extremely courageous, very strong and an innovative leader”Zhanna Nemtsova
Nemtsova left Russia a few months after her father’s murder for her own safety. She worked in Germany for five years and now lives in Portugal.
“If you compare a life in an autocracy, and a life in a democracy, I would choose life as an exile in a democracy. In Russia, I didn’t have a sense of security and I couldn’t fit into the system. I am a democrat at heart. Zhanna Nemtsova has been able to find happiness living abroad after having to leave Russia following her father’s murder (Photo: Alexei Todosko)
“I had a lot of difficult periods in my life, but now I’m just laughing at what I’ve had to go through, like when I moved to Germany and couldn’t speak any words in their language. It was challenging but I have funny stories about integration. I cannot complain about my life.”
“Now I am absolutely comfortable living in almost any European country. I can speak English quite well, but also German and Italian and some Portuguese. The foundation is registered in Germany and we have a lot of projects in the Czech Republic. I’m based in Portugal right now because my husband is a citizen of Portugal.
“I don’t have nostalgia about Russia, as it is now a very difficult country to live in. Many people have left but there are others who cannot do that for many reasons: they have old parents there, they have financial constraints. They are in a very difficult situation – they do not support the war, they are against Putin, but they can’t speak out because they can be put into prison.”