Death of Russian democratic leader hits home for Alaskan

The Feb. 27 murder of Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov has cast a dark cloud over an already stormy relationship between Russia and the West. For me, it is also a personal tragedy.

Twenty-two years ago next month, I arrived on an overnight train from Moscow in the gritty industrial city of Nizhny Novgorod. Its regional governor was a 32-year-old physicist named Boris Nemtsov.

I was there on a four-month stint as a volunteer media adviser to Nemtsov's administration under the auspices of the National Forum Foundation, an international democracy-building institute.

Like most Americans, I had never heard of Nizhny Novgorod, despite its status as Russia's third-largest city with 1.5 million people. After several visits to the Russian Far East as press secretary to former Alaska Gov. Steve Cowper, I had caught the Russian bug and wanted to live and work there.

Alaska statehood pioneer and Russian expert Vic Fischer advised me to explore Nizhny Novgorod because a new generation of young upstarts there was leading the country's reforms during the perestroika era.

In the Russian heartland on the banks of the Volga River 260 miles east of Moscow, it couldn't have happened in a more surprising place. Stalin renamed the city Gorky in honor of locally born writer Maxim Gorky, after Gorky became an apologist for the Soviet dictator's excesses. Dissident Andrei Sakharov spent seven long years there in KGB-enforced exile. The manufacturing hub of Soviet MiG fighter jets and nuclear subs, Nizhny Novgorod was long closed to westerners to protect state secrets.

In that challenging environment, Nemtsov came to politics opposing construction of a nuclear power plant. As governor, he adopted reforms rejected at the national level by President Mikhail Gorbachev. He privatized hundreds of collective farms, beauty parlors and grocery stores and even issued a local currency, dubbed "Nemtsovki," usable by average citizens instead of the inflexible national ruble.


During my time there, international journalists and politicians such as Margaret Thatcher descended by droves on a modest privatized cheese shop that served as a tasty contrast between failed Soviet socialism and private-sector capitalism.

Nemtsov was witty, brash and as impatient about getting things done as any politician I've seen. I still remember my sheer terror as a passenger in a car he insisted on personally driving to a TV interview at speeds that would rival a NASCAR driver.

President Boris Yeltsin brought Nemtsov to Moscow in the late 1980s as first deputy prime minister with special responsibility for reforming Russia's corrupt and inefficient energy sector. Nemtsov's national poll numbers soared and Yeltsin reportedly introduced him to Bill Clinton as his chosen successor.

But after the Russian economic crash in the late 1990s and Vladimir Putin's rise to power, Nemtsov led efforts to oppose Putin's impending dictatorship. He continued his forceful advocacy for democratic and economic reforms that were praised by American politicians from President Barack Obama to Sen. John McCain.

During several of Nemtsov's visits to Washington, D.C., when I was working for U.S. Sen. Mark Begich, I hosted sessions between him and congressional foreign policy experts. He was especially critical of Russia's intervention into Ukraine and was to issue a new report about it on the eve of his death.

The conspiracy theories already are rampant about who put four bullets into Nemtsov's back on whose orders in the shadow of St. Basil's Cathedral. His death seems to have given at least temporary courage to his fellow citizens, an estimated 50,000 of whom defied authorities to march in his memory in Moscow's streets.

In the longer term, many fear Nemtsov's murder could be an excuse for even more severe crackdowns on dwindling Russian liberties and dissent. Stalin used the 1934 assassination of a Bolshevik leader in Leningrad's city hall to launch a wave of terror.

Others foresee this high-profile crime as the green light the Kremlin wants to escalate Russian expansionism in Ukraine and elsewhere. Russian leaders have long capitalized on fear of outside extremist forces to build public support for controversial initiatives.

From my encounters with Boris Nemtsov, I'll remember him as a new generation Russian leader of great courage and selfless sacrifice.

David Ramseur is a former aide to two Alaska governors and Sen. Mark Begich and is researching a book on Alaska-Russian Far East relations.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com

David Ramseur

David Ramseur is a former aide to two Alaska governors and Sen. Mark Begich, and the author of “Melting the Ice Curtain: The Extraordinary Story of Citizen Diplomacy on the Russia-Alaska Frontier.”