It was easy to forget just how accomplished the Russian opposition figure Boris Nemtsov was. Sometimes combative and always competitive, the tall and imposing politician peppered his speech with the imaginative, often brilliant, cursing that helps give the Russian language its unique flavor. Much of it was reserved for Russian President Vladimir Putin, Nemtsov’s junior when both men were members of former President Boris Yeltin’s inner circle in the late 1990s.

Although he may not have coined it, Nemtsov was among the first to use “Putinism” to describe a regime he characterized as guided by the former KGB officer’s worldview. It includes the belief that democracy and freedom don’t really exist in the West. “No independent court system, no opposition, no press freedom,” he told me almost a decade ago, when many in the West were still wondering what kind of leader Putin was. “It’s a special cynical game against Russia. He believes in that. He always talked about that, even to me.”

Nemtsov, a famously eligible bachelor with a string of girlfriends and messy private life, was especially proud when he appeared bare-chested on the cover of the Russian edition of Men’s Health long before Putin ever got the idea. Nemtsov’s wasn’t the saggy bureaucrat’s body, but the robust physique of a much younger man. After meeting him in his sprawling apartment in one of Moscow’s neo-Gothic Stalin-era skyscrapers where he held court at the time, I left with several copies he pressed on me to distribute.

The macho drive was something of an odd fit with Nemtsov’s many intellectual and political feats, which often appeared to come effortlessly. A nuclear scientist who earned a doctorate in physics and mathematics at age 25, he led protests that helped halt the construction of a nuclear power plant after the Chernobyl disaster in the 1980s. Catching Yeltsin’s eye as a young legislator soon after, he was appointed governor of the Nizhnii Novgorod region, where he enacted controversial free-market reforms that became one of the great success stories of 1990s Russia. Brought to Moscow as a deputy prime minister who crusaded against corruption, he became Yeltsin’s anointed heir.

After the reform era came crashing down thanks to economic crisis in 1998, Nemtsov briefly backed Putin before transforming himself into a tireless opposition leader who never stopped campaigning for democracy and human rights. This despite his earlier role in the core group of Yeltsin loyalists who brought Putin to power, most of whom maintained far cushier lives by remaining silent. By leading opposition rallies, Nemtsov continually risked arrest—and worse thanks to his periodic reports on corruption at the highest levels. The theory that he was killed to stop the release of another investigation, this one into Russia’s role in Ukraine’s war, is as good as any other.

In short, Nemtsov was no ordinary Russian opposition figure. Others may have been as brave, as dedicated, and as intelligent to varying degrees, but none have matched his position as a symbol of post-Soviet promise who reached crowning heights in government and later upheld his ideals as a dogged Kremlin critic. In one sense, his death is just the latest in a long string of murders of politicians and journalists who tried to expose the lies on which Putin has built his narrative as the country’s savior. In another, though, his unique role in Russia makes his death an incalculable loss and the start of a dark new chapter for the country.

No doubt it will become darker still thanks to the hatred Putin has whipped up for his critics—or, as he calls them, a fifth column of liberals doing Washington’s bidding by working to divide the Russian people. Isolating Russia as its own civilization separate from the West has enabled Putin to brand his opponents as traitors and reinforce his authority over possible rivals within the elite by threatening to accuse them of the same. His critics have had a hard time responding partly because Russia lacks a tradition of loyal, constructive opposition. That helps explain why the majority of Russians seems to have accepted Putin’s painting of his rivals as radicals.

Putin invaded Ukraine as part of that project, with the aim of positioning himself as the leader of the United States’ main rival. Launching a new cold war with the West has played so well among Russians—thanks to state propaganda that exploits nostalgia for the Soviet Union—that they continue to embrace him even as Western sanctions erode their savings and Russia’s economy. Even the most horrific costs of his actions—human death, suffering, and misery—have had no apparent effect on Putin’s drive to boost his public approval ratings. That’s because he has built his power with an unflinching willingness to see civilians die, starting with his launching of a second war in Chechnya in 1999, when he became the butt of jokes after Yeltsin plucked him from obscurity by appointing him prime minister.

Although most experts at the time believed that victory would be impossible, Putin was unflinching: “We’ll wipe out the terrorists in their outhouses,” he vowed in the first of his crude public statements. For a population humiliated by economic crisis and loss of superpower status, Putin’s tough-guy manner was a magic salve.

To subdue Chechnya, he bombed it into the Stone Age. At least 25,000 civilians were killed, with another 5,000 people missing, according to Amnesty International, and no family escaped psychological trauma. But the conflict established Putin’s image as Russia’s undisputed strongman: His popularity skyrocketed; he won the presidency; he sidelined rivals and marginalized the opposition. Russia was his. From the hostage crisis in a Moscow theater two years later to the Beslan school siege in 2004, Putin refused to negotiate with Chechen militants, leading to more than 500 deaths.

Today, with the war in eastern Ukraine still pushing Putin’s public approval ratings above 80 percent, the death of almost 6,000 people since April—on top of more than 900,000 displaced—has had no discernable effect on Putin’s actions. Now accusations over Nemtsov’s murder will give him even more cause to continue ratcheting up Ukraine’s tragedy for his own benefit—and to accuse those who disagree with him of treason.

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  • GREGORY FEIFER is author of Russians: The People behind the Power, which was published in paperback with a new afterword in February.
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