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
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