It was a personal shocker to read of the murder in Moscow of Russian reformer Boris Nemtsov, the latest in a long string of killings related to the tragic fight for change in that country.
Nemtsov was gunned down Friday in a drive-by shooting as he walked across Moskvoretsky Bridge a short distance from the Kremlin and Red Square.
The outspoken 55-year-old former nuclear physicist turned government official was a key figure in the far more hopeful years of the early 1990s when bright young people tried (in vain) to move Russia beyond the kleptocracy of the Communist era.
Nemtsov pushed capitalist reforms by trying to root out corruption. He simplified establishing businesses by taking the registration process out of the hands of crooked bureaucrats. He advocated transparency in bidding contracts. More recently, he revealed billions of dollars in payoffs at the Russian Winter Olympics last year at Sochi.
Naturally, Nemtsov ran afoul of Vladimir Putin, the former KGB officer who beat out Nemtsov as Boris Yeltsin’s successor. Putin is the spearhead of the old power elite that has seized control over the past 15 years, rolled back democratic reforms, unleashed a torrent of inside business deals, and pushed the worst military conflict in the region (Crimea and Ukraine) since the Cold War.
Nemtsov was due to lead a Moscow protest rally against Putin’s bloody Ukrainian adventurism that has killed 5,800 people. He was to stand in for Alexei Navalny another reformer who has been imprisoned for handing out leaflets at a subway station.
As he was taking a walk on an unusually warm winter evening, a car drove up. Six shots were fired. Nemtsov was killed by four bullets.
He is the fifth person – either Russian or foreign – that I have dealt with personally who has been murdered. I reported from Moscow for BusinessWeek in the 1980s and 1990s.
Here are a few examples: American businessman Paul Tatum involved in a dispute with a Chechen partner was slain by 11 bullets to the head and neck at a subway station that I used to frequent. Paul Klebnikov, an American editor of Russian-language Forbes magazine, was shot near his apartment. Russian investigative journalist Yuri Shchekochikin, a friend who got me an assignment to write for Literaturnaya Gazetta, died in an apparent poisoning.
I had interviewed Nemtsov back when he was pushing far-reaching and radical change in the the city of Nizhniy Novgorod, formerly known as Gorky, east of Moscow.
He is the highest-profile reformer to be killed during the regime of Putin who says it was a contract killing and that he will oversee the investigation “personally.”