'Russia will be free!' Thousands march on Moscow to honour slain opposition leader
Last Feb. 27, Boris Nemtsov, an outspoken critic of the Kremlin, was shot to death as he walked home. Now, demonstrators silently paid their respects, defied police and called for Vladimir Putin's removal from office
They walked largely in silence, but their numbers spoke for them: tens of thousands of Russians marching through Moscow, right to the spot outside the Kremlin walls where a key opposition leader was killed a year ago Saturday.
That so many took to the streets to mark the anniversary of Boris Nemtsov's murder was a loud rebuke of official inaction over his death, as well as a reminder that there is a significant number of people – at least in Moscow – who oppose the confrontational direction President Vladimir Putin has set for the country.
The somber quiet was occasionally broken by chants of "Russia without Putin!" and "Russia will be free!" – two of Mr. Nemtsov's rallying cries when he was at the head of louder protests against the Kremlin's authoritarianism.
The demonstrators defied a police order by filing to the Bolshoi Moskvoretsky Bridge once the officially sanctioned part of Saturday's march was over. As the sun set behind the Kremlin walls, thousands were still lining up to lay flowers at the spot where the 55-year-old Mr. Nemtsov – a regional governor and later deputy prime minister when Boris Yeltsin was president during the 1990s – was shot four times in the back as he walked home with his girlfriend last Feb. 27.
Thousands still waiting to lay flowers on bridge where Boris Nemtsov was killed one year ago today. pic.twitter.com/XrBDgCHuu9— Mark MacKinnon (@markmackinnon) February 27, 2016
Pro-Ukrainian marchers (including Crimean Tatar supporters) at Nemtsov memorial march in Moscow pic.twitter.com/q6dyzNETnU— Mark MacKinnon (@markmackinnon) February 27, 2016
The police seemed to be prepared for the move, and maintained a thick presence near the bridge. They didn't prevent the marchers from laying flowers, but repeatedly shouted over megaphones for the crowd to move quickly along and not linger at the spot.
One independent estimate put the crowd at 25,000, though opposition leaders said far more people attended. Police said just 7,500 attended, though that appeared to be a gross underestimate.
"I think Boris had a good view of this march today, up from above where he is. He wouldn't be ashamed of us," Vladimir Kara-Murza, a prominent opposition figure, told The Globe and Mail. Mr. Kara-Murza survived a severe poisoning shortly after Mr. Nemtsov's death last year.
"I don't think it was really a message to the Kremlin, I think it was a message to ourselves – it's a message that we're not afraid, we're not going to hide, we're not going to stop doing what we're doing, we're not going to run away, and we're going to continue what Boris did. [Even though] it is much more difficult without him."
Dmitry Gudkov, the lone opposition parliamentarian in Russia's 450-seat Duma, said the march sent a message to the Kremlin that many were unhappy with the official investigation into Mr. Nemtsov's killing. Five men have been charged, but "the people who ordered this murder are not under investigation," Mr. Gudkov said in an interview.
The message may have been received. Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov – the man many in the opposition believe was involved in both the assassination of Mr. Nemtsov and the poisoning of Mr. Kara-Murza – surprised many on Saturday by suggesting he might soon stand aside as regional president.
Though Mr. Kadyrov has never been questioned about Mr. Nemtsov's murder, three of the five suspects were fighters in a unit loyal to him. Mr. Kadyrov praised the alleged gunman, Zaur Dadayev, after his arrest as a "fearless and brave" Russian patriot.
The Chechen leader has also threatened other opposition figures in recent weeks as Saturday's anniversary approached, at one point posting an Instagram video that appeared to show Mr. Kara-Murza and another opposition leader, Mikhail Kasyanov, being watched through the scope of a sniper rifle.
"The nation's leadership needs to find another person so that my name isn't used against my people," Mr. Kadyrov said in televised remarks. "I say my time has passed."
Mr. Kara-Murza and Mr. Gudkov were both skeptical of the announcement, saying they expect Mr. Kadyrov – a protégé of Mr. Putin's, who controls a private militia recently estimated to number 30,000 men – will continue to wield wide influence in both Chechnya and Russia.