A Film of Shakespearean Proportions: Kara-Murza's "Nemtsov"
I had never heard of Boris Nemtsov before I attended a screening of Nemtsov, a film directed by Russian dissident Vladimir Kara-Murza, last Wed. Jan. 31. The movie tells a story of Shakespearean proportions — a nonfiction tragedy chronicling the rise and fall of one of Russia’s most powerful liberal leaders. Russia’s rise from the ashes of Communism and fall into the clutches of authoritarianism is mirrored by Nemtsov’s ascendancy and descent within Russia’s government. The movie portrays Nemtsov as a figure of unparalleled integrity, illuminated by the highest aspirations of mankind, caught between his ideals and the reality of modern Russia.
Nemtsov follows this great Russian leader from his political birth in the Soviet province of Gorky to the height of his career in the Kremlin, and back down to a grassroots protester. In 1986, Nemtsov, then a young and brilliant radio-physicist, began leading protests against the Soviet government’s plans to install an experimental nuclear reactor in Gorky. His intellect and charm distinguished Nemtsov within Russia’s burgeoning liberal movement, and he won a seat in the Supreme Soviet during the first free elections. In 1991, Boris Yeltsin named Nemtsov as the new governor of Nizhny Novgorod — the Russian oblast formerly known as Gorky — at the age of 32.
The movie conveys the extent to which Nemtsov transformed Nizhny Novgorod through archival footage, anecdotes, and testimonials, all blended together into the image of good, liberal government. Nemtsov reformed Nizhny Novgorod’s economy; liberalizing the industries to promote private ownership and business growth. He pumped public money into extensive infrastructure projects, and created the oblast’s own provisional currency. He won reelection in 1995 in a landslide; and in 1997, he was appointed first deputy prime minister of Russia. Kara-Murza bolsters Nemtzov’s reputation using compelling testimonials from former Russian leaders, activists, and witnesses.
Eventually Nemtsov’s own integrity proves to be his downfall. Nemtsov portrays an incorruptible administrator in the highest levels of government, besieged by the oligarchs at every turn. Despite being named Yeltsin’s successor to the Presidency, Nemtsov resigns his position in government following the collapse of the Russian economy. He is slandered in the presses, still primarily owned by his monopolistic opponents, and cast down from his exalted position. The movie artfully turns on a dime, remaking Nemtsov into a tragic revolutionary. Marza utilizes photographs taken inside legislative chambers with Nemtzov, and footage of him on the street to vividly display downfall and fierce resistance.
The next sixteen years of Nemtsov’s life are dedicated to opposing the Putin regime’s increasing authoritarianism. Again and again he is elected to various positions in the Russian government, and perpetually cast back down. Eventually Nemtsov is effectively barred from holding public office, and turns his reform efforts to the streets, leading mass protests and strikes. He is arrested continuously -- beaten, sentenced, cast out -- but never broken. Kara-Murza’s Nemtsov becomes a metaphor for the liberal movement in Russia, portraying Boris Nemtsov as a tireless crusader for liberalism. By casting him as the vanguard of Russian resistance, the film gives us a glimpse into the Russian opposition. From its height in the late 1990s to its oppression under the boot of authoritarianism, the Russian liberal movement has never been broken.
The movie is a paradoxically hopeful tragedy, a glimpse into a people’s hopes that were so close to being realized, a dream deferred but not forgotten. Perhaps this is why there is no mention of Nemtsov’s 2015 assassination in front of the Kremlin. Boris Nemtsov may be gone, but what he lived for is not.