Olga Romanova: Fishman on the country and Nemtsov
Olga Romanova

3 May 2022

Olga Romanova reviews Mikhail Fishman’s new book: Преемник. История Бориса Немцова и страны, в которой он не стал президентом [The Successor. The history of Boris Nemtsov and the country in which he did not become president], Moscow, Corpus, 2022. pp624)

Source: Moscow Helsinki Group [original source: The New Times]

Sex and politics combined? Simple. Lessons from Boris Nemtsov

When I wrote about Mikhail Fishman’s new book on Facebook, someone left a comment saying that another “brick” had come out that no-one would read. He also questioned whether there was anything left that we didn’t already know about Nemtsov. 

I knew Boris Nemtsov for a long time, but it never occurred to me to read Fishman to discover new information about him or to admire his genius. It’s certainly no life of a saint. And yes, at 624 pages, the book is a brick. A brilliant, exciting and adventurous piece. Boris Nemtsov isn’t even the main character but acts as the connective tissue. It is a simple, yet detailed account of Russia over the last thirty years. It speaks of important people and figures in the shadows, wars and coups, secrets and power. Of the ability to make friends and to negotiate, of lies and betrayal, dreams, the youth and the collapse of a country.

My God, we’ve lived a vibrant, spectacular life. We dreamt, fought, made mistakes, loved, fallen down, built up barricades and parties, voted, boycotted, quarrelled and believed again. So, how on earth did we lose?

There is not a word of this in the book. Nevertheless, the book concerns just that. There is no speculation, no conjecture or philosophising, just well laid-out facts. There is no ‘on the one hand’, ‘while on the other hand’. Just facts alone. Many of which I had forgotten or considered unimportant, and many I did not know.

Mikhail Fishman is not just a popular video blogger – I’m not even sure how this is perceived these days – he is more than a ‘good journalist’. Or maybe less? Fishman is darn good at writing structured texts – a rare art and one which has almost been forgotten. He somehow manages very naturally and unobtrusively to be present in the historical canvas, observing not Gods from a political Olympus, but ordinary life – the moth effect.

Let’s look at an example. Do you know who Nikolai Ashin is? No, neither did I. Not that life would have been different without this knowledge. Nothing like that. But all of a sudden, we clearly see the image of a laboratory, where someone is looking at test tubes with the partially erased names of “Boris Nemtsov”, “Misha Fishman” or “Olya Romanova,” and is shaking the test tubes and adding one to another. Maybe they even admire the result or instead they sigh and pour our solutions down the sink, to begin a new experiment. 

And this is how it is with Nikolai Ashin; a young physicist, member of the Komsomol, and an employee of the theoretical physics department of the Nizhny Novgorod Research Radio Physics Institute. He wrote an article for a kind of press outlet – a little more than a wall newspaper, but smaller than a factory newsletter. These were decisive times as it was the beginning of Perestroika. Nikolai Ashin had watched Abdurashidze’s ‘Repentance’ and resolutely demanded: 

“The arbitrariness, impunity of some of the most provincial, even freelance officers [of the KGB] over the decades, has created an inescapable animal fear, which has now become an inherent Russian trait, and one which is genetic, passed down from one generation to the next. Holding our own Nuremberg Trials for these perpetrators would help us move beyond this legacy.”

The article caused an uproar within the institute. Ashin’s friend and colleague, the 28-year-old physicist Boris Nemtsov, wrote a response, which appeared in the paper’s next issue. This was Nemtsov’s first public political statement. Prior to this moment, he hadn’t expressed any real interest in politics or any intention of getting involved.

‘[Ashin’s] article is written in stirring, honest, bold, emotional tones – which naturally draws the reader in. However, the author makes a number of propositions I cannot support,’ Nemtsov wrote. ‘I am referring, first and foremost, to his proposition to hold Nuremburg-style trials for the people involved in the Stalinist repressions. The problem is, most of these people are either dead or else old and feeble. Of course, the desire for retribution runs strong, but vengeance and bloodlust can hardly lead to a morally lofty starting point, and, after all, the goal of these kinds of events ought to be moral catharsis. Not to mention the fact that, even if a trial were to be held, the jurors would immediately be faced with insurmountable difficulties: lack of access to archives and documents, as well as, ultimately, a lack of official support. In short, it’s a tempting proposition, but hardly a realistic one. In my opinion, it would be more practical to raise funds for a monument (even a modest obelisk or plaque) for the victims of the Stalinist terror. 

Huh? What’s that? Agree, disagree? It’s a powder keg. Of course, the old people in question would be completely different now. I find myself wanting to shout back through the ages to young Nemtsov: ‘Boris, you’ve got it wrong!’ Hm, yes… It seems I’m not the first one to have that response.  

The book is full of incredible stories. For example, opening up to a page at random, you might discover the secret of how Yegor Gaidar became prime minister – and the role Lev Ponomarev, Russia’s most senior human rights advocate, and the late priest Gleb Yakunin played in it (spoiler alert: it was a big one):

…Ponomarev and Yakunin had another mission, too: to recommend a candidate for prime minister to Yeltsin on behalf of Democratic Russia… And so, when Gaidar and Chubais found out that Ponomarev was meeting with potential candidates and went to him for support, they already had something to show him, and they convinced him that they were prepared to take charge of the government. Ponomarev was particularly impressed with the fact that Gaidar hadn’t come alone, but with a team. ‘We discussed it among the Democratic Russia council and decided that we would recommend Gaidar’s team to Yeltsin: they were professionals who were familiar with contemporary European economics,’ Ponomarev recalled. Ponomarev and Yakunin were greeted at the gates of the presidential residence at Bocharov Ruchei, Sochi by Yeltsin’s head of security, Aleksandr Korzhakov. They were received by Yeltsin the following morning; Burbulis was also in attendance.”

What happened next? You’ll have to read the book to find out. 

And of course the Ukrainian section of Boris Nemtsov’s biography is brilliant. 

But again, that’s not the right word. To understand Boris Nemtsov’s time in Ukraine, you have to understand the country itself. I’ll  give a brief example from the book. 

It was 2004.  A Donetsk businessman by the name of Klyuev suggested a slogan for Yanukovych, the governor of Donetsk Oblast: ‘We won’t let them divide Ukraine into three tiers!’ [the ‘good’ west, the ‘middling’ center, and the ‘bad’ east] – as if that were Yushchenko’s camp’s vision for Ukraine’s future.

“As it happened, Yanukovich represented the interests of the east with its strong economy generating 70 per cent of GDP, its coal mines and desire to be closer to Russia; in the west, there was almost total support for Yushchenko and he himself symbolised the European choice. The position of them both was unshakeable in their home territories. The fight was for the centre of the country. Yanukovich lost outright in the capital. Kiev, although fundamentally a Russian-speaking city, backed Yushchenko. While Yanukovich’s spin doctors depicted Yushchenko as a Banderite and fascist who was planning to eliminate the Russian language and sever relations with Russia, Kiev was outraged at Yanukovich’s criminal past and this outrage was shored up by fear of the “boys from Donetsk” who had earned themselves a reputation as mafiosi and gangsters as far back as the 90s. In addition, Yanukovich was Kuchma’s placeman and after the cassette scandal Kuchma had lost his standing in Kiev. Yanukovich had to distance himself from Kuchma, recalls a staffer at his headquarters but he was afraid. Yushchkenko was the absolute opposite of Yanukovich. Not only did he oppose Kuchma but he had an impeccable reputation as not just an honest man but an intelligent and handsome one to boot. “Our lad,” says a spin doctor who worked in Ukraine. “At that time, every mother wanted a son like Yushchenko.” Nevertheless, by the start of the autumn, Yanukovich, who had recently entered the race, was gaining on Yushchenko. The sociologists reckoned their chances were pretty much the same.

“Right from the start, the Kremlin made no secret of the fact that it was banking on Yanukovich. Condoleezza Rice, who was national security advisor to President Bush at the time, recalls in her memoirs that when she was in Moscow in May 2004, Putin was showing her around his residence in Novo-Ogarevo. “Within a few minutes,” Rice writes, “Yanukovich emerged from a side room. ‘Oh, please, meet Viktor,’ Putin said. ‘He is a candidate for president of Ukraine.’  I greeted the pro-Russian politician and took the message that Putin had intended: the United States should know that Moscow had a horse in the race.”  Putin, of course, imagined that he was introducing Ukraine’s future president to the highly-placed American official. It was then too that Putin first appeared in public with Yanukovich as Kuchma’s official successor and congratulated him on his successes in the economy. The conviction prevailed at the time not only in the Kremlin but in many Kiev offices as well that it was impossible to become president of Ukraine without endorsement from Moscow.

The Kremlin invested solidly in its support for Yanukovich. Gazprom slashed the price for gas to Ukraine from 80 to 50 dollars and new tax agreements between Putin and Kuchma subsidised the Ukrainian economy to the tune of another 800 million dollars. These gifts in September enabled Yanukovich to effectively double Ukrainian pensions. The more time passed, the more aggressively Russian television campaigned for Yanukovich while a landing force of Moscow spin doctors stormed into Kiev.” 

Forgive me for the very long quotation. But that’s the problem. Vladimir Vysotsky bequeathed us the line, “I open any page of the [Criminal] Code and I can’t help myself – I read it to the end.” I need to stop and give you chance to read it for yourselves. I highly recommend the lengthy section on Navalny. No spoilers, therefore. It says it all, like a Facebook post on a relationship: “It’s complicated.” But was it personal? Well, yes and no. But mostly no.

Only at the end does Mikhail Fishman, an outstanding journalist, grant himself the opportunity to sum up. I quote because you know how it all ended. Oh, yes, you know far more than Fishman did when he wrote his final authorial assessment.

“Alas, this story has no alternative happy ending. Unchanging in a changing country, Nemtsov couldn’t survive as a politician in Putin’s Russia. He would have been up against a brick wall. Along with the new Constitution came new rules of the game. This would become clear in that same dramatic summer of 2020 when Aleksei Navalnyy went into a coma on an aeroplane and miraculously survived what would later turn out to be poisoning by the nerve agent that goes by the name ‘novichok’.”

Did Nemtsov survive as a politician? In the people’s memory, he did. But that wasn’t what he wanted, not at the start at least. 

And at the end? At the end I saw a home-drawn icon someone had left on the bridge where he was killed. I was really surprised to see it. Boris Nemtsov was no icon. But that’s not important now. 

Translated by Marjolein Thickett, Sarah Vitali and Melanie Moore

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