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Getting to know my father

Zhanna Nemzowa
Zhanna Nemtsova
February 26, 2016

On February 27, 2015, the Russian opposition politician and former deputy prime minister Boris Nemtsov was murdered in Moscow. His daughter Zhanna Nemtsova, a DW journalist, has written this commentary.

Memorial for Boris Nemzow
Image: DW/V. Izotov

I used to dream of a doing a long interview with my father, of spending several hours talking to him about God and the world, of asking him all the questions that had accumulated over the years. But why hurry? There still seemed to be plenty of time. I was only able to do a short interview with him once, for the Russian TV channel RBC. Margaret Thatcher had died, so I suggested to my then editor-in-chief that perhaps we should invite my father to appear on a program about the "Iron Lady." He was one of the few Russians who had met her in person on many occasions.

Belated realization

At the time he was already blacklisted by most Russian television broadcasters, so I was astonished that RBC made an exception. We debated for a long time over how I should address him. In the end we decided that I would introduce him briefly, and the two of us would then use the informal form of address in our conversation. During the live broadcast we talked about Margaret Thatcher, why she chose to visit Nizhny Novgorod in 1993 and not Moscow or St. Petersburg, when and why she ratified the handover of Hong Kong to China, and why she was opposed to European integration. Clips from this interview can still be found on YouTube.

I was not granted the opportunity to learn much about my father during his lifetime. It's simply the way of things that we experience our nearest and dearest as precisely that, without exploring their lives and careers in detail, their views and their achievements. After his tragic death I, like many others, rediscovered him for myself. I reread his books, watched interviews with him, met people who knew and worked with him. And came to realize many things.

From governor to opposition leader

I knew, of course, that my father was an excellent regional governor. He was the first in Russia to introduce "small-scale privatization," which, for example, transferred the trucks belonging to state companies to private ownership, implemented agrarian reform, built roads, and carried out the "Apartments for Military Families" program. But I had no idea that newspapers all over the world were writing about the governor of Nizhny Novgorod; that the city was a magnet on the map of Russia. The mere fact that an English-language newspaper, The Nizhny Novgorod Times, was privately printed there is an indication of how many foreigners visited the city.

My father was not considered to be a great judge of character, and admitted as much himself. He used to joke sarcastically that it was easy to pass as a good judge of character - all you had to do was hate everyone around you right from the start. In the end you were usually proved right, so you were seen as a shrewd psychologist. That wasn't him.

Zhanna Nemzowa
DW Journalist Zhanna NemtsovaImage: DW/M.Müller

But he, of all people, was the first politician to describe, in 2006, exactly what Vladimir Putin would do. In his book "Confessions of a Rebel," published in 2007, he wrote: "There is a need for a new type of leader. It reflects a new phase in the development of the country. Because what is characteristic of the new Russia? Imperial nostalgia, and pride in itself. […] It is a phase of lethargy, in which the people want neither freedom of expression nor democracy nor an enhancement of their rights. And so Putin, with his phantom pains about the collapse of the Soviet Union, his - albeit not always successful - endeavors to perform on the international stage, his intention, declared on every channel, of restoring Russia's strength, has come along at just the right time."

These lines were written long before the war in Georgia, the annexation of Crimea, the wars in eastern Ukraine and in Syria. Back then, in 2007, when the economy was still doing well, there was hardly anyone who wanted to listen to my father. He was condescended to, as a loser from the 1990s who had failed to find his place in the "system." Today, though, there is no doubt that the acting-out of imperialist desires is at the heart of Putin's politics.

My path

My father was part of the political opposition for pretty much all my adult life: More than 10 years. In today's Russia it is hopeless and - as we see - dangerous, too, to oppose the government. This is the fate of all those who defend an idea with passion. That is why the opposition in Russia is so marginal. Different people have tried for years to persuade me that my father was in the wrong. Criticizing Putin was a mistake, they said; nobody listens to the critics. On my 30th birthday, my editor-in-chief at RBC congratulated me by saying that I had found a better path than my father.

I always championed democracy, and I realized that Russia was developing in the wrong direction. But the annexation of Crimea made the supposedly "better path" of public political abstention completely impossible for me. That March in 2014 was a harbinger of tragic events, a sign of what was to come. At the time I told my mother that this would be the last birthday we would celebrate normally. Unfortunately, my premonition proved correct. The death of my father one year ago forced me to choose the only right path in life: Never to compromise on fundamental issues, always to be myself. My father, however, will never know this.

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