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Subjectively speaking. Olga Smirnova, former assistant to Boris Nemtsov, on Mikhail Fishman's book "The Successor"


When the cover of the book has a portrait and the name of your boss, on the flyleaf a personal autograph of the author, and in the first lines of the acknowledgments section there is your name, it's not really writing an objective review.

This is especially the case for the book about Boris Nemtsov, whose personality and fate we are all looking at through the prism of February 27 2015, when Nemtsov was killed after being shot in the back on Bolshoi Moskvoretsky Bridge.

Unbearable pain. No statute of limitations.

For me, it is the best book about Nemtsov written in third person. It is an independent analysis and at the same time interested in the hero. Finding the right tone for such a narrative is always difficult, but the author has already had experience of Nemtsov - a poignant film in co-authorship with Vera Krichevskaya "Too Free Man" (2016).

Now the same journalistic perspective from the film flows into the book. And the book itself is perceived as a development: a continuation and a kind of commentary on the film. All that is left out of the picture; but not the "film kitchen", but the historical background, testimonies of the participants in the events, details, nuances and motives of Boris Nemtsov's life, work and fate.

A still from the film "Too Free Man"

A real documentary long read. More than six hundred pages. The most detailed section with bibliography, references, notes and personages which are mentioned along with narration. Only with references to Fishman's book is it possible to study the history of modern Russia.

What happened to Nemtsov and to the country so that as the most prominent young Russian politician of the early 90s, almost officially named Yeltsin's successor, he couldn’t become president of the country, but also acted as an implacable enemy of the man whom Boris Yeltsin in 1999 instructed to "keep Russia safe"?

It seems to me that the answer to this question is what the author is looking for.

Boris Nemtsov and Boris Yeltsin
Photo: @HistoryFoto

During the time I was writing about the book, its author Mikhail Fishman was declared a foreign agent. The fate of Dozhd, where he works, once again hangs in the balance. Ukraine, which Nemtsov loved so much, is ablaze with Russian missiles, but it fights for its future with such fortitude that it seems all Europe and the world are learning its courage. And Russia is finally destroying everything Boris Nemtsov fought and died for.

"Both the seizure of Crimea and the war that soon began in Donbass - the war between Russia and Ukraine - were without exaggeration a personal disaster for Nemtsov. For this, he could not forgive Putin. He wanted to act. On March 2 (2014)... he wrote in his blog:

"Putin has declared a fratricidal war on Ukraine. This bloody madness of the inadequate Chekist will cost Russia and Ukraine dearly: again young boys killed on both sides, unhappy mothers and wives, orphaned children. An empty Crimea, where no one will go. Billions, tens of billions of rubles taken away from the elderly and children and thrown into the furnace of war, and then even more money to support the thieving regime of Crimea. Otherwise he apparently can no longer hold on to power.

The ghoul needs war. It needs people's blood. International isolation, impoverishment of the people, repression awaits Russia. God, why do we have such a curse? How much longer can we tolerate all this?!".

Mikhail Fishman, "The Successor. The story of Boris Nemtsov and the country in which he did not become president".

Nemtsov's quotes are flashed here and there today. As if as an apology to Nemtsov himself for not hearing (not listening) him in his lifetime. Many of his words turned out to be prophetic. Many became slogans for the opposition. Almost eight years after his death, clips of his interviews are gaining millions of views. He is heard in Russia and around the world. This is the phenomenon of Boris Nemtsov.

In his book, Mikhail Fishman seeks to understand how Nemtsov managed to make it through all institutions of power (from scholar and civic activist to governor, deputy prime minister, head of parliamentary party and faction, and leader of the Russian opposition) without sinking into softness or changing the ideas with which he entered politics. This is the story of his one million signatures against the first Chechen war in '96, of his move to Moscow, of his solitary picketing in the Magnitsky case, of Navalny and the Bolotnaya case; of why he called for people to be led away from street rallies from under the batons of the Rosgvardiya and threats of arrest and real jail terms.

Boris Nemtsov, detained on Bolotnaya Square 6 May 2012
Photo: Vladimir Astapkovich / London Transport Museum

The book contains everything: the life of the big country with many details, memories and analysis of the political situation; the stages of Nemtsov's formation as a politician through the eyes of those who were close by; achievements and mistakes in the work of the governor, deputy prime minister and leader of the parliamentary faction and party; the background - conflicts of his personal life.

This book is neither a compliment nor a monument to Nemtsov. It is a memory of his time and his country - thirty years of his life.

And thanks to Fishman for putting them together. Because there is a sense that a lot of evidence of how Russia lived in the 1990s and early 2000s may be "accidentally irretrievably lost".

Seven chapters in the history of modern Russia. Motivated by the main "themes" of Nemtsov's political biography.

 "Not to lie, not to steal"

With these words he entered politics, and in 1990 became a deputy of the First Congress of the RSFSR, left out of office in the 2010s, and more than once he said that if the authorities had anything on him, they would have put him behind bars, and he would not have been able to criticize Putin so freely both publicly and in expert reports.

"Nemtsov's first money - and not even close to the typical governor's wealth - would come only after he stopped being an official... 'What kept me from taking bribes? - Nemtsov later wrote. - I'll be honest: fear of exposure. I had all sorts of thoughts at the sight of huge sums of money ... I understood that with such money a lot of personal problems could be solved. But I was also aware that life would also change, there would be irresolvable conflicts... And second: bribes are serious reputational risks. Interestingly, the bribery market is, on the one hand, very closed, but, on the other hand, everyone knows about everyone".

Mikhail Fishman, "The Successor. The story of Boris Nemtsov and the country where he didn't become president".

"Straight Speech"

I think it is the ability and desire to talk to people that sets Nemtsov apart from many of his colleagues. Nemtsov is not a cabinet or televised liberal and democrat. It was important for him to hear people and understand their mood, not from statistical reports and opinion polls.

There is a characteristic episode in Mikhail Fishman and Vera Krichevskaya's film Too Free Man, when Anatoly Chubais talks about his and Nemtsov's bike ride. Seeing the village, they simultaneously say the exact opposite: ride from here (Chubais) and ride there (Nemtsov). This openness and willingness to dialogue was mistaken for levity by many people, colleagues and the media. Some patronized him on the shoulder, or patted him on the back, and instantly switched to the word "you". He himself sometimes called people with whom he was barely acquainted friends.

Photo: PhotoXPress

But at the same time he remembered the names of almost all the taxi drivers at Nizhny Novgorod airport.

"My focus group on energy price analysis". When meetings-presentations of his expert reports began to be banned, he handed them out and signed them in Moscow right outside metro stations.

In February 2015, Boris Nemtsov handed out invitations to the Viasna march in person, in underground cars and in the streets of Moscow, much to the shock of Alexei Navalny who had joined him.

Nemtsov even had a metro pass so he wouldn't have to stand in the perpetual traffic jams in central Moscow. In every city he traveled to, he was sure to go to the market. He campaigned, meeting endlessly with voters, sometimes just in the courtyards.

"Nemtsov campaigned in the markets, gave toasts at an Armenian wedding of 400 people and even took part in the city's alpine skiing competition. Once again he was at ease, doing what he knew and loved, and finding something to talk about with everyone - a pensioner, a housewife and a student alike. Roman Udot, an activist with Golos, the association of election observers, wrote about Nemtsov's performance in a Sochi sanatorium: "In [two and a half hours] the candidate did not sit down once. During this time the candidate did not look at a single piece of paper. The candidate shone, hypnotised, subdued and overawed before my eyes. Though I was a supporter of his, I could not have imagined such a thing. I didn't think we still had such speakers."

Mikhail Fishman, "The Successor. The story of Boris Nemtsov and the country in which he did not become president".

"Kamikazes don't always die instantly"

It's also the Nemtsov way: don't betray yourself and do what you believe in. From when, in the early 90s, in his mid-30s ("I worked as a governor when I was a kid!"), he planned to put field kitchens on the streets of Nizhny Novgorod because of the threat of famine in the region; when he joined Yeltsin's government for human, not career reasons; when he accepted the "firing squad" position of First Deputy Prime Minister in charge of the social and energy blocks, engaging in dialogue with striking miners and opposing oligarchs. And until the recent rallies in Moscow and the reports "Putin. Results" (2008), "Putin. Corruption" (2011) and "Life as a slave in the galleys. Palaces, Yachts, Cars, Planes and Other Accessories" (2012) and "Putin. War" (about the seizure of Crimea and Donbass, this report will come out after Nemtsov's death and will be completed and presented by Ilya Yashin). It is all in the book with a lot of facts and details.

Ilya Yashin and Boris Nemtsov at a protest, 2012
Photo: Alexander Miridonov / Kommersant

"Putin is war!"

With this slogan Nemtsov was going to march on 1 March 2015 in the Viasna march. Putin came to power with the war. And whenever things in the country came to a standstill, there was some kind of explosion, a takeover, a terrorist attack... Reading the book, one can trace and analyse the internal confrontation "Nemtsov - Putin". From party support in late 1999, step by step, after the second Chechen campaign, Beslan, the Kursk, the dispersal of NTV and the introduction of total censorship, Nemtsov's inability to accept Putin's actions grew.

One was holding Peace Marches, the other a "small victorious war on foreign territory". The first public conflict - and this is recounted in detail in the book - between Putin and Nemtsov happened during the Nord-Ost. It culminated during the annexation of Crimea and the Ukrainian events of 2014.

"He saw Putin as a tyrant exploiting the basest instincts of the Russian people, holding power through lies and violence and ready to sacrifice both peace with Ukraine and Ukraine itself to his omnipotence."

Mikhail Fishman, "The Successor. The Story of Boris Nemtsov and the Country He Didn't Become President".

"Freedom comes at a price"

The book is undoubtedly full of drama, because we know the path of Boris Nemtsov from the first line to the last step, ans it also serves as a bottom line that cannot be undone. But also because today, from January 2023, Nemtsov's forecasts and assessments of the political situation in the country and the actors in contemporary Russian politics are perceived quite differently.

And the very actions and twenty-two year old steps of the present authorities towards the destruction of Russia in which Boris Nemtsov believed. The Russia which we have lost.

And in this sense, Mikhail Fishman's book "The Successor" is the story of how the country in which Boris Nemtsov could have been president is no more.


The 2022 award ceremony for the laureates of the "Prosvetitel" and "Prosvetitel.Translation" awards of the Zimin Foundation, as well as the special PolitProsvet award, took place in the format of a telebridge between three cities: Berlin, Tel Aviv and Moscow, and was broadcast live by the general media partner Novaya Gazeta Europe.

The finalists for the special award were the five best books on the socio-political process. The jury of this year's PolitProsvet - Ekaterina Shulman, Boris Grozovsky and Kirill Rogov - named the winner of the special prize. Among the finalists was a book by journalist and "TV Rain" presenter Mikhail Fishman, 'The Successor. The Story of Boris Nemtsov and the Country He Failed to Become President".

By: Olga Smirnova
Cover photo:

Source - BBC

"I could not keep silent in the face of what was happening" - Vladimir Kara-Murza's letters from imprisonment

Kirill Martynov, Leonid Gozman, Askold Kurov and Masha Myers present a documentary on foreign agents in Russia in Berlin

Kirill Martynov, Leonid Gozman, Askold Kurov and Masha Myers present a documentary on foreign agents in Russia in Berlin