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Boris Nemtsov: A Hero and a Homonym for Our Time

By March 4, 2015January 7th, 2023Jennifer's Russia Blog

Moscow mourns slain opposition leader, Boris Nemtsov.



Tens of Thousands gather in Moscow to mourn slain opposition leader, Boris Nemtsov

“What they really need,” said my friend and veteran Russian opposition observer, Lisa as we climbed the stairs from Kitai Gorod Metro Station on to Old Square, “is a color.”

“That’s true,” I agreed, “and a slogan of some sort would be good too.”

The tattered remnants of Russia’s opposition politicians, while dedicated, have always lacked a unified brand message as well as unanimous political platform; and this has been true since its disparate leaders not so much coalesced as coagulated in 2012. One of its leaders, Alexei Navalny, has been effectively muzzled to all but the minority that is Russia’s social media-savvy creative class, and these days commutes between house arrest and actual prison. The opposition’s potential patriarch, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, released from 10-years in a Siberian penal colony, has understandably chosen to make his home in Switzerland. So this left Boris Nemtsov, the slightly past-his-sell-by date but still charismatic and resolute former First Deputy Prime Minister as the de-facto leader of the opposition: a position he enjoyed by virtue of being a.) inside Russia and, b.) at large.

Until last Friday night, that is, when he was shot in the back four times by unknown assailants, a few yards from the Kremlin walls.

The political rally, vaguely branded with an optimistic green “SPRING” logo, which Nemtsov had planned to lead on Sunday turned in to a solemn, certainly funeral memorial march. Municipal officials sanctioned “SPRING” to take place in the grotty outskirts of Moscow, but the memorial march threaded its silent way through the very heart of downtown Moscow.

Boris Nemstov

Mourners carrying Russian tri-colors stream on to the Moscow River embankment to join the memorial march.

We emerged into the damp, grey afternoon (weather by Central Casting) and it was immediately apparent that the opposition had found itself a color. A tricolor. Sometime during the long, stunned hours of disbelief on Saturday, the opposition had co-opted the Russian flag as its standard.

“Very clever,” I said to Lisa, as we accepted 8-inch hanks of tricolor and black funeral grosgrain ribbons. We put them in our bags since we both feel that this is not really our fight, although we know which side we’re rooting for.

Boris Nemtsov, Jennifer Eremeeva

Marchers claimed the tricolor as their motif.

The Russian tricolor seemed a particularly apt tribute to one who had been an up-and-coming reformer when the tricolor replaced the hammer & sickle as the symbol of a new post-Soviet Russia.    It was heartening, on that cold day, to see the bright and clear red, white, and blue flap in the wind against the grey sky — at times the only sound you could hear in Old Square, except for the churning of the occasional police helicopter, hovering menacingly over the crowd.  It was moving to see the grim determination with which the mourners tied the tricolor on to their somber winter coats and headed patiently into a crowd to slowly make their way through metal detectors and on to the Moscow river embankment.

The tricolor was clever, and apt. Nemtsov adored Russia, and was passionate about its post-Soviet potential. He was a strong right arm to Russia’s first president, Boris Yeltsin, until, well, he wasn’t. But he remained a patriot, and a firm believer in Russia.

As we milled about Old Square, watching the crowds assemble,we saw a few of the slogans the opposition was test driving:

A Homonym for Our Time

The one, however, which I think best captured the mood of the moment, was a clever play on Boris Nemtsov’s first name.  Something my friend Tamara calls “a linguist’s dream.”

“Very, very, very clever,” I said, and explained it to Lisa.

“БОРИСЬ ” (pronounced “bor-ees”) is the third person singular imperative of the verb “to struggle” or “to fight against.” It is a homonym of Nemtsov’s first name, Boris.

For the linguists amongst you:

Screen Shot 2015-03-05 at 7.51.19 AM
As a branding slogan, it ticks all the boxes: a simple and effective statement summing up a man who spent much of his life struggling and fighting for reform. As a branding message or mission statement, it offers those who survive Boris Nemtsov a very clear call to action.

We will watch with interest to see what the opposition does with it.


For more images of the memorial march, click here.


There were so many excellent pieces about Nemtsov over the past few days, which I will list in my newsletter later this week, but I felt that one of the best summations of Nemtsov’s life and work was done by Brian Whitmore of on his incredibly informative Daily Vertical video log on Tuesday. If you are interested in learning more about Russian politics, be sure to subscribe to Brian’s authoritative weekly Power Vertical podcast.



Dear Readers,
What a very sad thing this is. It was no week to be a humorist in Russia. I was interviewed on WDEL about Boris Nemtsov and the march, and I noted that for those of us who have been in Russia since before the flood (circa 1991), Nemtsov was just always there, somewhere on the political canvas. I confess that the last few days have made me feel old, tired, and more than a little bit downcast. Nemtsov in his khakis and blue blazer was a symbol for all the expectation my generation had for post-Soviet Russia. Recent years have seen that enthusiasm dim, to be sure. We’ve all become more cynical about the fact that we may not be a part of sweeping changes, but Nemtsov has taken something with him that I can’t quite put my finger on. Not hope exactly, but something like it. The tiny flicker of possibility that all of this may someday come to an end and something more uplifting may take its place.

I was struck by the fact that almost three years to the day, I was out in Moscow with my camera at another protest: the Big White Circle, which was the last gasp protest by the opposition before the presidential election of 2012. What a different mood, and yet, I was pretty sure that through my  lens, I saw some of the same people.  To re-visit that event, click here.

I know many of those who read this may have met or encountered Nemtsov, so I urge you to share your thoughts, memories, impressions of events, and thoughts about the future by hitting the comment button below.


  • Tim says:

    I wholeheartedly agree with your characterization of Nemtsov as a hero, and you are the first person I’ve seen to highlight the fitting homonym ‘борись’ used at the march. An RT newscast did not mention this when showing the same sign, which is curious because you would think that such information would be interesting for their English-language audience – but then that wouldn’t have conformed to their Russian (government) point of view.
    I went back and read your “McFaulty” post, and in light of recent events I wonder if you might like to revise your description of Nemtsov as one of Russia’s “irrelevant has been politicos”? You used those words to also denigrate Ambassador McFaul, who knew Nemtsov for 30 years and called him a friend (I’m not sure what Nemtsov called him).
    I realize you may have been exaggerating your criticism of McFaul for comedic effect, but maybe you should have cut some slack to a man charged with promoting democracy in a violent authoritarian dictatorship. If you thought McFaul was careening toward WWIII, I’d love to know what you think VVP is gearing up for!!!
    Personally I find it admirable of McFaul to speak Russian in public settings despite a mediocre accent, and I would think that the average Russian would have given him credit for that. While Sergei Lavrov’s English is considerably better than McFaul’s English, Lavrov would easily win a balding (McFaul does have a mop top as you correctly pointed out) as well as a bald-faced lying competition between the two. At least I hope that’s what you meant when you called Lavrov ” the real deal”. Alas, I fear you did not…
    Finally, if such a fearless fighter and true patriot as Nemtsov was actually made irrelevant, then how tragic that is for the Russian people, and how monstrous is their government. But even that wasn’t enough, so the Kremlin had to brazenly cut him down and then cover it up… НЕТ СЛОВ!

    • Tim says:

      I meant to write that Sergei Lavrov’s English is considerably better than McFaul’s RUSSIAN, of course!

    • Dear Tim,

      Many thanks for your long and thoughtful comment. I’m so pleased that this post resonated with you. Like you, I went back and re-read the piece you mention and I cringed a bit when I found the phrase about Boris Nemtsov being a “has-been.” However, at the time I was writing, that’s what he was and how we perceived him. And I think that is one of the advantages to keeping a blog: seeing, over time, how our opinions and ideas change and morph.

      As for speaking Russian in public: my beef (loudly voiced) about McFaul’s tenure here as ambassador was that it seemed to me that he never really “got” that he wasn’t here to charm ordinary or average Russians. He was here to manage a very complex and challenging relationship between America and Russia. I believe he let the tweeting take over and didn’t focus on the real job. The result was Edward Snowdon. Here again, the advantages of blogging: when I penned that post, I could still laugh about the comedic aspects of our keystone cop ambassador. Today? Not so much.

      In any case, I do so sincerely appreciate your comments and thoughts and I hope that you will keep them coming!

  • Sue Walters says:

    Difficult for me to get my head around this. My Elliot went to Russian school #1239 with Nemtsov’s son. When I saw the pictures of the family, and of him, it’s just all too much. That little boy with the wild hair, now all grown up…at his dad’s funeral. I never saw him without a bodyguard if I remember correctly. Although that school, at that time, had a lot of bodyguards. Just feels like years flashed right before my eyes…its all so sad to me.

    Be safe.

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