I remember the first time I saw him. His young, brave persona was vibrantly resonating from the dull screen of my grandmother’s Vityaz television set in a crummy Khrushchev-era apartment. I was an atypical seven-year old Belarusian schoolgirl who preferred watching political debates to American cartoons or Brazilian soap operas.
Now, years later, as a public policy masters student I realize that my interest in political philosophy was inspired by the man brutally murdered steps away from the Kremlin yesterday. I owe the shaping of my democratic values and understanding the bitter price of freedom to Boris Nemtsov. I solemnly confess that all my hopes for a liberal reformation of the Russian Federation vanished on the night of 27 February 2015.
Boris Nemtsov was an active voice of the Russian opposition – a voice that was violently silenced, a life interrupted. He emerged during the gruesome 1990s when the state was fighting rampant devaluation and organized crime. The Yeltsin era was an economically shaky, but a politically open and promising time. Nemtsov, like my own parents, was borne into the generation that would be characterized by the fall of the USSR and the unfulfilled hopes for democratic reform in the Post-Soviet world.
Despite the hardships the 1990s brought, it was a time of strong political activism. I remember my father coming home from his Belarusian Popular Front party meetings, proudly telling my mother about them. At this time, he spoke to me in Belarusian, our native tongue waiting to be reclaimed after 70 years of systematic linguistic assimilation policies carried out by the Soviet regime. I remember how my mother, 8-months pregnant with my sister, fearlessly and proudly argued with her Lukashenko-supporting neighbours on the eve of the last free elections in Belarus. Nemtsov and his colleagues were the major drive of inspiration among pro-democratic, pro-Western thinkers not only in Belarus, but across the former USSR.
When my family immigrated to Canada fifteen years ago, I proudly spoke of my dual homes: Canada and Belarus. I had no illusions about Alyaksandr Lukashenko’s cruel dictatorship in Belarus but I was proud of the nation I was born into. Having been born eight months prior to the collapse of the USSR, my generation is the first to be raised in an independent Belarus.
Sadly, when Belarusians got their sovereignty they stopped existing as a nation. Belarus is the most Russified of the former Soviet republics and has the weakest sense of national identity. Furthermore, it is the Kremlin’s biggest ally in the neighbourhood.
Boris Nemtsov often said that he had high hopes for democratic reform in Belarus. In his view, Belarus was lucky because in contrast with Russia it did not have imperial ambitions, and this gave Belarus the foundation for nation building.
But Lukashenko’s violent crackdown on the highly intellectual opposition has not allowed for the emergence of liberal successors. The dismal opposition remains, but Belarusians en masse are drowning in pro-Kremlin views, cynicism and indifference. The anti-Ukrainian sentiment expressed by my Belarusian relatives and friends has left me disheartened and disconnected from my historic homeland. I believe Boris Nemtsov had very similar views towards Putinist Russians who are unfortunately the vast majority of the populace.
The assassination of Boris Nemtsov means one thing to me: Russia has no place for those who dare dream of realities outside of Putin’s imperialist plans. Russia has no tolerance for those who support Ukraine and respect its desire to choose its own destiny. Russia has no plans to incorporate the Russian liberal elite into its governing body.
Tomorrow, I will join over 500 other protestors who will march to the Russian Consulate in Toronto to commemorate the life of Boris Nemtsov. I am marching not because I believe that I can change anything, but because I want to exercise my democratic right to protest. A right that cost my idol his life.