Tens of thousands marched through Moscow to honor slain political activist Boris Nemtsov in the biggest show of support for Russia’s opposition in three years.
The city’s police estimated 21,000 people attended, while Golos, a non-profit monitoring organization, said more than 50,000 took part. Protesters, led by former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov, chanted slogans such as “Russia without Putin” as they passed the bridge near St. Basil’s Cathedral where Nemtsov, 55, was shot dead Friday.
“The fact that all this could happen in Russia in the 21st century near the Kremlin walls, is shocking a lot of people,” Kasyanov told Bloomberg News. “Today’s demonstrators aren’t only our activists, but first of all, of course, people who care what is happening in the country.”
President Vladimir Putin’s critics bet that an unfolding economic crisis will spark a revolt on a scale last seen during the winter protests of 2011-2012, when more than 100,000 turned out for rallies that were the largest since the collapse of communism. The president’s foes have since then struggled to gain traction as the government tightened control over independent media, with Putin enjoying near-record approval ratings following his annexation of Crimea from Ukraine.
Nemtsov, a former deputy prime minister who played a prominent role after the Soviet collapse before falling out of favor, had been helping plan an anti-Putin rally for Sunday. Organizers carried signs at the vigil that read: “He was fighting for a free Russia” and “Those shots were in each of us.” State television provided scant coverage of the event.
“I’m here because Boris Nemtsov was fighting against corruption and probably some people from the top didn’t like his speeches,” said Valeriy Tsaturov, a 63-year-old entrepreneur from the Moscow region who was wearing a black coat with the word “corruption” on it. “It’s a big shame for Russia that it happened at Red Square to a person who was very competent and could have done a lot of good.”
Buckling from sanctions over Ukraine and the collapse in oil prices, the economy of the world’s biggest energy exporter is on the brink of a recession. Gross domestic product will contract 3 percent in 2015, Russia’s Economy Ministry predicts. The ruble dropped 46 percent against the dollar in 2014, the second-worst performance among more than 170 currencies tracked by Bloomberg. Only the Ukrainian hryvnia did worse.
On Sunday, a constant mass of mourners, some carrying Russian flags, poured into the center of Moscow. Many stood in line to buy flowers, while other carried handmade signs that read “I am Boris.” Scores of police kept watch.
“This march is important for the country,” said Sergey Kleschevnikov, a 59-year-old road worker. “People see that something is wrong in Russia.”
Ukrainian lawmaker Oleksiy Honcharenko, a member of President Petro Poroshenko’s party, was detained at the rally and later released. Poroshenko said in a message on Facebook that he’s spoken with Honcharenko, whom he said is at Ukraine’s embassy in Moscow.
Protesters also gathered in other cities, including St. Petersburg and Nizhny Novgorod, where Nemtsov had served as governor. Activists from a pro-Kremlin group broke up a small demonstration against Putin in the southwestern city of Voronezh, according to Meduza.io, a Latvian-registered website run by Russian reporters.
The nation’s criminal investigative committee said it was looking Saturday at several possible motives for Nemtsov’s murder, including whether he was a sacrificial lamb to destabilize Russia or if Islamist extremists angry over his support for French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo killed him.
Nemtsov was shot in one of the country’s most heavily guarded spots and in an area where security cameras monitor practically every inch of space. He was killed after a car approached and a gunman fired several shots, four of which hit him in the back, Interior Ministry spokeswoman Elena Alekseeva said. A Ukrainian woman walking with him wasn’t injured.
The shooting comes as the U.S. and its European allies are locked in the tensest standoff with Russia since the Cold War. The U.S. and European Union, which imposed economic sanctions on Russia last year, accuse him of fomenting an armed separatist revolt in eastern Ukraine, a charge Putin denies.
Nemtsov had been getting death threats and was working on a report about Putin and Russia’s involvement in Ukraine’s conflict, according to Ilya Yashin, an opposition leader. In 2011, he published a report that focused on how Putin’s friends and relatives benefited from the regime and on the perks he enjoyed as the head of an oil-rich state.
“We will do everything to ensure that the organizers and perpetrators of this vile and cynical murder get their deserved punishment,” Putin said in a telegram of condolences to Nemtsov’s mother, who attended the Sunday vigil for her son.
Other Putin critics who have been murdered in recent years include Alexander Litvinenko, a former Russian spy who died in London in 2006 after drinking radioactive tea, and Anna Politkovskaya, a journalist who chronicled corruption under Putin and human-rights abuses during Russia’s conflict with separatists in Chechnya, who was gunned down in 2006.
Billionaire and political activist Mikhail Prokhorov’s sister Irina, a member of his Civic Platform party, said Russia stands at a crossroads.
Unless the government returns to “civilized” politics to avoid a further escalation of violence, “I fear there will be seriously tragic consequences for the country,” Prokhorova told Bloomberg News during the rally.
Nemtsov rose to prominence in the 1990s as a pro-reform politician during the presidency of Boris Yeltsin shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union. As governor of Nizhny Novgorod, he was a proponent of early efforts for a market-oriented transformation. He then went to Moscow to become a deputy prime minister under Yeltsin.
“With his death, most of the ideals of the 90s are dead,” said Tom Adshead, director at Adshead Consulting in Moscow and a former Russian portfolio manager. “I remember Nizhny Novgorod in the early 90s, it really was a place full of optimism, so I’m going to mourn that.”