On a drizzly February night in 2015, Boris Nemtsov was walking home with his girlfriend just a few hundred feet from the Kremlin. A white car pulled up, and a gunman fired six shots from a silenced 9mm pistol. Four hit their target, killing Nemtsov almost immediately. Just hours before, Nemtsov, a leading opposition figure and the former deputy prime minister under Boris Yeltsin, had given a radio interview encouraging Russians to fill the streets to protest President Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine.
The assassination of Nemtsov sent chills through the resistance, and the rally he helped plan turned into a march where tens of thousands mourned his death. Even under Putin, a high-profile political figure’s being so brazenly murdered was shocking. In the West, Nemtsov’s death fed into the mistaken perception that there was absolutely no room for opposition in Russia. But, while the dangers remain, a small yet determined number of activists persisted, even grew. Now, two and a half years later, they’re running for office.
Nemtsov’s one-time ally Alexei Navalny is now Putin’s most famous living adversary in Russia. A handsome and passionate orator, the 41-year-old anti-corruption crusader has amassed a following through his savvy use of social media. Navalny has two YouTube channels, tweets constantly, and has published exposés investigating the vast financial holdings of the country’s leaders. In March he released a video detailing the wealth of current prime minister and former president Dmitry Medvedev, which has racked up over 24 million views. His new report on Putin’s “secret dacha,” or country home, was published at the end August.
Navalny has undoubtedly gained prominence simply by surviving—he’s often viewed, incorrectly, as “the last man standing.” As such, he’s attracting increasing amounts of funding and Western press, especially since he announced plans to campaign for president in 2018 (though whether or not he will be allowed to run due to a legal conviction is an open question). But among the democratic activists in Russia, he’s a polarizing figure. A number of former allies have turned against him over personal squabbles and have expressed concerns over his willingness to tap into nationalist sentiment.
Many in Russia’s liberal-minded class say political transformation should not depend on a charismatic savior who topples Putin, but rather should be built on systematic reform that starts at the local level. Rooting out corruption will take more than cutting off the head of the snake.