Even if one of these theories were true, none of Moscow’s embattled liberals would be convinced. “I will never believe it,” Yevgenia Albats, editor of the liberal magazine New Times and an old friend of Nemtsov, told me. “This is not about some domestic affair. These were absolute professionals.” Ilya Yashin, a member of Nemtsov’s Solidarity Party, was of the same mind. “It’s totally obvious for me that it’s a political killing,” he said. “I don’t have the slightest doubt about that.” Maxim Katz, another opposition activist, claimed on Twitter that, any way you slice it, Putin is responsible: “If he ordered it, then he’s guilty as the orderer. And even if he didn’t, then [he is responsible] as the inciter of hatred, hysteria, and anger among the people.”
It’s hard to argue with this last point. Putin’s aggressive foreign policy, his increasingly conservative domestic policy, his labeling the opposition a “fifth column” and “national traitors,” his state television whipping up a militant, nationalistic fervor — all of this creates a certain atmosphere. Putin, after all, has a history of playing with fire, only to have the flames get away from him. After years of the Kremlin tacitly supporting ultranationalist, neo-Nazi groups, the same skinheads staged a violent protest at the foot of the Kremlin walls in 2010 while riot police officers stood by and watched helplessly. Today, a rabid nationalism has swallowed up most of the country, and it is no longer clear that Putin can control it. “In this kind of atmosphere, everything is possible,” Pavlovsky told me. “This is a Weimar atmosphere. There are no longer any limits.”
Until relatively recently, the risks opposition activists knew they were taking on were not generally thought to be life-threatening. The government was likely to hassle activists and make their lives uncomfortable, but mostly it just marginalized them, like the town fool. This began to change with the arrests of protesters in the summer of 2012. When Navalny was sentenced to five years in prison a year later, it came as a shock; this had never been done before. Even after the sentence was suspended, it seemed to be a warning to the opposition.
Nemtsov’s assassination took that warning to its logical conclusion. Now, “we live in a different political reality,” tweeted Leonid Volkov, a prominent opposition activist. “The fact that they killed him is a message to frighten everyone, the brave and the not brave,” Yashin said. “That this is what happens to people who go against the government of our country.” Anatoly Chubais — who, like Nemtsov, served in the Yeltsin government, and who remains close to Putin — visited the site of the shooting this morning. “If, just a few days ago, people in our city are carrying signs that say ‘Let’s finish off the fifth column,’ and today they kill Nemtsov,” he said in astatement, referring to the Kremlin-sponsored anti-Maidan protest in Moscow last weekend, “what will happen tomorrow?” Or, as Albats put it, “Hunting season is open.”
Nemtsov had been confiding to friends of late that he was growing frightened. This summer, he went to Israel to hide out for a few months, fearing arrest. He told Albats that he worried he wouldn’t be able to withstand a stint in a Russian penal colony. In the fall, he filed a police report because of threats he was receiving on social media. It didn’t seem to go anywhere. Recently, he even let his bravado slip in public, telling an interviewer two weeks ago that he was scared Putin would kill him.
And yet, he didn’t let up. According to Albats and Yashin, Nemtsov was working on a particularly incendiary report that he planned to call “Putin and Ukraine,” which would trace the stream of weaponry flowing from Russia to separatists in the Donbass. He was meeting with the families of Russian men who had died fighting with the separatists. He kept up his withering attacks on Facebook and Twitter. He kept traveling to Ukraine and meeting with president Petro Poroshenko, something that couldn’t have gone unnoticed by the Kremlin’s security agencies. And still, Nemtsov never hired a bodyguard. He walked home through Moscow late at night unprotected.
And he almost made it. His apartment building was visible from the bridge. “From his window, where he worked out in the mornings, you can see the place where he was killed,” Romanova told me. “For many years, he saw the place where they would kill him.”