Pre­miere of Krem­lin thaw?

Un­flinch­ing film about Boris Nemtsov, a Putin op­po­nent slain in 2015, gets screen­ing — in Red Square

The Washington Post Sunday - - THE WORLD - BY DAVID FILIPOV david.filipov@wash­post.com Natalya Ab­baku­mova con­trib­uted to this re­port.

It takes about 700 steps at a leisurely pace to stroll from the lav­ish mall along Red Square to the bridge over the Moscow River where, more than 740 days ago, Rus­sia’s most prom­i­nent op­po­si­tion leader was gunned down as he made that walk with his girl­friend.

There, in the shadow of the red brick Krem­lin walls, an in­for­mal shrine marks the spot and the mem­ory of Boris Nemtsov, a for­mer deputy prime min­is­ter and Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin’s loud­est critic.

A neat row of flow­ers, can­dles and por­traits is guarded in shifts around the clock by pro-democ­racy ac­tivists, who fre­quently find them­selves tar­geted by po­lice. It’s truly a makeshift memo­rial: When its guardians are hauled away, city work­ers re­move the flow­ers and por­traits, and it’s up to the next shift to re­make it.

Against this tense back­drop, some­thing re­mark­able is hap­pen­ing in a small, lux­u­ri­ous movie the­ater in­side that op­u­lent mall. A film is show­ing that re­counts, in un­flinch­ing de­tail, the rise and fall of Rus­sian democ­racy through the story of Nemtsov’s po­lit­i­cal ca­reer, from a whiz-kid re­gional gov­er­nor con­sid­ered pres­i­den­tial ma­te­rial to the po­lit­i­cal mar­gins of an il­lib­eral so­ci­ety dom­i­nated by Putin.

That the film, “The Man Who Was Too Free,” was al­lowed to be made, much less shown across Red Square from the Krem­lin, came as a shock to its creators, Mikhail Fish­man and Vera Krichevskaya.

Told en­tirely through mono­logues by Nemtsov’s as­so­ciates, in­ter­views with him and video footage of his pub­lic speeches, the doc­u­men­tary fo­cuses on the missed chances and mis­cal­cu­la­tions that led to Putin’s un­chal­lenged rule. The Rus­sian leader, whose in­tol­er­ance of crit­i­cism is leg­endary, does not come off in a flat­ter­ing light.

“I have to say, when I was work­ing on it . . . I couldn’t imag­ine it would be show­ing in movie the­aters across Moscow and other cities,” Fish­man told The Wash­ing­ton Post be­fore de­part­ing for a pre­miere of the film in a Siberian re­gional cap­i­tal. Since it opened on Feb. 27, the sec­ond an­niver­sary of Nemtsov’s death, “The Man Who Was Too Free” has been shown in sev­eral Moscow the­aters, as well as St. Peters­burg and a hand­ful of other Rus­sian cities.

Fish­man spec­u­lates that al­low­ing the film to be shown may be ev­i­dence of a slight thaw in Putin’s icy grip, per­haps tied to next year’s pres­i­den­tial elec­tion, “sort of a lit­tle present to those who are so tired of him stay­ing in power for decades.”

There are other hints, as well. On Tues­day, Putin par­doned Ok­sana Sev­as­tidi, con­victed of trea­son last year for send­ing an in­nocu­ous text mes­sage to an ac­quain­tance about the move­ment of a train car­ry­ing Rus­sian mil­i­tary equip­ment.

Rus­sia’s Supreme Court also re­leased Il­dar Dadin, a hu­man rights ac­tivist con­victed in 2015 of break­ing a law that reg­u­lates pub­lic demon­stra­tions. (Dadin was again de­tained Fri­day but quickly re­leased — Moscow po­lice might not have got­ten the memo about the thaw.)

Some have spec­u­lated that some­one in high places ap­proved “The Man Who Was Too Free,” al­though Fish­man doubts it. A Krem­lin spokesman said that Putin had not seen the film.

In scenes sewn to­gether by an an­i­mated elec­tro­car­dio­gram that forms the tow­ers of the Krem­lin to the thump of a beat­ing heart, the doc­u­men­tary places snip­pets of the charis­matic Nemtsov amid the re­grets of a gen­er­a­tion that be­lieved a free, mar­ket-ori­ented so­ci­ety could be built on the ru­ins of the mono­lithic com­mu­nist state.

Nemtsov — a physi­cist with a boy­ish grin and a nat­u­ral abil­ity to con­nect with vot­ers — per­son­i­fied their op­ti­mism as much as any­one. At 32 in 1991, he be­came Rus­sia’s youngest re­gional gov­er­nor, in charge of the for­merly closed city of Nizhny Nov­gorod.

As the film shows, Nemtsov soon makes what his as­so­ciates later rue as his first great mis­take, ac­cept­ing Pres­i­dent Boris Yeltsin’s cabi­net ap­point­ment in Moscow to help over­see the im­mense task of rip­ping apart the com­mu­nist planned econ­omy, a task Nemtsov calls “the job of a kamikaze.”

“That’s when I knew the coun­try was fin­ished,” he re­calls in a later in­ter­view, one of sev­eral mo­ments of fore­bod­ing.

“Shock ther­apy” changes pun­ished or­di­nary Rus­sians as prices soared, fac­to­ries stalled and the wel­fare state dis­in­te­grated. Hav­ing de­clared for free mar­kets over cor­rup­tion, Nemtsov ran into the pow­er­ful busi­ness own­ers who thrived in the chaos and gob­bled up valu­able as­sets. Un­der at­tack by the me­dia con­trolled by th­ese oli­garchs, Nemtsov fell out of fa­vor.

As the film plays out, some of Nemtsov’s as­so­ciates al­most ca­su­ally con­fess how they aban­doned him to main­tain their in­flu­ence.

“I re­al­ized that my re­la­tion­ship with him would be toxic for my busi­ness, my part­ners and my col­leagues,” Mikhail Frid­man, one of Rus­sia’s rich­est men, says, adding that this de­ci­sion re­mains “one of my great re­grets.”

Oth­ers sec­ond-guess the de­ci­sion by Yeltsin’s sup­port­ers to fix the 1996 elec­tion so that the ail­ing pres­i­dent could de­feat the Com­mu­nist Party’s Gen­nady Zyuganov; Frid­man, with 20-20 hind­sight, sug­gests that a Com­mu­nist vic­tory could have saved Rus­sian democ­racy.

The down­fall of Nemtsov and his al­lies un­folds as a tragic se­ries of mis­takes, after which they find them­selves out of power and the fo­cus of blame for the hard­ships of the 1990s. Op­po­si­tion leader Alexei Navalny, who came to promi­nence in 2011, re­calls ask­ing Nemtsov not to sup­port him pub­licly.

“I saw him as a man of the 1990s, a good man but one who brought po­lit­i­cal prob­lems,” Navalny says.

Ever up­beat, Nemtsov car­ries the fight to the street; when demon­stra­tions are bro­ken up, he hands out leaflets. Ha­rassed in Moscow and un­able to win elec­tion to Rus­sia’s par­lia­ment, he cam­paigns for a provin­cial seat. Pushed out of the po­lit­i­cal process, he pre­pares re­ports on cor­rup­tion within Putin’s ad­min­is­tra­tion.

The only time Nemtsov is shown alone is at the end of the film, walk­ing down a Moscow street. Mo­ments later, in the fi­nal scene, that beat­ing heart flat­lines, and the screen goes dark.

Five men went on trial for Nemtsov’s mur­der in a Moscow mil­i­tary court last year, but no ver­dicts have been re­turned, and the case is on­go­ing. Nemtsov’s fam­ily and friends say his killing was a po­lit­i­cal hit; pro-Putin of­fi­cials have dis­missed the shoot­ing as a cyn­i­cal at­tempt by the Krem­lin’s frag­mented and un­pop­u­lar op­po­si­tion to at­tract at­ten­tion.

For some be­liev­ers in Rus­sian democ­racy, “The Man Who Was Too Free” is heart­break­ing to watch. Sobs broke out dur­ing a re­cent show­ing in a packed Moscow the­ater, be­com­ing a cho­rus at the end.

But a trio who stood vigil Wed­nes­day at the un­of­fi­cial shrine on the spot where Nemtsov was killed saw cause for op­ti­mism in his life and in their own per­sis­tence.

“The Rus­sian peo­ple are still alive,” said a man with a Rus­sian flag draped over his shoul­ders who gave only his first name, Mikhail.

“We’ve been here for 741 days,” he said. “And we will al­ways be here.”

At least un­til the May 9 Vic­tory Day hol­i­day, they will.

After that, city of­fi­cials say, they’re go­ing to close the bridge for much-needed re­pairs.

“I have to say, when I was work­ing on it . . . I couldn’t imag­ine it would be show­ing in movie the­aters across Moscow and other cities.” Mikhail Fish­man, co-cre­ator of “The Man Who Was Too Free,” a film about Rus­sian politi­cian Boris Nemtsov

IVAN SEKRETAREV/ASSOCIATED PRESS

ABOVE CLOCK­WISE: A woman places flow­ers for Rus­sian ac­tivist Boris Nemtsov at a makeshift shrine where he was as­sas­si­nated in Moscow. In 2012, Nemtsov waves at a demon­stra­tion against Vladimir Putin’s gov­ern­ment. Flow­ers sur­round a photo of the politi­cian.

YURI KOCHETKOV/EURO­PEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

TVINDIE FILM PRO­DUC­TION)

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