Carrying flowers, portraits and signs that said “I am not afraid”, more than 20,000 people marched in Moscow to mourn opposition politician Boris Nemtsov, whose killing on the streets of the capital has shaken Russia’s opposition.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has marginalised and intimidated his political opponents, jailing some and driving others into exile, since mass anti-Putin protests swept Moscow in 2011 and 2012. Mr Nemtsov, 55, was among the few prominent opposition figures who had refused to be cowed.
The mourners marched to the bridge near the Kremlin where Mr Nemtsov was gunned down shortly before midnight on Friday. Chanting “we’ll not forget, we’ll not forgive”, the crowd filled the road along the Moscow River embankment. Many waved Russian flags.
The mood was sombre, with heavy security. Police helicopters flew overhead and police boats patrolled the river.
Ilya Yashin, a friend and fellow opposition leader, said he hoped the killing would not frighten people.
“Essentially it is an act of terror. It is a political murder aimed at frightening the population, or the part of the population that supported Mr Nemtsov and did not agree with the government,” Mr Yashin said. “I hope we won’t get scared, that we will continue what Boris was doing.”
Mikhail Kasyanov, a former prime minister who joined the opposition, told the crowd the killing should be a turning point for Russia “for the simple reason that people who before thought that they could quietly sit in their kitchens and simply discuss problems within the family, now will start reconsidering everything that’s going on in our country”.
Russia’s federal investigative agency said it was looking into several possible motives.
The first possibility, the Investigative Committee said, was that the killing was aimed at destabilising the political situation in Russia and Nemtsov was a “sacrificial victim for those who do not shun any method for achieving their political goals”.
This echoed comments by Mr Putin’s spokesman and other Russian politicians suggesting that the attack was a “provocation” that served the interests of Russia’s enemies abroad.
Kremlin propaganda had identified Mr Nemtsov as among the leaders of a “fifth column,” painting him and other opposition figures as traitors in the service of a hostile West.
Mr Yashin, however, said Russia’s leadership and specifically Mr Putin bore full political responsibility for Mr Nemtsov’s death.
“It was President Putin who created this atmosphere of hate in our country, the atmosphere of intolerance, which one way or another materialised in the bullet that killed my friend Boris Nemtsov,” Mr Yashin said.
As a former deputy prime minister and long-time politician, Mr Nemtsov retained strong ties among Russia’s political and business elite, making his killing additionally shocking.
He was killed just hours after a radio interview in which he denounced Mr Putin’s “mad, aggressive and deadly policy of war against Ukraine”. Mr Nemtsov was working on a report presenting evidence that he believed proved that Russian servicemen were fighting with the separatists in Ukraine, despite official denials.