A Mountain Of Flowers | Crooked Media
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August 29, 2022
Another Russia
A Mountain Of Flowers

In This Episode

Zhanna recounts the night of her father’s assassination. In the days following, there is a massive memorial march through the center of Moscow and Boris Nemtsov becomes a symbol of opposition to Putin. Years later, Zhanna reflects on what her father’s story means for Russia today. 

If you want to learn more about the stories of Russians who are standing up to autocracy and how you can help support their work, check out https://nemtsovfund.org/en/RussiansForChange/



Ben Rhodes [00:00:02] It’s after midnight, February 27th, 2015. Zhanna Nemtsova has just learned that her father, Boris Nemtsov, has been shot and killed on a bridge right in front of the Kremlin.

Zhanna Nemtsova [00:00:16] I told my mother, let’s get dressed and let’s go directly to the bridge.

Ben Rhodes [00:00:21] So they got into a taxi.

Zhanna Nemtsova [00:00:23] The radio was on in this taxi and there was the news.

News Clip [00:00:29] [Russian News Clip]

Zhanna Nemtsova [00:00:35] And a reporter mentioned my father’s assassination.

News Clip [00:00:40] [Russian News Clip]

Zhanna Nemtsova [00:00:49] The driver asked us, Why are you going to the Bolshoy Moskvoretsy bridge? I said, Because Boris Nemtsov was killed there. He said, oh, who cares?

Ben Rhodes [00:01:00] Oh, really?

Zhanna Nemtsova [00:01:00] Yes.

Ben Rhodes [00:01:01] What did you say to him?

Zhanna Nemtsova [00:01:02] I said one thing, it’s my father. And then there was ringing calm in this car.

Ben Rhodes [00:01:10] Just silence in the.

Zhanna Nemtsova [00:01:11] Total silence.

Ben Rhodes [00:01:13] I’m Ben Rhodes.

Zhanna Nemtsova [00:01:15] I’m Zhanna Nemtsova.

Ben Rhodes [00:01:16] And this is Another Russia episode six Mountain of Flowers. As you probably know by now, Boris Nemtsov was a big figure in Zhanna’s life. Because he wasn’t just her dad. He was her friend, her mentor, her sparring partner, a moral compass. When he was killed, a black hole opened up in Zhanna’s life. And in Russia, her home. So what was she going to do now? Was she going to try to continue living her life? Or was she going to seek justice for her father’s murder? That night when she took a taxi to the scene, all she was thinking about was getting to him. And when Zhanna and her mother arrived at the spot of the killing, they saw a police tape. The cops were everywhere.

Zhanna Nemtsova [00:02:26] So then we approached a couple of policemen, and I told them, like, I’m Boris Nemtsov’s daughter. It’s Boris Nemtsov’s wife. Please let us in. They asked to show our passports. Just to make sure.

Ben Rhodes [00:02:44] What does the policeman say to you? Like, did anybody say anything? Condolences or anything?

Zhanna Nemtsova [00:02:49] No, no, no, no. It’s not how the things are working in Russia. No condolences. They checked our passports and that’s it.

Ben Rhodes [00:03:00] By the time Zhanna got there, they’d already taken away her father’s body.

Zhanna Nemtsova [00:03:04] Later, I saw those pictures of my father’s dead body lying on the sidewalk and then wrapped into the big black plastic bag.

Ben Rhodes [00:03:20] The police wouldn’t tell her anything. Where they’d taken the body, or what to do now. Radio silence. Zhanna and her mom stuck around for about 20 minutes, just standing there.

Zhanna Nemtsova [00:03:32] I was in autopilot to a large extent, and I think it’s the same for every human being. When a person faces something like that, he is stuck. He doesn’t know how to react.

Ben Rhodes [00:03:46] You’re thinking, what do I have to do? You’re thinking about your father. Or are you just trying to think about, like, the things that you have to do immediately?

Zhanna Nemtsova [00:03:54] I didn’t have a chance even to think about my father because I was in a very difficult situation. It’s always a tragedy when you lose your parents, but it’s a different thing than your father was assassinated because of politics, and it’s still the most high profile murder in the history of modern Russia. So it was difficult. I thought I should be the leader of my family and I had to handle a lot of things.

Ben Rhodes [00:04:29] There were so many friends and family to call. Practical stuff to arrange. But there was something nagging at her. That conversation with the taxi driver on the way to the bridge. How he had heard the news about her father’s death and he’d said, Who cares? Zhanna was beginning to wonder, maybe no one else did. Two days later, on a Sunday, Zhanna’s whole family came back to the bridge and they were joined by 50,000 other people. All there to pay tribute to Boris Nemtsov.

News Clip [00:05:05] [Russian News Clip]

Zhanna Nemtsova [00:05:11] I hadn’t expected so many people. And it was a moment, I don’t know, of relief. And it was a moment when I didn’t feel lonely. Because after this experience with the taxi driver, it felt as if no one cared about my father, and it proved to be profoundly wrong.

News Clip [00:05:35] [Russian News Clip]

Ben Rhodes [00:05:41] Some carried flowers, others the Russian flag with a black ribbon tied around it. A few had Ukrainian flags, placards with slogans like “he died for the future of Russia”.

Zhanna Nemtsova [00:05:52] You could feel this grief in the air. People were shocked. People were mourning.

News Clip [00:05:58] It’s a huge loss for us. And I think the authorities have crossed a line now. I think a big change is to come.

News Clip [00:06:07] He was a very joyful man, a very honest man. And this crime is so absurd, so horrible. I am speechless.

News Clip [00:06:16] I love our country very much. And I’m very sad by all the bad events that happened here. Of course, I speak about this. Boris Nemtsov spoke about it, too, and they killed him. It means they can kill me, you, whoever they want.

Ben Rhodes [00:06:32] At the spot where Boris had been killed just days before, they laid their flowers down.

Zhanna Nemtsova [00:06:38] There were mountains, literally mountains of flowers. And it was like another sign that my father mattered for Russians. I have never seen it in my life. So many flowers.

Ben Rhodes [00:06:53] So many people had turned out. And not just in Moscow. Dozens of cities in Russia held marches.

Unidentified [00:07:00] It was one of those moments that you knew. This changes everything.

Unidentified [00:07:05] It was a real watershed moment in Russian political history.

Unidentified [00:07:09] Imagining Nemtsov dead was very hard because of just the vitality and him being so real and alive.

Unidentified [00:07:16] This handsome guy with this booming voice and a big crowd around him wherever he went.

Unidentified [00:07:23] He was a legend, the guy whom Yeltsin considered to be his successor.

Unidentified [00:07:27] He dedicated his life to the opposition movement, and he was never going to give up.

Unidentified [00:07:34] If he was no longer allowed to exist in the most literal, physical way, who and what else also wouldn’t be allowed to exist anymore?

Unidentified [00:07:44] There was just a river of people, I think, mourning both his death as a person and mourning the end, I feel like, the final end of that dream and realization of what Russia has become. In a country which once was on the path to normality and to being part of the world and open to the world to becoming a fascist state.

Ben Rhodes [00:08:09] This public outpouring of grief made Zhanna realize that she hadn’t really had time to deal with her own in private. One evening, she decided to return to the place that her father died with just her mom.

Zhanna Nemtsova [00:08:30] I came to that bridge and suddenly I burst into tears. And I fell on the mountain of flowers. And then I saw a police car approaching. I just, I was running to the middle of the bridge and I started to yell at this police car, I’m not afraid of you. And then my mom approached and she just took me from this road.

Ben Rhodes [00:09:01] Zhanna wasn’t afraid, but she was angry. In part because she thought that Putin, the man who is ultimately responsible for her father’s murder, would never be held accountable. Do you remember him commenting on the case?

Zhanna Nemtsova [00:09:15] Oh, yes. He didn’t come to the funeral. He sent flowers.

Ben Rhodes [00:09:19] He sent flowers?

Zhanna Nemtsova [00:09:20] Yes. From the president of the Russian Federation.

Ben Rhodes [00:09:23] Putin also responded publicly.

News Clip [00:09:28] We must rid Russia of disgraces and tragedies like the one we just saw, the brazen murder of Boris Nemtsov right in the center of the capital.

Zhanna Nemtsova [00:09:40] He said it was a shameful act. And that full and transparent investigation should be conducted and he will personally take it under his control.

Ben Rhodes [00:09:54] And what did you think when you saw that first statement? Why did you think Putin was suggesting he’d be personally overseeing the investigation?

Zhanna Nemtsova [00:10:01] Well, he wanted to convince the public this assassination was not done on his command.

Ben Rhodes [00:10:11] To Zhanna, Putin’s reaction was bloodless and cynical, and it only made things worse. She didn’t want Putin to be performing like this. She wanted an independent, honest investigation. In the days after her father’s death, Zhanna was being hounded by the media for comments, interviews. She had never publicly spoken out against Putin before. If she was going to, this would be her moment. But she knew it would cost her.

News Clip [00:10:46] [Russian News Clip]

Ben Rhodes [00:10:50] Things were getting complicated at the TV station where she worked as a financial journalist. After her father was killed, top management asked Zhanna for a meeting.

Zhanna Nemtsova [00:11:00] And it was quite a strange conversation. They said, You know, we would like you to stay. We’d like you to work. We value you so much as a stock market commentator, and we are very happy with your reporting. But they hinted they would like me to stay away from politics. And in Russia, politics is everything.

Ben Rhodes [00:11:23] Yeah.

Zhanna Nemtsova [00:11:23] When you have your own ideas, when you voice any criticism, this is politics.

Ben Rhodes [00:11:31] Her bosses were worried that Zhanna would talk to the media, that she would say who she thought was responsible for her dad’s murder, that she would act like her father’s daughter.

Zhanna Nemtsova [00:11:46] So it was a moral dilemma for me. I could continue with my normal life I had led before my father’s assassination. I was quite an accomplished business journalist. I didn’t want anything to change. I played tennis in the morning and then I went to work and then I met with my friends. I spent some time with my family, so it was a normal life.

Ben Rhodes [00:12:12] Zhanna could keep quiet, go on about her business.

Zhanna Nemtsova [00:12:15] But in this case, I could not be very active, publicly active, and I could not do a lot of interviews, things like that. Or I could choose a different path.

Ben Rhodes [00:12:27] Just think about the choice that Zhanna faced. This different path would leave her entire world behind. She’d already lost her dad. Was she ready to put everything on the line? Give up the rest of her life, too?

Zhanna Nemtsova [00:12:42] I think I didn’t care that much about any consequences. I wanted to be an honest person. I wanted to respect myself. I was so desperate. And I was driven by my grief, by my moral duty to my father. And I pretty much understood that my life wouldn’t be the same.

Ben Rhodes [00:13:09] On March 11th, 12 days after she lost her father, Zhanna agreed to do an interview with BBC Newsnight.

Zhanna Nemtsova [00:13:20] So it was a very emotional interview. I was very blunt.

Zhanna Nemtsova [00:13:24] He was a critic of Putin. He fought with Putin.

BBC Reporter [00:13:30] Therefore, it’s Putin that you blame for his death.

Zhanna Nemtsova [00:13:32] Politically, yes.

BBC Reporter [00:13:33] Can I ask you very specifically, do you think President Putin ordered your father killed?

Zhanna Nemtsova [00:13:40] I don’t have evidence, but politically, he’s responsible.

Ben Rhodes [00:13:53] After this BBC interview, Zhanna’s purpose in life changed. What did you mean by politically responsible?

Zhanna Nemtsova [00:14:00] Politically responsible means that he created an environment in which those assassinations became possible.

Ben Rhodes [00:14:10] You know, those billboards plastered across Moscow calling Nemtsov a national traitor? The nightly talk shows?

Zhanna Nemtsova [00:14:17] He was attacked. He was sent to jail. So there was an environment in which it was encouraged by the government to persecute Kremlin’s political opponents. So that’s what it means to be politically responsible.

Ben Rhodes [00:14:33] Putin was trying to go out of his way to suggest that he had nothing to do with it. He said he would personally oversee the investigation into the murder. The FSB, Putin’s old workplace, named five suspects, all Chechen guys. We’ll come back to this detail in a minute. In October 2016, the trial began in a military court in Moscow.

News Clip [00:14:58] Five Chechen men accused of the murder of opposition politician Boris Nemtsov have gone on trial in Moscow. The defendants, who were allegedly promised cash to carry out the killing, deny the charges.

Ben Rhodes [00:15:10] The five defendants sat in a glass cage surrounded by armed guards and a German shepherd. Day after day, the prosecution put forward their case.

Zhanna Nemtsova [00:15:23] The version that they put forward and they’re still insisting on that, is that those guys killed my father for money. What? Probably they got some money yes, but who paid?

Ben Rhodes [00:15:38] Zhanna wasn’t interested in who pulled the trigger. She wanted to know who sent them, who was behind the killing? Who wanted her dad dead? According to the prosecutors, it was the driver of an associate of Chechnya’s strongman leader and close Putin ally, Ramzan Kadyrov. Hence the five Chechens. Now I want to take a moment to talk about Kadyrov, because he’s important. For years, Putin has let Kadyrov run Chechnya as his own fiefdom. Since the invasion of Ukraine, you may have seen in social media videos, a thuggish guy with a long pointed beard threatening to invade Poland as soon as his troops are through with Ukraine.

News Clip [00:16:27] [Russian News Clip].

Ben Rhodes [00:16:36] Or you may have heard him laughing off rumors that he’s been hired to kill Ukrainian President Zelensky.

News Clip [00:16:41] [Russian News Clip]

Ben Rhodes [00:16:46] Run, run Zelensky, he chuckles.

News Clip [00:16:51] [Russian News Clip]

Ben Rhodes [00:16:52] The the interesting thing here is Ramzan Kadyrov is widely understood to be Putin’s warlord. The guy who does the really dirty work for him.

Zhanna Nemtsova [00:17:03] And the deal between Putin and Kadyrov is as follows. Ramzan ensures the so-called stability in Chechnya. And Putin grants him a lot of powers to do whatever he wants to do.

Ben Rhodes [00:17:18] Zhanna’s lawyers wanted Kadyrov to be brought in for questioning because of his link to these five Chechens. He never was. And the man the prosecution said paid for the killing, the driver of his associate, he was never even found. It seemed like the prosecution wasn’t that interested in finding out who was really responsible for killing Boris Nemtsov.

Zhanna Nemtsova [00:17:42] You know that my father was killed on Bolshoy Moskvorensky bridge, just in the heart of Moscow near the Kremlin. And this is an area of strategic importance. It is packed with cameras. They are almost everywhere. And if you do something on that bridge, you will not be able to get away with it.

Ben Rhodes [00:18:12] So Zhanna’s lawyers asked for the footage from those cameras.

Zhanna Nemtsova [00:18:16] They said there are no cameras there. And then my lawyers send them like some photos. And on those photos, you could see that, like there are cameras everywhere.

Ben Rhodes [00:18:29] You can see the cameras. Yeah.

Zhanna Nemtsova [00:18:31] You just can see the cameras. And they denied anything and they didn’t offer any viable explanation.

Ben Rhodes [00:18:38] After ten months in court, the verdict came in. Guilty, all five men.

News Clip [00:18:46] We begin with breaking news out of Russia where the killer of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov has been sentenced. Zaur Dadaev was handed a 20 year prison term.

News Clip [00:18:58] A Russian court has convicted five men of murdering opposition leader and Kremlin critic, Boris Nemtsov.

Ben Rhodes [00:19:07] The gunman was sentenced to 20 years. His four accomplices from 11 to 19. As far as Putin was concerned, that was that. Case closed. When they were convicted, did you feel like any justice had been done? That the people that did have some responsibility for your father’s assassination might have been given prison sentences?

Zhanna Nemtsova [00:19:30] Well, I think that justice was very partially done, but I wanted other questions to be answered.

Ben Rhodes [00:19:40] Sure the man who may have pulled the trigger was behind bars. The man who drove the getaway car. But who paid them? Who ordered and organized the whole thing?

Zhanna Nemtsova [00:19:52] I wanted the government to admit that it was a politically motivated assassination. Right? I wanted the central investigative-

Ben Rhodes [00:20:04] Why else? Why else would a bunch of Chechens kill your father right in front of the Kremlin?

Zhanna Nemtsova [00:20:07] Yes. And that’s a big question. As far as I understand, the organizers and those who masterminded it are not punished. And they can continue to do what they want to do to get rid of their political opponents or whatever. So it’s not justice.

Ben Rhodes [00:20:29] Do you think he was killed because of his opposition to the war?

Zhanna Nemtsova [00:20:32] Yes. So if I look at that from today, I think Putin was preparing for the war for a long time. My father understood it and he didn’t just say it. He carefully scrutinized all the documents, the national budget, and its composition. And he realized that the military expenditures have been growing in Russia for many decades. So my father realized Putin was preparing for something big. Putin wanted to get rid of such powerful voices as my father because my father had the potential to mobilize a lot of people. He was an experienced politician and he didn’t want those people to be active.

Ben Rhodes [00:21:28] Zhanna realized she’d never get anything resembling justice for her father in Russia. So she took her fight with her into exile.

Zhanna Nemtsova [00:21:36] I didn’t feel comfortable in my country. I didn’t feel secure.

Ben Rhodes [00:21:41] She moved to Germany for a while and that’s where Zhanna and I first met. In June 2017, I went there with Barack Obama five months after his presidency. Zhanna emailed me out of the blue and traveled several hours to meet me for a drink. Over a glass of wine, she told me her story and asked for whatever help Obama or I could provide in advocating for a real investigation of her father’s murder.

Zhanna Nemtsova [00:22:09] The problem is that even such brutal crimes stand to be forgotten inside the country and the world. And they did everything in their power to make people forget about my father and about his tragic death.

Ben Rhodes [00:22:27] But Zhanna can never forget.

Zhanna Nemtsova [00:22:29] My mission was to keep my father’s political legacy alive and to promote his political legacy.

Ben Rhodes [00:22:35] So Zhanna started her new life’s work, the Boris Nemtsov Foundation. Today, among other things, it supports Russian journalists and activists who investigate and oppose the Putin regime.

Zhanna Nemtsova [00:22:48] I want to build bigger communities of like minded people, of people who believe that Russia can be a democratic country, who are committed to reform in our country when change comes.

Ben Rhodes [00:23:05] Building another Russia. At a time when that seems, well, impossible. Sounds like what her father tried to do. Boris Nemtsov had to know that he might not see things change in his lifetime, but he still turned up to protest. He still handed out pamphlets at railway stations. He still protested the war. After Boris Nemtsov’s murder, the Russian opposition found themselves in a new political reality. Nobody was safe. And with Nemtsov gone, Alexei Navalny moved to the forefront. I actually ended up facetiming with Nevalny over the summer of 2020, for my last book. I asked him, Are you afraid? I’m a normal guy, Navalny told me. Of course I have a sense of danger. Of course it’s uncomfortable when they’re arresting you. Of course it’s uncomfortable when you’re in the cell and the metal door closes behind you and you realize they can do anything. In 2020, Navalny was poisoned and nearly killed.

News Clip [00:24:17] Alexei Navalny is being treated at a hospital in Germany after a suspected poisoning.

Ben Rhodes [00:24:23] Then, like Nemtsov, Navalny went back to Russia. Now he’s in a maximum security penal colony. And of course, in February of 2022, Putin launched his full scale invasion of Ukraine and dissent inside of Russia became fully criminalized for everyone. Media outlets and human rights organizations critical of the war have been labeled, quote, foreign agents, and shut down. Even just talking about the war can get you thrown in prison. Many thousands of people have left Russia like Zhanna did years ago. Today, Zhanna lives in Portugal with her husband Pavel. But she continues her fight for her country from abroad. And she’s not alone.

Zhanna Nemtsova [00:25:18] No one knows what will come. But right now, it’s a matter of faith. You either believe that it is possible or you think it is impossible that Russia will be a total mess for the years to come. If you think it is impossible for Russia to change, then the only thing I would do I will just give it all up.

Ben Rhodes [00:25:45] Yeah.

Zhanna Nemtsova [00:25:46] But I choose to believe that Russia could be a better country and that’s why I’m doing what I’m doing.

Ben Rhodes [00:25:58] Does the fact that so many things have changed in the time of the story we’ve been telling, right? You know, 1984 to the post-Soviet years, to Putin, to the war. Does the fact that you have seen and experienced history changing that fast, in a strange way, give you hope that things might change fast in a better direction?

Zhanna Nemtsova [00:26:20] Well, I was born in the Soviet Union, and at that time my first recollections of those days was that there was no hope. And then suddenly everything changed. And my father rose to prominence. And all those reforms started. And there were a lot of hopes associated with our country, despite the fact that was not a perfect democracy at all. It was dominated by the oligarchs, etc., etc.. And now I feel like I’m more or less in 1984.

Ben Rhodes [00:27:00] Yeah.

Zhanna Nemtsova [00:27:01] Like, you know. No hope.

Ben Rhodes [00:27:03] Yeah. Back in time.

Zhanna Nemtsova [00:27:04] Yeah. It’s like back in time and still you think that it can be different.

Ben Rhodes [00:27:09] And so what do we learn from this whole story? You know, Boris Nemtsov, he fails in trying to build the Russia that he believed in. He succeeds in staying true to his principles, to the very end and kind of being correct about Putin. But what is the lesson from this whole thing?

Zhanna Nemtsova [00:27:29] So the lesson we should learn, that compromises do not save you. And inside the country, there were some people who, like, thought, like, you know, we can work in this system. We can still bring some change. We will not publish this and that. Many people tried to make deals with Putin inside the country. Beyond our country. And what? Compromises do not save you. And that’s what my father was talking about.

Ben Rhodes [00:28:06] I’ve known Zhanna for five years now. And I’ve come to realize that her own determination isn’t just tied to politics. It’s personal. It’s inseparable from how much she loves her dad. Can I ask you one more thing? It’s very powerful for me, I think, because I’m a father, although I’m not that old. You clearly loved your father so much. I mean, I’m getting a little emotional just even. It’s just so evident how much you loved your father. And I just wanted to ask you why? Like, what was it about him?

Zhanna Nemtsova [00:28:48] Well, love is very simple, but it’s very difficult to explain why you love one person and do not love that other person.

Ben Rhodes [00:28:56] But it’s not just like because he’s your dad. There’s something else to it here.

Zhanna Nemtsova [00:28:59] I’m a big fan of my father. I don’t know why. I am just personally a big fan of my father, though I can admit that he was not a saint, obviously, but he was like always a source of inspiration. And he was a very interesting person. And my father loved me very much. I think that this love for my father, actually, that is the main driving force for me personally in my life. I want him to see how much I have achieved. That I’m recording this podcast with Ben Rhodes, who used to work with Barak Obama. So, I mean, I just want to share all my life experiences with him. I just want to hear his reaction.

Ben Rhodes [00:29:51] And just just to have him be proud, right?

Zhanna Nemtsova [00:29:55] Proud and to criticize me as well. He should say, What are you doing at the Boris Nemtsov Foundation? No, that is wrong.

Ben Rhodes [00:30:05] Even in death, Boris is still pushing his daughter, still a part of her life, still uncompromising. The lessons for me, from this whole story, sometimes the people who are issuing the most dire warnings, the people who say inconvenient truths about how bad things can get. People like Boris Nemtsov. Sometimes they’re right and we should listen to them. Another lesson. Human dignity cannot be compromised for the sake of stability or profit or political gain. And frankly, that’s a lesson for us Americans to learn. Otherwise, in the face of our own corruption and autocracy, we could be left insisting that there is another America. Boris Nemtsov’s story is a story of what happened to an entire country, Russia, through a period of history that has not yet reached its end. But parts of it are timeless. The image of an individual fighting for what he thinks is right. A movement of people who don’t want to live under autocracy. A daughter who loves her father and what he stands for. Another Russia is an original podcast from Crooked Media. It is produced by Samizdat Audio. I’m Ben Rhodes, your co-host, writer and executive producer.

Zhanna Nemtsova [00:31:53] And I’m Zhanna Nemtsova, your co-host and executive producer.

Ben Rhodes [00:31:57] From Crooked Media, our executive producers are Sarah Geismer and Katie Long. With special thanks to Alison Falzetta. From Samizdat, our executive producers are Dasha Lisitsina and Joe Sykes. Asya Fouks is our producer. All three also helped with writing on the series. Fact checking by Amy Tardif. Archival by Molly Schwartz. The series was sound dedesign by Jeff Emtman and Martin Austwick composed our theme music and score.

Zhanna Nemtsova [00:32:26] If you want to learn more about the stories of Russians who are standing up to autocracy and how you can help support their work, check out Nemtsova.org/russiansforchange. We will also put a link in our show notes.