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Russian state television covered a mass public rally in Moscow on Sunday, held to remember the life of a prominent critic of President Vladimir Putin with a degree of accuracy and sensitivity rarely seen by public broadcasters here in recent years.
Tens of thousands of ordinary people turned out to pay their respects at the spot within yards of the Kremlin where Boris Nemtsov was gunned down late Friday night as he walked home after an evening out with his girlfriend.
Nemstov, 55, was a charismatic and outspoken politician who, in the 1990s, was a deputy prime minister tipped to succeed Boris Yeltsin as Russia’s second post-Soviet president. At first a fan of Putin, he later lost faith with Russia’s leadership to become a strident Kremlin critic and vocal opponent of Putin’s policy in Ukraine.
His death — shot in the back four times by an unknown assailant within sight of the symbols of Russian power going back centuries, the Kremlin, Red Square and St Basil’s Cathedral — has sent shockwaves through a country where state control of television and a crackdown on independent stations has given the Kremlin a virtual monopoly of what news is aired.
Nemtsov, who had been preparing a dossier that associates say would have proven Russian military involvement fighting alongside rebels in eastern Ukraine, had been planning to attend a planned opposition rally in Moscow on Sunday that city authorities had banished to Maryno, a remote south-eastern suburb of grim Soviet-era high-rise apartment blocks. That rally would likely have attracted a few thousand activists and been completely ignored by state media.
Instead, the opposition Saturday canceled the march and petitioned city hall for permission to hold a memorial march in central Moscow. After permission was initially denied, Moscow’s mayor relented, and Sunday’s march saw as many as 70,000 people walking mostly in silence to pay their respects to a man who insisted Russia had been taken hostage by a deeply corrupt and cynical administration that was based on massive personal corruption by the president and his close circle.
State television reports did not reflect that side of the story, but a mass gathering of civilians carrying flowers, and the Russian tricolor fluttering in a cold, damp breeze above them, was not something they could ignore.
NTV, once Russia’s leading independent station but now owned by the media wing of state natural gas monopoly Gazprom, ran scenes of the march, estimating numbers at 20,000 and reporting that it had largely passed off without incident. A Ukrainian member of parliament, Alexey Goncharenko, who had flown in for the event, but is suspected by Russian authorities of involvement in an incident in Odessa, Ukraine, last May in which a number of pro-Russian activities died, was arrested near the Kremlin. Otherwise, a rally that was a cross-section of independently minded Russians, young and old — families with small children alike — passed off without incidence.
The station also ran footage from a video camera of the bridge on which Nemtsov died, showing that at the precise time when he was gunned down — shortly after 11:30 p.m. local time Friday night — the view was obscured by a passing snow-clearing truck. It also aired officials views that Nemtsov, who was Jewish, may have been killed by Islamic extremists or by opposition activists as a “sacrifice” of its leader to destablize Russia and undermine Putin.
Channel One, Russia’s most-watched broadcaster, ran a balanced report on the march, noting that it replaced the planned “anti-crisis” rally. But its man-on-the-street interviews included a young bearded male sporting an earring, who told viewers across Russia that he had not planned to go the opposition rally, but had decided to come to the memorial march simply because “people have died, nothing to do with Nemtsov, Ukraine or what is going on in the east [of Ukraine].” Others spoke of paying their respects to an active politician, though one man said Nemtsov’s politics were not to his personal taste.
Kremlin-loyal LifeNews, which has a rolling tabloid-style news feed, concentrated on Nemtsov’s personal life and the fact he had been dining Friday evening with Anna Duritsakaya, a Ukrainian model 32 years his junior, who was with him when he was shot dead.
Simone Baumann, a German producer of a controversial documentary about the Sochi Winter Olympics, Putin’s Games, which exposed corruption in the $50 billion construction project for the sports event and featured Nemtsov, attributed his death to a rapidly deteriorating quality of news coverage and public debate in Russia.
Baumann, who is currently making two films for German-French pubcaster Arte about the way Putin has turned Russian television into a channel for Kremlin propaganda, told The Hollywood Reporter there was a “very dangerous propaganda war against Ukraine, the U.S. and Europe.”
“Russian media was completely under the control of the Kremlin,” she said. “In one of this last interviews, Nemtsov stated that there are no journalists working in Russian state media anymore, just FSB agents, and that the West unfortunately does not get that.”
She added that most Russian people were now “completely brain-washed,” after months and years of biased news and current-affairs coverage and chat shows that constantly warn of the danger of “fifth columnists” within Russian society.
Hours before his death, Nemstov spoke with radio station Ekho Moskvy in his last media interview, describing Putin as a “pathological liar” whom he blamed for starting an “insane, aggressive, murderous” war in Ukraine.
U.S secretary of state John Kerry, speaking on ABC’s This Week on Sunday, said America wanted to see a “thorough, transparent, real investigation, not just of who actually fired the shots but who, if anyone, may have ordered or instructed or been behind this.”
Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, has described Nemtsov’s killing as a provocation, saying the “cruel murder has all the makings of a contract hit.” A reward of three million roubles ($48,000) had been offered for information leading to the killers.
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