As people streamed out of the Gorkovskaya metro on Sunday afternoon, they were met with the image of a crowd continuing as far as the eye could see. Young and old, men and women, friends and families gathered together: some held placards, others carried flowers, many more came only with pained expressions on their faces.
Sunday was the 1st of March, the first day of Russian spring. What was planned weeks in advance as an “anti-crisis” rally was thrown into disarray by Russia’s first major political murder in a decade. Less than 48 hours after former deputy Prime Minister and opposition leader Boris Nemtsov was gunned down by faceless killers in Moscow, an estimated 10,000 Saint Petersburgers marched across the Troitsky bridge to the nearby Field of Mars (Marsovo Polye).
While the Moscow “anti-crisis” protest was cancelled, with a memorial held in its place, the Saint Petersburg event became a mixture of the two. Months worth of pent-up anger at Russia’s economic crisis was obscured beneath an outpouring of sadness at the death of one of Russia’s few high-profile critics of President Vladimir Putin. Despite the freezing cold, despite the confusion, it was the biggest demonstration Saint Petersburg has seen in years.
Sergei, a construction worker, marched with companions holding a banner that read ‘Putin is the Crisis and the War’. “I am here because of the crisis, because of Nemtsov, because of everything,” he said. “I was in shock when I found out. I’m just not satisfied with the politics of this country.”
The demonstrators assembled on the slippery ice coating the Field of Mars to listen to speeches and tributes from opposition activists. “Boris was always the one to tell the truth,” one speaker told the crowd. “But now he is not around to tell the truth, so we have to do that. You have to do that.”
A more sombre scene took place a stone’s throw away as others laid flowers at the nearby eternal flame, traditionally a memorial for victims of the 1917 Revolution and the ensuing Civil War. “This is a great loss for the country, of a most pure man,” Aleksandra, 46, said as she lay four red tulips beside a picture of Nemtsov. She told Prospekt that this is her first time attending a protest: “when I heard the news, I felt pain… and then I felt the need to carry on what he was doing.”
Nemtsov had risen to prominence in the mid-1990s as a tireless anti-corruption advocate and was once dubbed “Russia’s most popular politician” by the BBC. Free from major political office, Nemtsov became increasingly critical of Putin in his last decade: he opposed the war in Ukraine and was often criticised by state-run media. Nemtsov had his fair share of enemies, but most Russians had thought the days of murdered politicians were over.
One of the most popular signs at the protest was “I am not afraid,” but Putin’s opponents most definitely have reason to be. The people that killed Nemtsov in cold blood on the doorstep of the Kremlin are unknown and still at large. Putin has announced a reward of 3 million roubles ($48,000) for information on Nemtsov’s murder – few people are expecting this money to be paid out anytime soon.
The demonstrators in Saint Petersburg showed little enthusiasm for shouting political slogans, despite receiving encouragement from some speakers. Occasional chants of “Russia without Putin!” and “Do not forgive, do not forget!” rang out from a crowd that on this day was too shocked, too shaken to be truly enraged. If Russia’s ailing economy does not begin to recover soon, future demonstrations may not be as pensive at this one.
RICHARD ENSOR AND NATALIA SMOLENTCEVA