Russian-Jewish filmmakers immortalize murdered Putin critic as ‘Boris Nemtsov, Jew’

Russian-Jewish filmmakers immortalize murdered Putin critic as ‘Boris Nemtsov, Jew’

Assassinated outside the Kremlin, the dissenting politician has become something of a cult figure and is the subject of films, poetry and song

By Julie Masis
 April 8, 2017
Boris Nemtsov, a charismatic Russian opposition leader and sharp critic of President Vladimir Putin, at the site where Nemtsov was gunned down near the Kremlin, against a backdrop of the Kremlin Wall, in Moscow, Russia, Monday, March 2, 2015. (photo credit: AP Photo/Ivan Sekretarev)

Two years on, Russia hasn’t forgotten the tragic murder outside the Kremlin of Boris Nemtsov, the Jewish anti-Putin politician.

He’s become something of a cult figure in a country known for silencing dissenters. There are now at least four films out about the martyred man, and some put the number as high as eight. At least two of the documentaries are the work of Russian Jewish artists.

Filmmaker Zosya Rodkevich, 26, had been interviewing Nemtsov on video for three years, ever since the 53-year-old politician unexpectedly invited her — a 22-year-old girl at the time — to share his private compartment on an overnight train. She accepted for the sake of her project, a short news piece she was going to post on YouTube.

She considered it a chance to get to know her subject more intimately — a rare opportunity for a filmmaker, she said. And she didn’t stop rolling on her small camera even as the famous politician turned out the light, fell asleep and began snoring.

In the film, we hear him talk as an older man might with a much younger woman.

“When I was your age, it seemed to me that if a person was 30, 40 or 50 years old they were already prehistoric animals, like mammoths. But I feel normal now,” he says in a sleepy voice, with his eyes closed.

Zosya Rodkevich, the filmmaker who was making a comedy about Boris Nemtsov before he was murdered. (Courtesy)

Zosya Rodkevich, the filmmaker who was making a comedy about Boris Nemtsov before he was murdered. (Courtesy)

As time went on, Nemtsov would invite Rodkevich to come along on his trips and to participate in political rallies as a member of the media. Their paths intersected so often that they developed a friendship — but nothing more, clarifies Rodkevich.

She focused the camera on him not only in public but also in a variety of more personal environments — at home, the barbershop, and at the gym.

“80% of the time, he talked about himself,” Rodkevich says. “He didn’t suffer from low self-esteem. He was very narcissistic. He was in love with himself. In normal life, I don’t get along with such people.”

She qualifies that, saying that he may have been narcissistic, but he wasn’t a selfish man. Though he may have been somewhat vain — he took good care of himself, always ate well and exercised regularly — he was also interested in the welfare of his motherland. He held important posts in the government, but gave it all up and joined the opposition because he cared about his country, Rodkevich says.

Her film contains footage of Nemtsov running on the treadmill — sometimes the only time for an interview he found in his busy schedule. In that clip, short of breath and with his shirt drenched in sweat, Nemtsov talks about having had children from three different women and worrying about not being the best father.

“I think he liked being videotaped while he was running, shaking his muscles and sweating,” Rodkevich says.

Rodkevich was editing her footage with the thought of making it into a comedy when news came that Nemtsov was gunned down in front of the Kremlin.

“I got an SMS that he was killed and I didn’t believe it,” she says. “I had two feelings — one, I had to make a movie so that it would be the first one to come out… I had to go and record the funeral. On the other hand, I lost my friend and I cried.”

The result is a film that makes the audience laugh until they view the tragic ending. It is also a realistic portrait of a politician whom many in Russia have put on a pedestal after his tragic death. Because the film doesn’t portray Nemtsov as perfect, Rodkevich was worried about how it would be received.

‘I had two feelings — one, I had to make a movie… On the other hand, I lost my friend and I cried’

“I was very worried because Nemtsov became a symbol. People write poems and songs about him. But in my film, he is not a superhero. He is sexist, he tries to flirt with every woman who walks by, he swears a lot,” says Rodkevich.

The hour-long documentary has done well at film festivals and is rated highly among home viewers as well. The film, entitled “My Friend Boris Nemtsov” won best feature-length documentary at the Krakow Film Festival in Poland and the Special Jury Mention at the Odessa International Film Festival in Ukraine.

It also brought Rodkevich face-to-face with Russian anti-Semitism. She has received insulting messages such as “Die Jewish bitch!” on YouTube and VK, the Russian version of Facebook.

“When the film came out, I got many of these messages. When people have no arguments, they argue with what’s expected of them,” she says. “Sometimes I press the ‘report insulting language’ button.”

Russian history through Nemstov’s lens

Vera Krichevskaya, another Jewish filmmaker who made a documentary about Boris Nemtsov. (Courtesy)

Vera Krichevskaya, another Jewish filmmaker who made a documentary about Boris Nemtsov. (Courtesy)

A more traditional documentary on Nemtsov was made by Vera Krichevskaya, the co-founder of Dojd TV, which she describes as Russia’s only independent television channel.

Krichevskaya and Mikhail Fishman — the editor in chief of the Moscow Times who wrote the script for the film — are both Jewish.

Their movie, “The Man Who Was Too Free,” is more than two hours long and is based on interviews with Russian politicians and businessmen about Nemtsov. Among the celebrities interviewed are the daughter of Boris Yeltsin, who talks about her father’s relationship with Nemtsov, former members of the Russian parliament, former oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, and Nemtsov’s daughter.

The film tells the story of Nemtsov’s life by touching on Russian historical events of the last 25 years in which he played a part, says Krichevskaya in a telephone interview from her current hometown of London.

The film follows Nemtsov’s political career, from his close relationship with Yeltsin — who is captured saying that Nemtsov should run for president — to his attempt to end the war in Chechnya and his relationship with Vladimir Putin.

It also explains Nemtsov’s motivations for first supporting Putin and later opposing his government. The film does not, however, make an attempt to investigate who murdered Nemtsov or why.

People carry portraits of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, who was gunned down on Friday, February 27, 2015 near the Kremlin. (photo credit: AP Photo/Pavel Golovkin)

People carry portraits of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, who was gunned down on Friday, February 27, 2015 near the Kremlin. (photo credit: AP Photo/Pavel Golovkin)

It was important to make the film because Nemtsov was the most important Russian politician who had been murdered since the Stalin era, says Krichevskaya. She describes him as the leader of Russia’s opposition and says it is essential to keep his memory alive because the Russian government is not doing anything to honor him.

“There are no streets named after him, you can’t even put a plaque on the house where he used to live. People bring flowers to the bridge where he was killed and the authorities remove the flowers, and the people bring flowers again,” says Krichevskaya.

‘He said, let me write that I am a Jew because otherwise others will scribble it on the fliers by hand’

In her film, Krichevskaya also mentions Nemtsov’s first political campaign in 1989 when he ran for the Congress of People’s Deputies in the Soviet Union. His campaign fliers read, “Boris Nemtsov, Jew.”

“Everyone tried to convince him not to do it because anti-Semitism was so rampant,” says Krichevskaya. “But he said, ‘Let me write that I am a Jew because otherwise others will scribble it on the fliers by hand.’”

What role Judaism played in Nemtsov’s life is unclear. His mother Dina Nemtsova (nee Eidman), was Jewish, but Nemtsov’s daughter is seen wearing a cross around her neck in the film.

“The Man Who Was Too Free” won Best Documentary from the Russian Guild of Film Critics this year.

Krichevskaya says she would be happy to bring her movie to a film festival in Israel.

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