Why this is important

“Democracy’s a very fragile thing. You have to take care of democracy. As soon as you stop being responsible to it and allow it to turn into scare tactics, it’s no longer democracy, is it? It may be an inch away from totalitarianism.”

Sam Shepard

Belying the grim landscape painted by the Western press and the “rosy” view presented by the Kremlin propaganda, the sparks of democracy in Russia are not at all extinguished.

There are still forces seeking to steer the country towards Western values and democratic ideals. Until recently, Boris Nemtsov was one of these forces’ leading lights. In effect, there are two Russias: the Russia of Putin and the Russia of Nemtsov.

Putin’s Russia is rife with despotism, falsehood, corruption, thought suppression, lawlessness, and crude aggression – the ways of the past that Russia tried hard to jettison back in the 1990s.

Nemtsov’s Russia is much smaller, with no access to mass media; hence, few know of its existence. It is a westward-looking society the citizens of which hold values similar to those of Americans and Europeans: freedom of speech, rule of law, tolerance, peace, and justice.

These people are true citizens who oppose Putin’s regime and are not afraid to resist openly in spite of repercussions from the government and lack of support from outside the country.

The costs of such resistance are very high, and many have died for it. They are heroes of Russia, although their sacrifices for freedom and democracy mean their heroism belongs to the entire world.

It is not easy to be a true citizen. It is not easy to stand up for the right to be free. The triumph of democracy had been paid for with millions of human lives over the centuries, and yet, its fruits can be lost forever in a single day if only the efforts necessary to maintain it cease.

Democracy is not a static object (like, say, a house), but a process (more like keeping the house safe). Democracy must be defended.

Boris Nemtsov understood this better than others. With his talents, he could have taken any of the “easy” political or business career paths open to him. All that was necessary was making a deal with his own conscience, as so many of his circle did. But he aimed higher: making Russia free, prosperous, and respected – rather than feared – by the international community.

He himself made the choice between personal success and patriotic duty. The choice to be a free man in an unfreeze country paralyzed by its own atmosphere of fear. In the end, it turned out to be a fatal choice. But the story of Nemtsov’s life and death ought to make us pause and think of how transformational change of a whole nation begins with one individual.

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