The murder of Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov shocked the civilized world. Nemtsov was a true patriot, who, from the age of 30, had been a courageous force for democracy and privatization and a champion of the transformation of the former Soviet Russia into a modern, Westernized society. I knew him through his outreach to Philadelphia when he was the newly appointed governor of the Nizhny Novgorod region, in the Volga area of Russia.
I met Nemtsov in 1992 during what I believe was his first trip to the United States. Nemtsov met with a group of us to explore opportunities for investment in the Philadelphia region. Later that year we visited Nemtsov in Nizhny Novgorod (formerly the closed city of Gorky) as part of a mission on behalf of an international affiliate of the University City Science Center to explore tech-transfer opportunities and teach students in the university.
Boris had made one personal request before that trip. Would I bring him a pineapple? Yes, a pineapple. Russia was still in a state of defitsit (chronic shortages). Pineapples had not been available for years. He had remembered enjoying pineapple with his mother in Sochi when he was 9. So I carried a pineapple - a symbol of friendship, hospitality, and welcome - by air from Philadelphia to Moscow and by train to Nizhny Novgorod. I still remember his warm smile when he took the fruit in hand.
What impressed me most about Nemtsov was his love of life and his sense of humor. On one occasion he met us at Sheremetyevo Airport in Moscow and whisked us through security, telling the officials - with Soviet-style panache - that we were a delegation from the European Union. Above all, notwithstanding his political success at a young age, he never seemed to take himself all that seriously.
With the cooperation of Mayor Ed Rendell, we established a sister-cities relationship between Philadelphia and Nizhny Novgorod. Papers were completed in Nizhny in October 1992. We visited Nemtsov and his family in their flat on the 10th floor of a drab, poorly lit late-Soviet era cinder-block apartment building, with an elevator that seemed to have lost confidence in itself. His flat would not have been acceptable for public housing here, but he wanted to make the point that public service was not about material privilege. Despite the conditions outside, his home was warm and inviting.
Those were days of optimism in Russia. Nizhny, 250 miles east of Moscow, had long been an industrial center on the Volga (strategically, far from the Eastern Front during the war), as well as a center of science and technology. It was said the submarine prototype featured in the movie The Hunt for Red October was built there. Nemtsov sought to make Nizhny Novgorod a center of democracy, tech transfer, and trade.
Philadelphia and Nizhny were a great match; each stood for liberty and outreach to a growing global economy. Like Philadelphia, Nizhny had been a bustling freshwater entrepôt in the late 19th century, and, like Philadelphia, was a strategic part of the allied defense industry in World War II. And Nizhny Novgorod also has extraordinary landmarks, including its iconic early 16th-century kremlin and the St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral.
I traveled to Nizhny Novgorod several times thereafter and was part of a team lecturing on law under the auspices of the U.S. Information Agency and the U.S. Agency for International Development. In the intervening years I followed Nemtsov's career from afar.
However grim the news of the changing political climate in Russia, I took comfort in the fact that Boris Nemtsov, a Russian patriot and free spirit, was still speaking truth to power. That comfort is shattered. The raw truth is bitter. Boris is gone, and Russia so much the poorer for it.
Michael Sklaroff is a partner at the Ballard Spahr law firm in Philadelphia