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In Moscow, a protest march becomes a wake for slain opposition politician

Boris Nemtsov was shot dead Friday night in central Moscow. His death has alarmed many in Moscow, who are skeptical of President Putin's promise to find the killers.

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People march to commemorate Kremlin critic Boris Nemtsov, who was shot dead on Friday night, in central Moscow March 1, 2015. Holding placards declaring "I am not afraid", thousands of Russians marched in Moscow on Sunday in memory of Nemtsov, whose murder has widened a split in society that some say could threaten Russia's future. The poster reads, "He died for the future of Russia."

Sergei Karpukhin

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A planned anti-Kremlin protest became a grim march of mourning Sunday, as tens of thousands of people filed past the flower-strewn spot next to Red Square where liberal activist Boris Nemtsov was murdered, gangland-style, late Friday night.

The mood was subdued and tense. Marchers carried portraits of Mr. Nemtsov, with the caption "those bullets were for every one of us." A huge banner read "heroes never die."

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"There is terror creeping into our society, and it has to be stopped," said Svetlana Maximova, a schoolteacher. "I wasn't particularly a supporter of Nemtsov, but this is about maintaining some civilized lines for everyone. If he can be shot like that, in the heart of Moscow, then no one is safe."

Nemtsov, a charismatic former physicist, was elected governor of one of Russia's biggest regions, Nizhni Novgorod, in the early 1990s. An ardently pro-Western, free market advocate, he was appointed as deputy prime minister by then President Boris Yeltsin and groomed as his possible successor.

Amid corruption scandals and a financial crash, Mr. Yeltsin instead chose the chief of the former KGB security service, a relative unknown named Vladimir Putin, in 1999. After a brief collaboration with Putin, Nemtsov went into political opposition, an ever-shrinking terrain he energetically, eloquently and even cheerfully inhabited until his death.

"He never changed his views, not for the sake of his career or anything else," says Lyudmilla Alexeyeva, a founder of Russia's oldest human rights organization, the Moscow Helsinki Group. "Many people respected him; I loved him a lot."

Reviving the momentum?

For Russia's beleaguered liberals, it's a moment filled with grief and foreboding. Barely three years ago they held massive rallies against the country's creeping authoritarianism on Bolotnaya Square, just a stone's throw from Friday's murder scene. Sunday's march was supposed to revive that momentum by focusing on Russia's vicious political climate, including the fraught debate over the Kremlin's covert involvement in Ukraine's civil war. With Nemtsov's killing, those concerns may have gone from abstract to terrifyingly real.

Analysts believe that the majority mood of hyper-patriotism and the official media's labeling of liberal opponents as "traitors" may be encouraging violence by ultra-right fringe groups. And one of several theories currently being studied by the Kremlin's powerful Investigative Committee is that Nemtsov's murder may have been connected with "Ukrainian events."  

"The poisonous atmosphere we're living it is the basic problem," says Alexei Kondaurov, a former KGB general turned politician. "There are new people out there, armed groups, who are not controlled by the authorities. It's a new generation," he says. This includes Russian volunteer fighters in eastern Ukraine who now equate Russian liberals with Ukraine's Maidan revolutionaries. "I'm afraid this tragedy is just the beginning," he says.        

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Vladimir Putin has condemned Nemtsov's killing, and created a high-level investigative team that will answer to him directly. Some protesters at Sunday's march said they blame Mr. Putin personally for the Nemtsov murder, but most were more circumspect.

In recent years, the Kremlin successfully marginalized Russia's liberals by denying them access to mainstream media and tarring them as agents of Western influence. Putin currently enjoys 86 percent public approval while Nemtsov has barely showed up in opinion polls in recent years.

When Nemtsov and others asked for permission to stage today's protest rally, authorities gave them a location deep in Moscow's outskirts. But after Nemtsov's murder they relented and let the march go ahead right beside the Kremlin. The huge numbers who turned out Sunday to honor Nemtsov Sunday were likely far greater than the original rally would have drawn, and may have changed Russia's political calculus, if only for now.  

Nationalist turn

Many of Nemtsov's longtime friends blame Putin for his sharp turn toward Russian nationalism, which has intensified as Russian involvement in Ukraine's crisis escalated, while Western countries imposed economic sanctions that fed the Kremlin's promotion of a cold war-era image of Russia as a surrounded fortress.

"This murder became possible in the atmosphere created by Putin," says Vladimir Ryzhkov, a veteran Russian politician who, along with Nemtsov, was a co-founder of the liberal Party of People's Freedom in 2010. "The propaganda campaign that [sees political opponents as] a 'fifth column' was Putin's idea. Against the background of the war in Ukraine extremist groups are proliferating, they have guns and know how to use them."

Irina Khakamada is another old colleague, who served in government with Nemtsov in the 1990s. "What can we expect when the situation is artificially stirred and infused with aggression? I am already getting threats, via the social media, with messages such as 'your turn will come.' What's happened will only make things worse," she says.