fifteen

BUDUSHCHEGO NET

“THERE IS NO FUTURE HERE,” Zhanna said to her mother in the fall of 2008. It had to do with money, and Zhanna and Raisa were, uncharacteristically, fighting, blaming each other for money that had been lost. Money had turned out to be Zhanna’s calling. Not in the sense that she wanted to be super-rich. She was like her father that way: they enjoyed good vacations and big parties, and Boris liked his duplex apartment with a view of the Kremlin, and his Range Rover, but compared with his oligarch friends with their yachts and fleets of cars and multistory wine cellars, the Nemtsovs thought of themselves as simple people. Zhanna liked money the way her father liked physics: it made her brain rev up. To make money, you had to be quick and attentive and know when the moment came to bet against majority sentiment. In this sense playing the markets was the opposite of politics, and this was where Zhanna and Boris differed: she liked the one, and he liked the other.

It helped that the work was virtually free of risk. In 2007, when Zhanna went to work for Mercury Capital Trust, the Russian market only grew and grew, and the task was to grow a bit faster than the competition. Zhanna thought about money all the time. She started studying for a chartered financial analyst exam. At the end of 2007, the Russian market reached an all-time high.

In August 2008, Zhanna and Dmitry were on vacation in Thailand. It was late morning there when the markets opened in Moscow. Zhanna would take a look, maybe move a few things around, and go to the beach. On August 8 she saw something that made her think that a computer somewhere must be broken. The Russian stock market was in free fall.

Zhanna had actually seen the market fall once before, just two weeks earlier. That day, Putin held a meeting in Nizhny Novgorod; the subject was the state of the metals industry. One of the metals moguls was absent, and Putin—now officially merely the prime minister—was not pleased. He said that the Federal Antimonopoly Service should check into the activities of Mechel, the company whose majority owner had failed to show up. “Or perhaps even the Investigative Committee of the Prosecutor’s Office should look into it,” he said. “We have to figure out what’s going on.” He accused the company of exporting raw materials at below-market prices, causing the state to miss out on tax revenue. Mechel’s owner was absent because he had been hospitalized. “Of course, an illness is an illness,” said Putin. “But we may have to send a doctor over to him to take care of all his problems.”1

Putin had not singled out a company or an entrepreneur like that since he jailed Khodorkovsky and took his company. Within hours of the threat, the value of Mechel stock on the New York exchange dropped by a third. The following morning, when the Moscow exchange opened, the company continued losing at home. Other companies followed. The Russian stock market reverted to levels at which it had been four months earlier, while the Moscow currency exchange lost nearly two years’ worth of growth.2

That had been bad, but Zhanna had figured the market would recover. She even ignored Raisa’s advice to unload all metals companies. Now she was ignoring more than that: she knew, in theory, that if the market was in free fall, you had to sell, but she could not believe it was happening. She was not selling. She was just watching the Russian market collapse.

That day, the day the war with Georgia began, the market lost more than 6.5 percent. In another few days, as it continued falling, it became clear that there was no recovery in sight. Western markets were holding steady or growing—despite the unfolding housing crisis in the United States. Oil prices were even. So it was clear that the collapse was a product of the war.3 The market was falling in reverse proportion to Putin’s soaring popularity. It was this that made Zhanna say Budushchego net—“There is no future here.” This, and the fact that she and Raisa had lost all their money.

Zhanna and Raisa had been a two-person family unit for about six years. On the last day of 2001, that awful year when Zhanna moved to New York and then came home, there had been a phone call. Raisa picked up. The caller introduced herself as Katya Odintsova. Raisa knew who she was—a television personality from Nizhny Novgorod—and she knew what she looked like: long blond hair, long legs. She was about ten years younger than Raisa.

“Do you know?” asked the caller.

“Know what?”

“I have a child with your husband, and I am expecting another.”

“So?” asked Raisa.

“So, something must be done.”

“Then I suppose you should do something,” said Raisa, and hung up. Then she called Zhanna on her cell phone. Raisa was not sure what to do. In her generation and her social circles—among both the slightly bohemian intellectuals of Nizhny Novgorod and the powerful and the rich of Moscow—marriage did not necessarily carry the assumption of fidelity, especially on the part of the men, but indiscretions were supposed to be discreet. The phone call, the fact that there was a first-grader in Nizhny Novgorod who looked like her husband, and the unavoidable conclusion that Boris had been having a relationship for years—all of this broke the unspoken compact. Still, Raisa was proud that she had kept her cool during the phone conversation.

Zhanna, who was seventeen, saw no valor in her mother’s reserve, and no two ways to interpret the situation. She rushed directly to her father’s office at parliament, barged in, and told him everything she thought of him and his behavior. After she left his office, she realized that she could not remember what she had said, but it had definitely been angry and she had certainly been right. She told her mother to get a divorce. Both of her parents thought it was a bit too radical a step—her father had no desire to go live with the mother of his other children—but Zhanna had words of principle and conviction where her parents had uncertainty and indecision, so she won.

They separated, though they did not bother legally getting divorced, and her father moved into a rental apartment. He left them the large flat on the Garden Ring and a sum of money. Now this money, which Zhanna and Raisa managed together even after Zhanna got married, was gone. They did not even have the money to pay maintenance on the Garden Ring flat. The only possible solution was to rent it out, but with the economy in the state that it was, who would rent an opulent 185-square-meter four-bedroom apartment in the center of the city?

The answer, as it turned out, was someone who worked at a state bank. During the crisis, government banks took over failing smaller private banks. The process provided many opportunities for the well-positioned employee of a state bank: siphoning off funds was made that much easier by the bureaucratic mess of the takeovers and the panic that surrounded them. A state banker rented the apartment in January 2008 for $3,000 a month. Raisa moved back to Nizhny Novgorod. She and Zhanna split the money, and it was enough for each of them for the time being.

Zhanna had learned a lesson: there was no future here. She was not thinking much about the politics of it—the fact that it was the Kremlin that had sent the market tumbling both times—but she was thinking that hers was a country where this kind of thing would happen again and again. She insisted on selling the apartment once it regained its value. That happened in 2010. Boris—who, unlike Zhanna, was very much talking about the politics of it but still insisted that Russia had a future—tried to convince Zhanna to buy a new place in Moscow. She would not hear of it. She held on to the money until she saw an opportunity: as the Eurozone crisis unfolded, Zhanna dispatched Raisa to explore Greece, Spain, and Italy. Then they both traveled to a village on Lake Garda in Italy, where Boris was on vacation. They decided to invest there. In 2013, Zhanna and Raisa invested the money from the large Garden Ring apartment in a smaller one in the lakeside village. Zhanna started studying Italian—this was an investment in her future. Before she learned much, during the first summer she and Raisa spent on Lake Garda, their electricity was shut off because they had not understood the notices. The next-door neighbor came to the rescue, light was restored, and Zhanna and the neighbor became fast friends. Zhanna imagined that someday she might live here. In any case, she and Raisa would be spending their summers here for years to come—this was Zhanna’s permanence, her future, even if she continued to work in Moscow.

Other things, besides the Garden Ring flat, ended in 2010 too. Zhanna and Dmitry divorced. She had seen her husband lose interest in other people—his friends and her friends—and go from present to absent like a switch had been flipped. Then she saw his absence happen with her, and she probably should not have waited for him to tell her. But once he did, she moved out that very day. She went to stay at a minihotel—really, a rental room in a converted apartment on a pedestrian street a block from the parliament building where her father no longer worked.

Boris was now a full-time political activist. After he lost office in 2004, everyone, including him, thought that he could have a lucrative career in GR—government relations. He knew everyone, after all, and everyone knew how important it was to know people. The bureaucracy was becoming more powerful by the year, regulations were changing constantly, and someone who could navigate the opaque structures of the Russian government could save a business. Boris took a job as a GR specialist at a bank. But GR required more diplomacy than he could muster. He stuck it out for a year, made a little money, bought his duplex overlooking the Kremlin, and quit.

He teamed up with Kasparov and other people, most of them unknown to the media and the public. In 2008 they cofounded an organization and called it Solidarity, in honor of the Polish anti-Communist resistance from the 1980s. His friends made fun of him. They were men who used to be called oligarchs. Now, under Putin, they had forfeited their political power, and they held themselves up as exemplars of the art and wisdom of compromise. Strategic concessions could save one from landing in jail like Khodorkovsky, or in exile, stripped of your assets. You ceded some access or assets to those whom Putin wanted to advance, gave up a little to retain a lot. If you were smart, these deals were cut in subtle ways, negotiated in indirect language—and the effort enabled Boris’s friends to feel clever while yielding to the stronger party. What Boris was doing was precisely the opposite: unsubtle and reckless. They made fun of him for his earnestness and naiveté. He laughed along, heartily, because, Zhanna knew, he did not want to appear either naive or earnest.

In October 2009, Boris turned fifty. He put Zhanna in charge of organizing the party. He liked delegating. She liked being put in charge. She rented a restaurant with beige walls, white tablecloths, and plush gray chairs. It looked out on the green lawn of a golf club, like this was not Moscow at all. About 150 people came, the rich and the beautiful crowd. A well-known television journalist, Pavel Sheremet, made a half-hour film called Nemtsov: An Accounting. The title was a takeoff on Boris’s latest occupation: he had started compiling and publishing reports. His first one, printed in February 2008, as Putin was winding down his second presidential term, had been called Putin: An Accounting. The slim booklet consisted of nine chapters:

Corruption Is Eroding Russia

The Military, Forsaken

Roads in Disrepair

Russia Is Dying [on depopulation]

The Pension System in Crisis

Corrupt Justice

Stomping on the Constitution [on the elimination of elections and of Russia’s federal structure]

The Failure of “National Projects”

Everyone Is an Enemy, Except China4

The report did not break new ground—most of what it contained had been reported by other people—but taken together, the information added up to a damning picture strikingly different from the Kremlin’s triumphant reports and from the popular picture of a stronger, healthier, wealthier Russia.

Boris’s next report was called Luzhkov: An Accounting. It detailed the activities of Moscow mayor Yuri Luzhkov, who had turned the megalopolis into a fiefdom. Boris and Solidarity activists handed out the reports near Metro stations. Often they would set up a folding table and Boris would autograph books, writing dedications in sprawling script and basking in the brief moments of the familiar adoration of a crowd.

Footage of these signing sessions was in the film, as was footage of Boris walking down streets, Boris showing off his athletic prowess—using an elliptical machine in the exercise room in his apartment overlooking the Kremlin, kite-surfing on an unidentified ocean, and using the pull-up bar at a country house. The house was where his current girlfriend, Irina, was living with his youngest daughter, Sonya. The film showed all the children—there were now four—but omitted the fact that they had three different mothers. The narrator said, “He has a large family, in a good way.” At the end, the narrator reneged on the title of the film. It was too early for an accounting, he said. Boris might become president of Russia yet, perhaps in the year 2025.5

Boris’s rich and powerful friends praised him in the film: he was fun, he was brave, he was honest. They came to the party too. Then, having paid homage that they might have thought of as their debt of friendship, they faded away. Only one of the wealthy—metals mogul Mikhail Prokhorov—came to Boris’s fifty-first birthday party, in 2010. Truth be told, these men had been coming around less and less since Boris left his GR job and became a full-time activist in 2005. The fiftieth birthday had been their last and finest effort. Even Mikhail Fridman, the oligarch who used to have tea in the Garden Ring flat’s kitchen several times a week—the one who told Zhanna she was crazy when she came home from New York in 2001, because “there is no future here”—had long ago told Boris that being associated with him was “toxic” for his business. No one, he said, would ever believe that he was not the one bankrolling those “accounting” reports.6

Zhanna noticed that her father was more comfortable with the activists than he had ever been with the oligarchs. His old friends carried themselves like they owned the world; his new allies managed to look shy and ready for battle at the same time. They wore cheap clothes and always looked slightly disheveled. One worked with severely autistic children. Another was a scientist who had been on the barricades continuously since the late 1980s. Then there was a crowd of skinny young men with spectacles and terrible haircuts. Boris had endless patience for phone calls with them, for detailed and repetitive planning of protests, to which only they showed up. At some point Zhanna understood that what she thought was patience was, in fact, desire. Boris enjoyed the phone calls, the planning, and the tiny, isolated protests. The process of planning and discussion—the same process that she remembered from the political discussions in their Nizhny Novgorod kitchen before Boris became a politician, and the physics discussions that preceded them—engaged and sustained him more fully than did kite-surfing and excellent wine.

ON DECEMBER 31, 2010, Zhanna went to a protest with her father. For a year and a half now, activists had been gathering at Triumfalnaya Square in central Moscow on the thirty-first day of every month that had thirty-one days. They gathered to demand observance of Article 31 of the Russian Constitution, which guaranteed freedom of assembly. Sometimes they got roughed up, sometimes they were detained for several hours. But recently the police had seemed to let up a bit—perhaps because the previous New Year’s Eve they had managed to hurt Ludmila Alekseeva, at eighty-two Russia’s oldest and best-known activist. This New Year’s, the city even issued a permit for the protest, ensuring that it would be calm and uneventful. Alekseeva was planning to come again, wearing a New Year’s costume: she would be dressed as Snegurochka.* It was practically going to be a party. Boris suggested that they go together and then continue to Irina’s house in the country, the one where he had been filmed flipping his body over the pull-up bar, for a New Year’s celebration. Zhanna put a long puffer coat on over a dress and heels, and so did Angelica, a new friend, an insurance company employee, also newly single, and they went to Triumfalnaya Square.

“Everyone was acting like it really was a party,” Boris wrote in his blog later.

Speakers wore red hats, and Alekseeva was in full Snegurochka glory, in a shiny blue embroidered long coat that looked like it weighed more than she did. Her voice shaky, she spoke for only a couple of minutes:

If you think about it, all our constitutional rights have been taken away, with one exception: the right to leave the country and return. . . .

That is why it is so important to stand up for Article 31 of the Constitution. That is why it is so important that for the second time in a row we are able to assemble here, in Triumfalnaya Square, undisturbed.

This has been accomplished by those who have been coming here stubbornly on the thirty-first of the month, even though they knew that the riot police were waiting for them here.7

This time there were no riot police—only a couple hundred protesters and a few dozen police who looked bored and peaceful. Minutes after Alekseeva left, most of the participants were still milling around, chatting in that way people do when they want to make an event feel more substantial than it has seemed. The riot police appeared out of nowhere, and charged the crowd. Zhanna grabbed Angelica’s hand and they ran—first just a few yards, to hide behind a kiosk, and then, after Zhanna peeked around it and saw the police tackling people to the ground and dragging them into prisoner transports, they ran like they did not know they could run. They covered a kilometer and a half—the distance to the next Metro station—in five minutes. How had they managed this, in heels?

They took the Metro back to Zhanna’s new temporary rental apartment. Zhanna called Irina to tell her that Boris had been detained and they would not be coming. It turned out that Dmitry, Zhanna’s ex-husband, was there at the party, with his new girlfriend. Irina had apparently planned some sort of grand family reunion. Now Zhanna was relieved that she was ringing in the New Year lying on her bed, watching the news on television to see if they would report on the protest. They did not.

Boris rang in the New Year in solitary. After two days, he managed to smuggle out a handwritten note:

The cell is a concrete box about 1.5 meters [5 feet] wide and 3 meters [9 feet] long. It has no windows, no bed or mattress. It’s just a concrete floor, and nothing else.

I have been charged, absurdly, under Article 19.3 of the Administrative Code, for supposedly disobeying police orders. It carries a maximum sentence of 15 days in jail. . . .

The authorities have a problem, though: there is a video recording of my arrest, in which you can see the police doing as they wish, ignoring everything: the law, the holiday, and the fact that we had a permit for the protest. I know that they are just trying to scare us. They are trying to scare the opposition, and my family. This was the first time my daughter Zhanna had joined the protest, and that makes me very proud.

I know that the regime is scared. It’s furious, and it doesn’t know what to do with the opposition. It’s scared, it’s flailing, and it’s bringing shame to itself and to Russia. We have no right to give up now. We will not give up.

Happy New Year, my friends!

Boris was brought to court on January 3. Everyone in Russia was on vacation—it was the dead week between New Year’s and Orthodox Christmas, when everything, including the stock exchanges and all banks, shut down—but one judge, a woman about Zhanna’s age, had to come to work. Zhanna came, of course, and Angelica came too, even though the experience of it all, and now the sight of activists sitting on the floor in the hallway—chairs had been removed to discourage their presence—was unlike anything Angelica could imagine, even now that she was witnessing it. There seemed to be a general chair crisis in the courthouse: there was only one chair at the defense table, and Boris, who had spent three days inside the concrete cube, now spent four hours standing up, because his defense attorney was elderly and entitled to sit. The judge called more than a dozen witnesses and ignored their answers, and then read out her sentence, speaking so fast and so softly that no one could understand. Boris got fifteen days’ jail time.

Zhanna went home to cook for her father. She wanted to spoil him, so she made the fanciest dish she could imagine: chicken sautéed with prunes. But when she brought it to the detention center the next day and an oddly friendly starstruck policeman brought her father down to the lobby to hang out with her, Boris confessed that jail made him want simple stuff: peasant food—meat and potatoes—and junk-food sweets from the Soviet era.

When his sentence was over, Zhanna came to get Boris, bringing with her a change of clothes, and they went directly out to dinner. She listened to his stories about jail. He had spent two weeks in a cell with five other men, three of them violent offenders with long sentences and two who had been picked up for misdemeanors. He had turned all of them on to politics.8 He was laughing now, reveling in his new hero status. Zhanna told him that she was no hero. She was never going to go to another protest as long as she lived. She would still support his work, of course. She said that from now on she would pay to have his reports published.

When they walked out of the café, a couple of young men charged Boris and tried to catch him in a large scoop-net, the kind used for fishing. Boris twisted around and managed to push one of the attackers away. This sort of thing had been happening for at least three years. Back in 2007, in the Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk, Boris had turned the weapon against his attacker, a skinny, pimply kid who confessed that he had flown all the way from Moscow to try to humiliate the politician. He would not, however, admit to being a member of one of the Kremlin’s youth movements.9 In 2010, in Sochi, three young men threw ammonia in his face. In 2011—a few months after the fishing net—it happened again: a toilet was thrown over the fence onto the roof of his car in Moscow. The police came out but refused to write it up.10 Zhanna never would have imagined that her father could keep his cool the way he did.

MASHA SAID budushchego net in Moscow, when she left a child neurologist’s office. Sasha was four years old, and he was not talking. He had had evaluations, brain scans, and all sorts of tests that involved attaching wires to his blond head and all over his tiny body. The doctors said that his brain did not look good. They said they saw fluid, and the parts that should be small looked large and ones that ought to be large were small. Masha sort of believed them, because it was a fact that Sasha was not talking and this was the reason she had brought him in for tests in the first place. At the same time, she did not believe them. Her son was not just her baby: he was her friend. They did things together, like swim in the pool, and when she asked him for something, he was always happy to do it—even when she jokingly asked him to get her a drink from the open bar at an all-inclusive resort in Turkey. She told everybody about it, not just because it was funny but because it definitively proved that there was nothing wrong with her son’s brain. So, mostly, she did not believe the doctors.

And now, this famous child neurologist, whom she had spent months trying to get in to see and whom she was terrified of seeing, leafed through Sasha’s chart, full of damning test results and specialists’ opinions, examined Sasha, and said, “There is nothing wrong with your child.” Then she said, “You are doing everything right. Just keep doing what you are doing. And lose this chart.” She handed the thick binder back to Masha.

Masha understood perfectly well what the doctor meant. The pile of diagnoses that had been heaped on Sasha meant that he would never be accepted to a regular school. If Masha did not want him shunted to the mentally disabled track, she had to shred his medical records, bribe someone to make him a pristine but believable new chart, and then make sure that by the time he was about to enter first grade, he was speaking like any other six-and-a-half-year-old.

Or maybe she said budushchego net a bit later, when Sergei made it clear that he had not signed up for this. A four-year-old kid who could not speak, with all the questions this brought forth from others, and all the exercises and activities that Masha was fishing out of the Internet that were supposedly going to fix this broken boy—Sergei could not take it anymore. He had another woman, and he was going to go live with her now.

Maybe that was not actually when Masha said budushchego net. Maybe that was when she said, “Fine. Alimony.” She had a very large sum of money saved up—upward of $100,000—and between that safety net and alimony, she could afford to quit her job and start graduate school in pedagogy. She had a plan: she would become a teacher at a good school. That way Sasha could study there too. Her workday would be short, allowing her to give Sasha the attention he needed.

Over the course of the 2010–2011 school year, Sasha learned to speak, but Masha learned almost nothing—except that Moscow was not the place to learn to work with children, even though she was about to be awarded a degree in this area. Other things she did not see happening in Moscow or in Russia: a new husband—she was nearly twenty-seven and had a child, so this was a foregone conclusion—and a good education for Sasha. She devised a plan that Tatiana would have approved, which was probably one reason it felt self-evident. She would go to Oxford to study educational psychology. Then she would become a science teacher in England. But even before that, Sasha would be in the environment he needed in order to develop. She would be in such an environment too—one where a mother like Masha could ask for help instead of having to falsify her child’s medical chart to give him a shot at a future. She took all the required tests, and she placed Sasha in an English-language preschool program: he was speaking well enough now that he could start learning a second language.

Sergei said no. He would not sign the papers to allow her to take Sasha out of the country. That was when she thought, Budushchego net. There is no future.

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