Slain Kremlin critic Boris Nemtsov buried as thousands pay final respects

Thousands of Russians turn out to pay last respects to slain opposition leader Boris Nemtsov

Thousands of people clutching flowers and candles lined up Tuesday on a typically bleak, gray afternoon to pay their last respects to Boris Nemtsov, the charismatic politician and opposition leader who was gunned down last week in the shadow of the Kremlin.

For hours, the grieving crowds filed past Nemtsov's casket in the Andrei Sakharov Center, named after the prominent Soviet dissident who spent years in internal exile in Gorky, now known as Nizhny Novgorod, where Nemtsov began his political career. After the viewing, the casket was taken for burial in Troyekurovskoye Cemetery.

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Nemtsov, 55, a former deputy prime minister under President Boris Yeltsin, was killed late Friday as he and a young woman walked across a bridge in central Moscow a couple of hundred yards from Putin's Kremlin office.

His viewing and funeral brought out a mix of mourners, including some prominent opposition leaders and other public figures. They included former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov, now a critic of the government, and current Deputy Prime Ministers Sergei Prikhodko and Arkady Dvorkovich.

Naina Yeltsin, the widow of the former president, paid her respects, as did U.S. Ambassador John Tefft, former British Prime Minister John Major and Brooklyn Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov, a Russian tycoon who ran against Putin in the 2012 presidential race.

No top members of the presidential administration came, but their envoys brought giant wreaths adorned with firs and roses, with ribbons patterned after the national flag, including one bearing the gold-lettered words, “From the President of the Russian Federation.”

While many in Russia's beleagured opposition assume that Nemtsov was killed on Kremlin orders, Putin has expressed condolences and insisted that his administration will fully investigate the crime.

“I have no doubt Russian special services were involved in the killing,” Vladimir Milov, a former deputy energy minister in Putin's first administration in the early 2000s, said in an interview after the burial. He speculated that top Kremlin officials were angry at Nemtsov "for the key role he played in lobbying U.S. and Western Europe's sanctions against Russia over Ukraine.”

Dmitry Gudkov, an opposition figure who was among the only lawmakers to attend the funeral, said he was not yet convinced that the Kremlin was behind Nemtsov's death.

However, he said, “If within one month the killers and those who ordered the crime are not found and arrested, and we are not offered credible evidence of their guilt, it will be more than clear that the top authorities are behind it."

The alternative, he said, may be "even worse" -- that hatred of Putin's opposition has "bred a monster within the ... masses."

One Nemtsov friend, opposition activist and popular television anchor Xenia Sobchak, claimed that her life was threatened at the viewing.

“As I was standing outside the Sakharov Center ... a man came up to me [and said]: 'Bear in mind -- you are next,'" she said.

One of the most prominent leaders of the opposition, Alexei Navalny, couldn't attend because he remains under house arrest. He was convicted of fraud charges that he claims were politically motivated.

However, Navalny posted a lengthy statement on his website claiming that Nemtsov “was killed by a government special service agents or by some pro-government organization on orders from the country's political leadership.”

Nemtsov was laid to rest a few hundred yards from the grave of Anna Politkovskaya, a crusading journalist who, like him, was a leading Putin critic, and who, like him, was shot to death in an apparent contract killing. She was slain in 2006, on Putin's birthday.

The woman who was with Nemtsov when he was killed, Ukrainian model Anna Duritskaya, survived the attack, saw the killer as he was picked up by a passing car, and is playing a key role in the investigation, an official said.

“She was directly present at the event and there is no need to explain how important her testimony is for solving that crime,” Vladimir Markin, spokesman for Russia's Investigative Committee, said in a statement posted on the agency's website. “I must specifically stress that the investigation offered Duritskaya a witness protection plan but she refused.”

Duritskaya left for Ukraine on Monday, Russian media reported.

Ukraine President Petro Poroshenko posthumously awarded Nemtsov the Order of Freedom, a Ukrainian national honor.

“For us, Ukrainians, Boris will forever remain a patriot of Russia and a friend of Ukraine,” Poroshenko was quoted as saying on his official website. “He proved with his life that these can be combined given your desire.”

In Brussels, the European Union lashed out at the Kremlin for barring Polish and Latvian officials from attending Nemtsov’s funeral.

Polish Senate speaker Bogdan Borusewicz and Sandra Kalniete, a European lawmaker from Latvia, are among the officials Moscow has deemed unwelcome in retaliation for European sanctions against Russia over its seizure of Ukraine’s Crimea area. Russia’s refusal to grant them entrance to attend the funeral was confirmed by a Warsaw embassy spokeswoman, Russia’s RIA Novosti news agency reported.

Latvia currently holds the European Union’s rotating presidency, and Russia’s refusal to allow Kalniete to represent the alliance “flies in the face of basic principles of humanity,” the Baltic state government said in a statement.

European Parliament President Martin Schulz said he would demand an explanation from Moscow and called the interference in Nemtsov’s funeral attendance a “high affront.”

Times staff writer Carol J. Williams in Istanbul and special correspondent Victoria Butenko in Kiev contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times

UPDATES

10:30 a.m.: This article has been updated throughout with staff reporting, interviews, background.

This article was originally posted at 6:58 a.m.

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