Cathy Young Cathy Young, a columnist for Reason and Real

Cathy Young is a regular contributor to Reason magazine and Real Clear Politics.

The brazen slaying of Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov in Moscow -- an act that shocked Russia and the world -- was quickly and widely laid at the Kremlin's doorstep.

Whether Vladimir Putin ordered the hit, as many believe, there is little question that Nemtsov was a victim of the Putin regime, and his death last week is a new low in post-Soviet Russia's descent into darkness. But does it mark the end of hope for Russian freedom, or the beginning of the end of Putinism?

Nemtsov, 55, was by all accounts a remarkable man. (I had the honor of briefly meeting him a few years ago at a symposium on Russian politics in Washington.) A scientist by training, he entered politics in the late 1980s, the era of heady change that led to the collapse of the Soviet Union. In 1991, he became the governor of a large region, Nizhny Novgorod, which he tried to turn into a laboratory for capitalist reform; later, he served as deputy prime minister under Boris Yeltsin, who reportedly spoke of Nemtsov as his likely successor. The Russian economic crisis of 1998 changed the fortunes of economic and political liberals like Nemtsov, who found themselves marginalized with the ascension of Putin's authoritarian regime.

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Many other Yeltsin-era politicians left the public stage for safe and lucrative careers. Not so Nemtsov, who threw himself into the resistance to Putin's assault on Russia's hard-won political freedoms. He was tirelessly active in beleaguered opposition groups, and published thoroughly researched reports documenting the regime's corruption. He braved persecution, from arrests and house searches to humiliating harassment.

Three years ago, a pro-Putin website, Life News, published transcripts of private phone conversations in which Nemtsov expressed unflattering opinions about some fellow activists.

Eerily, in one of his last interviews less than a month ago, Nemtsov told an independent Russian online magazine that his mother was afraid Putin would have him killed -- and that he had feared assassination.

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This does not, of course, prove Putin's involvement. The Russian president's defenders argue that he had no reason to kill Nemtsov, who had no mass following and posed no threat to the regime; a Kremlin spokesman suggested that the assassination was a "provocation" to embarrass Putin. Meanwhile, some Russian dissidents such as TV journalist Ksenia Sobchak suggest Nemtsov's death was not the work of the Kremlin but the result of government propaganda whipping up hate against Putin critics and painting them as traitors.

Others, such as Nemtsov's colleague Vladimir Milov, are convinced that the government was behind this act, because no one without protection in high places would have been bold enough to carry out a shooting near the Kremlin, in an area filled with police and security cameras -- especially since Nemtsov was under constant surveillance. The motive, he believes, was to intimidate the opposition -- which makes Putin nervous regardless of its chances of success.

So far, the killing may have had the opposite effect. On Sunday, tens of thousands marched through Moscow's downtown to honor Nemtsov. Many held signs that said, "I am not afraid." At one point, the crowd chanted, "Russia will be free."

Will it, in our lifetime? It is difficult to believe that now, when the people who marched for Nemtsov in Moscow and other cities are a tiny drop in a country of more than 140 million. These are dark days for Russia; but perhaps someday, Russians will remember this as the time when it was darkest before dawn.

Cathy Young is a regular contributor to Reason magazine and the website RealClearPolitics.