I felt like Alice in Wonderland, stepping off a train into the wintry Dr. Zhivago landscape of Nizhny Novgorod. It was 1993 and I had travelled 250 miles east of Moscow on a USAID assignment to help the region showcase itself for an international trade fair exhibition in London. I was assigned to work in the medieval Kremlin and inside this fortress was Boris Nemtsov, the governor of the region. He was princely handsome, modern, charismatic, and yet down to earth. He was the first Russian that I met who was "cool." But his attributes went far beyond that. Under Nemtsov, the region had blossomed. It was progressive, had a strong commitment to economic reforms, and became the heartbeat of free enterprise in Russia. It was obvious that something special was happening here.
There were two contrasting floors in the historic Kremlin. One floor was dark and murky. It was comprised of stodgy communists weighed down by their medals shuffling through acrid, smoke-filled halls - a dying breed of leftover, crusty cold warriors embodying the decay of Soviet officialdom.
I was assigned office space on the other floor which was filled with animated young Russians who breathed the optimistic air of excitement. This was the laboratory of reform and these were the pioneers of perestroika. The bold and idealistic Nemtsov was spearheading a revolution of reform and democracy, and created a role model for what other Russian cities could strive to become. "Let a thousand Nizhnys bloom" was the mantra. Even Margaret Thatcher came to pay homage.
During the Soviet era the city was called Gorky, and because of its military enterprises and cutting edge technologies, it was closed to foreigners. It was where the former Soviet Union concentrated its best and brightest minds. It was also the historic center of Russian commerce due to its strategic location on the Volga River. As the old Russian proverb goes, "St. Petersburg is the brain, Moscow is the soul, and Nizhny Novgorod is the wallet of Russia."
Nizhny Novgorod, under the leadership of Boris Nemtsov, was ready to make great leaps forward; and given his unique status and vision, he could have propelled Russia towards a robust democratic system. Later he went on to become the deputy prime minister of Russia under Boris Yeltsin. Many predicted that he would become president of Russia one day. This dedicated, progressive reformer was thought of as the "Russian JFK," and I felt that for one brief shining moment, I experienced Camelot on the Volga. It is tragic and ironic that Boris Nemtsov met the same fate. If we had only provided just a bit of support and inspiration, maybe things would have turned out differently.