Thousands line streets of Moscow in tribute to murdered Boris Nemtsov

Thousands of Russians queued for hours today in the raw Moscow cold to pay their final respects to the murdered opposition leader Boris Nemtsov.

They shuffled past long lines of fur-hatted police, through airport-style metal detectors and behind ranks of television news reporters, including those from the pro-Kremlin channels whose vitriolic propaganda many of the mourners blamed for Nemtsov’s death.

Then they filed slowly, one by one, into the hall where the open coffin lay.

Four days after he was shot four times in the back while crossing a bridge below the Kremlin with his girlfriend, Nemtsov’s handsome features looked undisturbed in the white-lined casket .

His silver hair was neatly parted. He wore a white shirt, open at the collar, and a black suit. His fingers gripped a wooden cross. Black and white portraits of Nemtsov decorated the brick walls of the Sakharov Centre, a museum and cultural space commemorating the Soviet-era dissident and Nobel Peace laureate Andrei Sakharov.

Church music played in the background and the perfume of flowers laid by each of the mourners, mostly red carnations, filled the room. His mother, who turned 87 today and had feared that President Putin would have her son killed, listened with other family members to the eulogies. Nemtsov’s ex-wife Yekaterina Odintsova, with a black headscarf pulled over her blonde hair, stood near by.

Mr Putin has condemned the killing and taken personal charge of the investigation according to his spokesman. Opposition figurers have condemned the murder enquiry as a sham because it is not examining the possibility that the state security services were involved.

Russian state television has begun a multi-pronged backlash against suggestions that the Kremlin might be to blame for the crime, blaming western intelligence services, Islamic extremists, Ukrainian nationalists or the Russian opposition instead.

Nemtsov, a former deputy prime minister under President Yeltsin, was the most prominent opposition figure to be murdered in Russia during Putin’s 15-year rule.

Mr Putin did not attend the ceremony and will not be at the burial service at a Moscow cemetery this afternoon. Arkady Dvorkovich, a deputy prime minister from the government’s increasingly sidelined liberal camp, represented the Russian authorities.

Representing Britain was John Major, the former prime minister, who was among the first dignitaries to arrive.

Outside light snow began to fall and the short speeches made next to the coffin were broadcast to those still waiting.

“The shots were fired not only at Nemtsov but at all of us, at democracy in Russia,” they heard Gennady Gudkov, another prominent Kremlin critic, say.

“We never thought this could happen, but it did. Rest in peace my friend, your work will be continued.”

Sleek diplomatic cars flying the flags of the United Kingdom, European Union, France, Italy, Greece, Sweden, Romania and Norway filled the road.

By noon, the queue of people wanting to lay flowers at Nemtsov’s coffin snaked all the way back up the hill to the Kursk railway station, almost half a mile away, and was still growing.

“Nemtsov’s death was a case where I couldn’t just look away or cross the road and walk on the other side of the pavement,” said Irina Shebanova, a retired school teacher who came from Tver, 150km (93 miles) north of Moscow, to pay her respects.

Sergei Larin, a small businessman who said he was “only just breathing” after 15 years of President Putin’s repressive rule, described Nemtsov’s killing as the crossing of a new frontier of cruelty and cynicism.

“There has been a long list of killings before,” he said, “but to shoot a former member of the government right by the Kremlin … It’s complete rubbish to say that it was done to discredit Putin. There were clear, direct threats to Nemtsov. From extremists? What extremists? Putin controls and feeds all the extremists in the world, and by the way from our taxpayers’ money.”

Yelena Barkova, 41, an election co-ordinator, said opposition followers had often declared that Russia had reached a “turning point” before, but Nemtsov’s murder was definitely it. “It marks the start of Terror.”

Pavel Volkov, a physicist, said there had been no need for Mr Putin to give any direct order himself to kill Nemtsov because the atmosphere of hatred, whipped up by state propaganda, was enough. “Anger in society is off the scale,” he said. “We are living in a nightmare. I worry most of all for my children and grandchildren.”

Lyudmila and Alla, two pensioners who came together, were too frightened to give their surnames. “This murder shows what the powers that be are capable of,” said Lyudmila. “Citizens should investigate the killing themselves because we cannot believe the investigators.”

“I feel this very bitterly,” said Alla, “the shooting shows that it is deadly dangerous to be in opposition. We live in a concentration camp, ruled by the KGB.”

Pasha, 24, an urban studies analyst with a long hipster beard, said that Nemtsov had seemed out of date to him but that he admired his energy and optimism. “He was the guy from the 90s but still he was cool – he had some passion.”

Ilya Shepelin, a journalist with the independent magazine Bolshoi Gorod, said: “I was a critic of Nemtsov before but his murder united us.” When street demonstrations flared against Mr Putin in 2011-12, partly organised by Nemtsov, there was a belief that Russia could change. Now, with every prominent opposition leader jailed, in exile or dead, “people don’t know what to do … people have no hope”.

Ksenia Sobchak, a socialite turned opposition figure and journalist, tweeted that she had received a grim message after viewing the body. A man had walked up to her and said: “Bear in mind, you’re next Ksenia.”

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