A difference in caliber

I underestimated Boris Nemtsov as a politician and did not quite appreciate the obvious fact that he was an honest, ingenuous, hardworking man of many gifts. Having known a fair number of multifariously gifted ladies and gentlemen, I started taking too much for granted.

For people of my social circle and generation, it was common to abandon a promising academic career in mathematics or natural sciences for a career in business, or politics, or arts and letters. If you grew up in a family of scientists, chances are either your parents, or some of their friends, or some of the friends’ children were at least talented or capable or promising.

But even by the standards of that circle, the young Boris Nemtsov was an overachiever. Graduating from the Nizhny Novgorod (then Gorky) University with a degree in physics, he received his PhD in 1985, at 26, for some high-quality publications. Vitaly Ginsburg (1916-2009), awarded the Nobel Prize in physics in 2003, wrote in his memoir On Science, On Myself, On Others (1997, 2001):

I should note that a number of papers developing this work [a 1959 paper by Ginzburg and V.Ya. Eidman, Nemtsov’s uncle], as well as other studies in this area, were authored by B.Ye. Nemtsov, the well-known governor of the Nizhny Novgorod region, and in a not-too-distant past, a very capable theoretical physicist.

The Russian Wikipedia article on Nemtsov also quotes Ginzburg saying this about Nemtsov in 1997:

He studied at the chair of radiowave propagation, which I founded at the department of radiophysics. He was a PhD student of two of my PhD students: Eidman, his uncle, and [N.G.] Denisov. He’s a truly talented physicist; he has [(co-)authored/produced/published] a lot of good papers.”

Compare this with the education and early achievement of the Kremlin’s current occupants. The Higher School of the KGB? A Soviet law degree? “A very capable recruiter of informants” in a not-too-distant past?


  1. I forgot to mention this. One of the commentators on my blog was in the same class as Sechin doing translation, and he mentioned that Sechin was such a complete nobody that my correspondent only realised he was in the same class years later: he had completely forgotten him.

    • Sure, he’s not alone in that apparently. I read an interview with a lady who went to Uni with Sechin, too, and remembered him as a diligent, patient student without much charm or obvious talent. Of course this should be taken with a pinch of salt because modesty was more appreciated and valued then and some of my brightest college mates were shy, self-effacing and visually unmemorable. And yet one suspects that Churchill’s quip, “he’s a modest man with much to be modest about” applies to S (even though the original addressee did not deserve the condescension).

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