​Fear takes hold in Russia after Nemtsov's assassination

MOSCOW -- Armed with flowers and flags, tens of thousands turned out in a somber but defiant display of solidarity with murdered opposition leader, Boris Nemtsov. Some carried banners that read "I am not afraid." But in reality, many democracy activists here say, quietly, they are now afraid.

boris-nemtsov.jpg

Russian opposition leader and former Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov, center, speaks during a news conference on "Corruption and Abuse in Sochi Olympics" January 30, 2014 at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.

Alex Wong, Getty Images

On Friday, Nemtsov was shot four times in the back on his way home from dinner with his girlfriend. At the site of his assassination, piles of flowers are growing. What has shocked everyone is the murder scene's proximity to the Kremlin - it's only steps away.

People gather at the site where Boris Nemtsov was recently murdered with St. Basil's Cathedral seen in the background in central Moscow Feb. 28, 2015.

People gather at the site where Boris Nemtsov was recently murdered with St. Basil's Cathedral seen in the background in central Moscow Feb. 28, 2015.

Reuters/Sergei Karpukhin

In 1997, Nemtsov served as deputy prime minister. But under Putin's reign he became an outspoken critic of government corruption and Russia's involvement in Ukraine's war.

Opposition leader Vladimir Ryzhkov was close friends with Nemtsov for more than 20 years. He told me he can't remember the last time the atmosphere was as aggressive and negative.

"This atmosphere was created by Kremlin propaganda for last year," Ryzhkov told me. "I blame state and state propaganda for creating such kind of pro-violence, pro-terror and public atmosphere in country."

ward-nemtsov-back-endframe1785.jpg
Vladimir Ryzhkov
CBS News

No matter who pulled the trigger, Ryzhkov said, the message is clear: Those who speak out can be a target.

"I think that nobody knows not only what future for opposition we have, no one can say what future for Russia we will have," Ryzhkov told me.

Nemtsov had reportedly received death threats in the past and his friends claim that he was planning to publish further evidence of Russia's military involvement in Ukraine -- involvement that Russia still strenuously denies.

nemtsov-kremlin.jpg
Russian police investigate the the body of Boris Nemtsov, a former Russian deputy prime minister and opposition leader, near Red Square with St. Basil Cathedral in the background in Moscow, Russia, Saturday, Feb. 28, 2015.
Pavel Golovkin, AP
  • Clarissa Ward

    Foreign Correspondent, CBS News