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The Interpreter
Russian-to-English translation journal, with original analysis and commentary on Russia's foreign & domestic policy.
March 1, 2018

Publication: Russia Update
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The Interpreter
Russian-to-English translation journal, with original analysis and commentary on Russia's foreign & domestic policy.
Nemtsov Plaza Unveiled in Washington, DC as Colleagues in Moscow Still Struggle for Remembrance

Signs designating Boris Nemtsov Plaza were unveiled in front of the Russian Embassy in Washington on Feb. 27, 2018. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

Three years after opposition politician Boris Nemtsov was murdered on the night of Feb. 27 on a bridge by the Kremlin, the Free Russia Foundation, a non-government group founded by Russian emigres, and the District of Columbia city government unveiled Boris Nemtsov Plaza, renaming a section of Wisconsin Avenue in front of the Russian Embassy.

The re-naming of streets for various heroes, prompted by activist groups, sometimes controversial, is a common practice in U.S. cities, and often accompanied by controversies.

The last time human rights activists managed to get a street named for a hero of their cause in Russia was in the Soviet era. Supporters and family members of the Nobel Peace prize laureate Dr. Andrei Sakharov and his wife, Yelena Bonner were able to get a corner re-named in their honor near the then-Soviet mission where they had spent many hours demonstrating . 

Under New York Police Department rules, protesters near UN missions must assemble some distance from the entrance to the building and not block traffic.

In 1984, at a ceremony by then-mayor Edward Koch, the southwest intersection of E. 67th St. and Third Avenue in New York City was renamed "Sakharov-Bonner Corner" and remains with that name today.

Nemtsov's colleagues now have a whole plaza -- but it took some effort, as sympathetic Congress people were unable to get traction for the measure, the Washington Post reported. They then went to the District of Columbia City Council where the motion passed unanimously.

Zhanna Nemtsov, the daughter of Boris, spoke at the ceremony in Washington, as did Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL).

Journalist and opposition organizer Vladimir Kara-Murza, a friend of Nemtsov’s who has worked for Open Russia, founded by exiled tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, said Nemtsov would not himself have wanted a plaque.

“The best possible tribute to him and to his legacy will be a free and democratic Russia, and that day will come,” said Kara-Murza.

Kara-Murza, who chairs a foundation in Nemtsov's name, has twice been poisoned under suspicious circumstances in Russia, believed to be in retaliation for his opposition work. 

4FreeRussia Foundation, founded in 2013, has gathered prominent Russian emigres critical of human rights violations and corruption under President Vladimir Putin to advocate liberal democracy in their homeland. 

Meanwhile, the effort to memorialize Nemtsov in Russia has faced serious obstacles. 

Asked about the plans for the Nemtsov Plaza Jan. 10, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov indicated that the mayor's office might make "a symmetrical response."

"... This [naming of streets] is the prerogative of city authorities, with the context that the state of bilateral relations between our two countries remains a lot to be desired, to put it mildly," Gazeta cited him as saying.

Leonid Slutsky, head of the State Duma Committee on International Affairs said the re-naming was a "crude and harsh decision, made to pique us, although it's the business of American authorities, but they thought they would offend us with that."

One conservative MP Mikhail Degtyaryov, from ultranationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky's ill-named Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, who currently chairs the lower house Committee for Sports, Tourism and Youth, has proposed re-naming the street in front of the U.S. Embassy in Moscow “North American Dead End. He has been told by the Mayor’s Office that his request is under review, reported.

Degtyarev is the same MP who wants to get parts of California and Alaska back for Russia. 

Nemtsov supporters in Moscow wanted to renamed Bolshoi Moskovoretsky Bridge, adjacent to the Kremlin walls where he was murdered, in his honor, but Moscow officials refused, according to the business news site Vedomosti.

Mayor Anatoly Sobyanin did announce that a plaque would be allowed in Nemtsov’s honor at his home, at No. 3 Malaya Ordynka 3, but set a caveat: only if the building residents approve it. 

Memorial Society, the human rights and historical organization that has attempted to place such plaques for Stalin's victims on some buildings has had many successes, but they do sometimes get static. It is not certain how a more modern victim of the Stalinist practices that continue may be received by ordinary Russians in Nemtsov's residence. 

Police and pro-Kremlin activists have repeatedly removed plaques placed by Nemtsov's supporters.

To be sure, the Moscow Mayor’s Office allowed a march in his memory last week -- but police keep removing any flowers or poems or tributes in his honor. An informal watch made up of friends and supporters continue to put them back.

 See: Remembering Boris Nemtsov, Insider and Outsider

-- Catherine A. Fitzpatrick 

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