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After Years of Battling Nemtsov, the Kremlin Battles His Memory

For more than two years now, anyone walking across Bolshoi Moskvoretsky Bridge—steps away from Moscow’s iconic St. Basil’s Cathedral and a few hundred yards from the Kremlin wall—passes by a small makeshift memorial made of a few buckets with fresh flowers by the sidewalk, handwritten posters, candles, Orthodox icons. A confident man smiling from the photographs. This is the spot where, on the night of February 27, 2015, Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov was gunned down, five bullets to his back, by an Interior Ministry officer subordinate to Ramzan Kadyrov, the Kremlin’s man in Chechnya. While the hired guns have been convicted, no one is really pretending to look higher up the chain of command.

Two years on, Russians continue to bring flowers here to commemorate Nemtsov. The memorial is guarded around the clock by volunteers, mostly activists from Nemtsov’s Solidarity movement and other opposition groups. Once in a while—sometimes every week, sometimes more often, but always in the middle of the night—police arrive to detain them. While volunteers are driven away, municipal workers promptly appear and proceed to ransack the memorial—grown men in uniform stealing flowers under the cover of darkness.

The next morning, invariably, new flowers appear and new candles are lit. You cannot kill memory, however hard you try. But the regime is still trying.

Vladimir Putin did not like Boris Nemtsov (and the feeling was mutual.) Now, it seems the Kremlin is fighting the memory of the late opposition leader as hard as it fought him before he was murdered. Although the Moscow authorities grudgingly issue permits for the annual march of remembrance—when thousands of people walk the same route Nemtsov’s last march took down the Boulevard Ring, to protest Putin’s war on Ukraine—every effort to establish or construct an official commemoration has been turned down. Forget about a street—not even a plaque or a small sign is allowed. “There is no consensus,” the authorities say. They had no concerns naming Moscow streets after Hugo Chávez, the late Venezuelan dictator; or Akhmad Kadyrov (the current Kadyrov’s father) who once called on his followers to “kill as many Russians as possible.” No problem there. But the former deputy prime minister of Russia, governor, and four-term member of the Russian parliament is persona non-grata.

Earlier this month, residents of the apartment bloc on Malaya Ordynka Street, where Nemtsov lived, took the matter into their own hands, collecting the required signatures and installing a sign on the outside wall of the building that read: “Here lived the politician Boris Nemtsov, who fell by the hand of a hired assassin on February 27, 2015.” It didn’t take the Moscow mayor’s office even an hour to declare the sign “illegal.” Within days it was taken down. The same happened to a plaque installed on Nemtsov’s house in Yaroslavl, where he was a member of the regional parliament. Meanwhile, almost a year on, the near-unanimous decision by city lawmakers in Nizhny Novgorod, where Nemtsov was governor in the 1990s, to put up a memorial plaque on his house remains unimplemented. Few doubt why.

It appears we are not allowed to commemorate a Russian statesman in Russia. This will not change until the current occupants of the Kremlin vacate it. But other countries don’t have to wait. Earlier this year, the US Senate’s Governmental Affairs Committee unanimously marked up a bill, S. 459, that would designate a small area in front of the Russian Embassy in Washington D.C. as “Boris Nemtsov Plaza.” The legislation now awaits consideration by the full Senate. The bipartisan measure (cosponsors include Republicans Marco Rubio and John McCain, and Democrats Dick Durbin and Jeanne Shaheen, among others) would send an important—and needed—message to Russian democrats. It would make clear that their struggle is neither ignored nor forgotten. It would remind Americans that there are Russian citizens who stand up for dignity and freedom in the face of autocracy and belligerence. And no doubt, there will come a day when the Russian state itself will be proud to have Boris Nemtsov’s name on its embassy letterhead.

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