In Washington, the World’s First Official Tribute to Boris Nemtsov

On January 25, Washington DC Mayor Muriel Bowser signed the Boris Nemtsov Designation Emergency Act of 2018 into law as Act Number A22-0235, officially naming “the 2600 block of Wisconsin Avenue, NW between Davis Street, NW, and Edmunds Street, NW in Ward 3, as Boris Nemtsov Plaza.” The block fronts the embassy of the Russian Federation. The mayor’s approval followed an earlier unanimous vote by the DC Council. The “emergency” law ensured that the unveiling of Nemtsov Plaza—the first official commemoration for the late Russian opposition leader anywhere in the world—can take place on February 27, the third anniversary of his assassination in Moscow. The parallel permanent legislation, which will take effect after a mandatory 30-day congressional review period, is scheduled for the final vote in the council on February 6.

The first official tribute to Boris Nemtsov was supposed to be in Nizhny Novgorod, the region where he was governor in the 1990s; which he transformed from a post-Soviet industrial backwater into a hub of successful market reforms; and whose citizens elected him, as their member of parliament or governor, on four different occasions. In November 2016, the city council voted by 33 to 1 to install a memorial plaque to the former governor on the house where he lived (and where his mother still lives today.) “For the friends of [Nemtsov]… it was difficult to believe that he could be commemorated on an official level while the current regime remains in power,” the author of this blog wrote then. “Sometimes it is good to be wrong.”

Alas, we were not. More than a year on, the decision of the Nizhny Novgorod city council remains unimplemented. Few doubt why. The same reason explains the continuing official vetoes on all public initiatives for a commemoration in Moscow; the removal of signs installed by the residents on Nemtsov’s houses in Moscow and Yaroslavl; and the regular pillaging by the police and municipal services of the unofficial memorial on Bolshoi Moskvoretsky Bridge where Nemtsov was killed. The Kremlin is still fighting Boris Nemtsov, even after his death. It appears it even wanted to extend its veto abroad: according to Alexei Veneditkov, editor-in-chief of Ekho Moskvy radio, at their July meeting Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov asked US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to stop the proposed designation. That same month, the bipartisan Senate bill on Nemtsov Plaza co-sponsored by Senators Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Christopher Coons (D-DE) was blocked by Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN), chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee. The DC Council then stepped in to take the initiative.

There are not many landmarks in Washington DC dedicated to Russians; Boris Nemtsov Plaza will be only the fourth. Before it were the statue of the poet Alexander Pushkin on the campus of George Washington University, the Alley of Russian Poets in Georgetown, and Sakharov Plaza in front of the Russian Ambassador’s residence—the former Soviet Embassy—on 16th Street NW. The latter was designated in 1984 to honor Andrei Sakharov, the Russian physicist and dissident who was kept in internal confinement in Gorky (the Soviet-era name for Nizhny Novgorod). Just as now, Kremlin officials reacted angrily. Six years later, there was a Sakharov Avenue in Moscow.

“Regarding the sensitivity of Soviet diplomats stationed at Sakharov Plaza, I dare say they should in the bottom of their hearts be pleased to have a Russian name hanging outside their windows,” Vassily Aksyonov, an exiled Russian novelist, wrote in the 1980s. “Somehow, despite Socialist Realism, Russians are still Russians.” On February 27, as the friends, relatives, and political colleagues of Boris Nemtsov gather in Washington to join DC Councilmembers and Members of Congress for the unveiling of Nemtsov Plaza, it is unlikely diplomats from the Russian Embassy will be present. But even then, many inside the building may be watching sympathetically. And there is no doubt that one day, in a not too distant future, Russian diplomats in Washington will be proud that their windows are facing a street named after a Russian statesman.

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