Nemtsov, a critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin, has been praised as an activist promoting democracy and human rights, and supporters believe that his work cost him his life. He was shot from behind while walking across a bridge near the Kremlin and Red Square in Moscow on Feb. 27, 2015.
Critics of Russia in Congress tried last year to pass a law renaming the street outside the embassy in Nemtsov’s honor, but the effort stalled. So they went to the D.C. Council, the city of Washington’s municipal authority, which acted swiftly and unanimously passed the name change legislation in early February.
Tuesday’s event commemorating the change drew more than a dozen television cameras and scores of well-wishers gathered across the street from the embassy. A U.S. Secret Service car was parked under the Boris Nemtsov sign directly in front of the embassy entrance.
“He would not have cared much for a plaque or a sign or a street name,” said Vladimir Kara-Murza, a friend of Nemtsov’s who chairs a foundation in his honor. “The best possible tribute to him and to his legacy will be a free and democratic Russia, and that day will come.”
But on Tuesday, the day was focused on revealing four new brown Boris Nemtsov signs affixed to light poles around the gated Russian Embassy on Wisconsin Avenue Northwest.
Flanked by lawmakers, Kara-Murza’s young daughter — also Nemtsov’s goddaughter — pulled a string to remove the cloth covering the sign across the street from the embassy. Shortly after, and with less fanfare, city transportation workers did the same for the other signs.
The measure is largely symbolic, because the street addresses are unchanged. But it is meant to send a message to diplomats and other Russians entering and leaving the embassy.
“The street sign directly outside of the Russian Embassy will serve as an enduring reminder to Vladimir Putin and those who support him that they can’t use murder and violence and intimidation to silence the voices for freedom,” said Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.).
D.C. Council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3), who introduced the name change legislation, blasted Russian government officials for what she called “Stalinist” tactics to erase memories of Nemtsov. Authorities in Moscow have repeatedly cleared away makeshift memorials on the bridge where he was gunned down.
“This commemoration will not be removed. This commemoration will stay here. It will always be here as a symbol and an honor to Boris Nemtsov,” Cheh said. “Let them steal the candles, let them steal the flowers, they can never steal his memory.”
Politicians in Russia have dismissed the street name change as a “dirty trick” and are considering one of their own in retaliation.
One Russian lawmaker wants Moscow to rename the street where the U.S. houses its embassy to “North American Dead End.” And unlike the D.C. legislation, it would change the embassy’s address, too.
This is not the first time the United States has deployed street signs as a diplomatic tool against the Kremlin.
In the waning years of the Cold War, Congress infuriated Moscow in 1984 by voting to change the name of a stretch of 16th Street NW outside the then-Soviet Embassy to “Andrei Sakharov Plaza,” an homage to the Soviet Union’s best-known dissident.
“Those who stood as the Sakharov name was unveiled outside the Soviet Embassy know that a campaign over years ultimately succeeded in restoring a measure of human rights and dignity and freedom to the then-Soviet Union,” said Sen. Christopher A. Coons (D-Del.), telling those gathered Tuesday to “know that someday, someday, Russia will be free again. This embassy will be honored again by the name Boris Nemtsov.”
When politicians and activists finished speaking, they left a large photo of Nemtsov at the foot of the light pole where they unveiled the plaza sign. One by one, people left roses in front of the poster.
While the affair was a jab at the Russian government, it was unclear whether anyone from the embassy was watching. There was no sign of activity, and the gate did not open to let any vehicles in or out.
The Russian Embassy did not respond to a request for comment on the new signs.