Vladimir Kara-Murza is vice chairman of the Open Russia movement and chairman of the Boris Nemtsov Foundation for Freedom.
1984 was a bleak year in the Soviet Union. The reins of government had just passed from one aged apparatchik to another; hundreds of political prisoners continued to languish in camps. Russia’s most prominent dissident, the world-renowned nuclear physicist Andrei Sakharov, endured what would be the second of his three prolonged hunger strikes while in internal confinement in the closed city of Gorky.
The message of hope came from faraway. That year, Congress renamed the site of the Soviet Embassy on 16th Street NW in Washington as Andrei Sakharov Plaza, in what was intended as a message of solidarity with “Sakharov and the millions he represents.”
Today, domestic repression in Russia is not that different from what it was 1984. Opponents of the government are denounced as “traitors.” Unruly nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) are labeled as “foreign agents.” And the number of political prisoners is fast approaching late Soviet figures: 117, by the latest (conservative) count from the Memorial Human Rights Center. In some ways, the situation is worse. Russia’s most prominent dissident is not in exile or in prison. He is dead, having been killed on a bridge in front of the Kremlin in February 2015.
Boris Nemtsov’s was the clearest voice in opposition to the authoritarianism and corruption of Vladimir Putin’s regime. A rising star in post-Soviet politics — a four-term member of parliament, a regional governor, a deputy prime minister, and once viewed as a likely successor to President Boris Yeltsin — he refused to accept the new rules when Putin began to change Russia from the imperfect democracy of his predecessor to the perfect autocracy it is today.
He publicized abuses by officials. He led protest marches against election fraud and against the war in Ukraine, and campaigned successfully around the world for targeted sanctions on human rights abusers. In what even his closest colleagues considered impossible, he won election to a regional legislature and was planning a return to parliament in 2016. He was silenced the only way he could be: by an assassin’s bullet. An officer of the Russian Interior Ministry was convicted of pulling the trigger. No organizers or masterminds were identified or prosecuted.
On the day of his funeral, the line of Muscovites who came to say their goodbyes stretched for miles. Every year, thousands walk through the streets of Moscow in a march of remembrance. Every day, more than 2½ years on, Russians continue to bring flowers and light candles on the spot where Nemtsov was killed in what has become an unofficial memorial on Bolshoi Moskvoretsky Bridge.
The official story is different. The Kremlin continues to fight Boris Nemtsov, even after his death. The Moscow city government has rejected all public initiatives for a commemoration, citing “a lack of consensus.” We have streets named after the Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chávez, and after the Chechen strongman Akhmad Kadyrov, who once called on his followers to “kill as many Russians as possible.” No problem with consensus there, but the Russian opposition leader is off-limits. Several times a month, always in the middle of the night, the Moscow municipal services pillage the memorial on the bridge — grown men in official uniforms stealing flowers under the cover of darkness.
Just as in 1984, a message of support has come from outside. On Tuesday, the D.C. Council unanimously marked up a bill co-sponsored by Chairman Phil Mendelson and Council member Mary Cheh to designate “the 2600 block of Wisconsin Avenue, N.W. between Davis Street, N.W., and Edmunds Street, N.W. in Ward 3, as Boris Nemtsov Plaza.” The proposed area is immediately outside the Russian Embassy. “We want to … show solidarity with those around the world who make the extraordinary effort under adverse circumstances … to try to bring democracy to their people,” Cheh said at an earlier council hearing. “We don’t want them to be forgotten. And attempts to wipe away Boris Nemtsov’s sacrifice will not succeed.” The first reading of the bill is scheduled for Jan. 9.
The council was acting where Congress had fallen short. In February, a bipartisan group of U.S. senators — led by Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Sen. Christopher A. Coons (D-Del.) — introduced a bill with the same premise. The measure received unanimous support in committee — and stalled. As reported by The Washington Post, it was blocked by Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee. According to Alexei Venediktov, editor in chief of Ekho Moskvy radio, this came after a request from Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. The Kremlin is apparently not content with blocking commemoration of Nemtsov in Russia; it wants a veto elsewhere, too.
When Washington’s Sakharov Plaza was designated in 1984, the Soviet government was understandably furious. Six years later, there was a Sakharov Avenue in Moscow. A memorial plaque was put up on his house; and the Russian (no longer Soviet) Embassy in Washington installed a bust of Sakharov on its own premises. One day, there will be Nemtsov Streets in Russia, and — whatever the reaction from the current Kremlin regime — there will come a time when the Russian state is proud to have its embassy in Washington standing on Boris Nemtsov Plaza.