Last week, on the third anniversary of the assassination of Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, his family, friends, and colleagues gathered in Washington to unveil the world’s first official memorial to him. By a law enacted in the District of Columbia, the stretch of Wisconsin Avenue NW in front of the Russian Embassy has been designated as Boris Nemtsov Plaza.
“This street sign directly outside of the Russian Embassy will serve as an enduring reminder to Vladimir Putin, to those who support him, that they cannot use murder, violence and intimidation to silence the voices of freedom and dissent,” said Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) at the start of the ceremony. “The voices of the defenders of liberty will live on.” He made a point of thanking the D.C. Council for taking the lead on the initiative after his own Senate bill was blocked by Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.).
Council member Mary Cheh (D) said she was particularly struck by the Russian authorities’ persistence in trying to erase Nemtsov’s memory at home. “This commemoration will not be removed,” Cheh said at the unveiling. “This commemoration will stay here. It will always be here as a symbol and an honor to Boris Nemtsov. Let them steal the candles, let them steal the flowers. They can never steal his memory.”
In fact, it appears that Cheh and her colleagues have shamed the Moscow authorities into reversing their position. They have apparently realized how it looks when the U.S. capital is honoring a Russian statesman while the Russian capital is refusing to do so. Five days before the unveiling of Boris Nemtsov Plaza in Washington, Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin announced that, after three years of blocking every public initiative to commemorate Nemtsov, his government will allow the installation of a memorial plaque on the apartment bloc where he lived.
The ceremony in Washington was attended by a remarkable bipartisan group of U.S. and D.C. lawmakers who supported the initiative, including Sen. Christopher A. Coons (D-Del.), Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), and D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D). Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who could not attend, issued a statement hailing the first official commemoration for “a tireless advocate for … a democratic Russia.” The U.S. government was represented by Assistant Secretary of State A. Wess Mitchell, who paid tribute to “a Russian patriot … [whose] life and work were devoted to giving all Russians the just and accountable government to which men and women across the world aspire.”
Family members, including Boris Nemtsov’s elder daughter Zhanna, flew in to attend the ceremony. Nemtsov’s goddaughter (my 9-year-old daughter Sonya) pulled the string to unveil the sign. Diplomats and nongovernmental organization (NGO) leaders from European Union countries, Canada and the United States also attended the ceremony.
The only glaring absence was the Russian ambassador, Anatoly Antonov, who had been invited. Not a single Russian diplomat attended the ceremony to designate a Washington street in honor of a Russian statesman.
“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,” Coons said at the ceremony. “Someday, Russia will be free again.” He was referring to the 1984 decision by the authorities in Washington to designate the block in front of the Soviet Embassy as Sakharov Plaza in honor of the famed Russian dissident then confined to internal exile in Gorky. As can be imagined, the Soviet government was not pleased. Seven years later, there was a Sakharov Avenue in Moscow, and there was no longer a Soviet government.
For me as a Russian citizen, there can be nothing more patriotic than to name a street in front of the Russian Embassy after a Russian statesman. Whatever the people in the Kremlin think of this now, one day the Russian state will be proud that our embassy in Washington is standing on a street named after Boris Nemtsov.