The Lithuanian capital of Vilnius has become the second city in the world – and the first in Europe – to name a public space for Boris Nemtsov, the former Russian deputy prime minister and President Vladimir Putin’s principal political opponent who was murdered under the walls of the Kremlin in February 2015. Those present at last month’s ceremony – who included Lithuania’s foreign minister, the mayor of Vilnius, and a number of Nemtsov’s family, friends, and political colleagues – watched as a small, wooded park directly in front of the Russian Embassy was officially designated Boris Nemtsov Square.
“This is not only a tribute to Boris Nemtsov, whom I was honored to know personally, but also an expression of gratitude to those political forces in Russia that helped us when times were difficult for us, when we were fighting for our independence,” Lithuanian Foreign Minister Linas Linkevicius said. “The values that [Nemtsov] fought for – freedom, democracy, peace, human rights – are universal,” affirmed Remigijus Simasius, mayor of Vilnius. “The people who are fighting for these values in Russia will, I believe, one day prevail.”
The ordinance renaming the park was passed by the Vilnius City Council in May following public appeals from Lithuanian and Russian political leaders, and on the heels of a similar initiative enacted in the U.S. capital. In February, on the third anniversary of Nemtsov’s assassination, the block in front of the Russian Embassy in Washington was designated as Boris Nemtsov Plaza in what became the first official commemoration for Russia’s slain opposition leader anywhere in the world. The legislation had been championed by a bipartisan group of lawmakers on the federal and city level, including the late Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) as its original co-sponsor. Just as in the United States, the initiative in Lithuania received support from across the political spectrum; only one city council member voted against.
The loudest protest against the renaming came from the Russian envoy in Vilnius. In a statement issued after the council vote, Ambassador Alexander Udaltsov accused the Lithuanian authorities of “aping” Washington in an act of “petty politics.” (As ever, Russia is a nation of paradoxes. The ambassador’s nephew, Sergei Udaltsov, is an opposition activist who has served 4.5 years in prison for organizing anti-Kremlin rallies; one of the first things he did after his release was to lay flowers at the site where Boris Nemtsov was killed.) Ambassador Udaltsov’s statement followed similar indignation expressed by Russian officials over the renaming in Washington. One senior member of the Duma called it “an attempt to destroy Russia’s image.”
It is puzzling how a foreign state’s honoring of a Russian statesman – in this case, a former government minister, regional governor, and member of Parliament – could be construed as “anti-Russian.” In fact, it is difficult to think of a more pro-Russian move. But the furious reaction of the Russian government, which continues to deny any involvement in the Nemtsov assassination, does beg some obvious questions. Why would the Russian authorities be so offended by official commemorations for a Russian political figure? Why do they continue to block such initiatives domestically, and pillage the makeshift memorial on the bridge where Nemtsov was killed? Why do they cover up for the organizers and masterminds of the murder, hindering a meaningful investigation, and ban the Council of Europe’s special rapporteur on the Nemtsov case from even entering Russia?
“Today a square in the capital of independent Lithuania is being named for a Russian politician,” Boris Vishnevsky, an opposition lawmaker in the St. Petersburg Legislative Assembly who traveled to Vilnius to attend the ceremony, said at the unveiling. “This is a great honor for my country . . . . One day, not just a humble member of the St. Petersburg legislature, but the prime minister of Russia and the speaker of the Russian parliament will be coming to speak in this square.”
Russian history has been known to make sharp turns. In 1984, when the authorities in Washington named the street in front of the then-Soviet Embassy after the dissident physicist Andrei Sakharov, the Politburo was not pleased. Seven years later, there was a Sakharov Avenue in Moscow and there was no longer a Politburo. There will come a time when Nemtsov streets will be designated in cities across Russia – and when Russian embassies in Washington, Vilnius, and other world capitals will be proud to be standing on squares and in parks named for a Russian statesman.