Last month, thousands of people held rallies and vigils in Moscow, St. Petersburg and other cities across Russia to mark the second anniversary of the murder of Boris Nemtsov, the former deputy prime minister and leader of the country’s pro-democracy opposition who was gunned down near the Kremlin on Feb. 27, 2015.
While the suspected perpetrators — all of them linked to Vladimir Putin’s viceroy in Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov— are currently on trial in a Moscow military court, investigators have not pursued those who ordered and organized the killing. The Russian government’s priority seems to be trying to erase Nemtsov’s memory. Several times a week, municipal workers, with help from the police, plunder the makeshift memorial on the bridge where he was killed, and the authorities have repeatedly rejected petitions for a plaque to the slain politician in Moscow. While his popular memory lives on, official commemoration of Nemtsov will have to wait for a change of government.
But it doesn’t have to in other countries.
This year, on the anniversary of the shooting, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) introduced legislation that would designate the stretch of Wisconsin Avenue NW in front of the Russian Embassy in Washington as “Boris Nemtsov Plaza” and change the mission’s address to “1 Boris Nemtsov Plaza.” The bill was co-sponsored by Sens. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) and referred to the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, which Johnson chairs. “The creation of ‘Boris Nemtsov Plaza’ would permanently remind Putin’s regime and the Russian people that these dissidents’ voices live on, and that defenders of liberty will not be silenced,” Rubio said in a statement. “Whether it is looking at a street sign or thousands of pieces of correspondence addressed ‘1 Boris Nemtsov Plaza,’ it will be abundantly clear to the Kremlin that the intimidation and murder of opposition figures does not go unnoticed.”
Notably, the redesignation of this particular address would have more than a symbolic meaning. On Sept. 28, 1994, Nemtsov participated in the official opening of the new Russian Embassy in Washington. Then governor of the Nizhny Novgorod region, Nemtsov was part of a delegation led by Russian President Boris Yeltsin. At a dinner in the embassy that evening, Yeltsin introduced Nemtsov to President Bill Clinton by indicating the future he had in mind for the young politician. Strobe Talbott, then the U.S. deputy secretary of state, was standing next to the two presidents. When I met recently with Talbott, he recalled Yeltsin’s words to Clinton about Nemtsov: “Let me introduce you to this guy, keep an eye on him. This young man is as good as me, and he is about as big as me, and he’ll be the president of Russia.”
Nemtsov did not become president. But for many people in my country, he became the symbol of a different Russia — more democratic, more hopeful, more European, one at peace with itself and with its neighbors.
The renaming of diplomatic addresses has a precedent that was also set by Congress and that was also connected with Russia. In 1984, an amendment to the D.C. appropriations bill offered by Sen. Alfonse M. D’Amato (R-N.Y.) changed the address of the then-Soviet Embassy on 16th Street NW to 1 Andrei Sakharov Plaza, in honor of the Russian dissident and Nobel Peace Prize laureate who was being kept in internal exile in Gorky (the Soviet-era name for Nizhny Novgorod). Few could have thought then that less than a decade later, Russian diplomats would display a bust of Sakharov in the embassy itself.
There will come a day when Russia takes pride in having Boris Nemtsov’s name on its embassy letterhead. It will also be grateful to those who, in difficult times, did not allow it to forget.