February 27, 2016

Bridge of Contention

Bridge of Contention
Photo: Mikhail Mordasov

The late Boris Nemtsov’s friends and supporters are not surrendering.

It has been a year since the opposition politician was shot as he walked along a bridge near the Kremlin, yet Russians continue to gather at his assassination site.

The authorities are also not surrendering in their effort to erase from the face of the city the memorial that sprung up in his honor. In 2016, attempts to “clean” the bridge intensified; in January the memorial was removed three times. Each time, police drove up to the site at three or four in the morning, claimed they were responding to a report of a disturbance, and then detained activists who are part of a team that guards the memorial around the clock. Municipal workers would then gather up the flowers, Russian flags and candles for disposal.

In one instance, when an activist tied himself to a chair and the chair to a flag post to make it harder to apprehend him, he was arrested for “organizing a mass event for five people by sitting on a wooden chair with a Russian flag and reading poems, which prevented passersby from walking.”

Yet people are still showing up at the bridge, and several online groups have organized themselves: one for people who staff the memorial in shifts, another for people who donate money to purchase flowers. Daily updates are posted, with pictures and interviews with Muscovites and those who visit the capital and stop by the bridge to pay their respects.

At press time, in Moscow the opposition was seeking to hold a rally on the anniversary of Nemtsov’s murder in late February.

In early February, police in Syktyvkar arrested local rights campaigner Ernest Mezak, nearly a year after he held a small rally last March to commemorate Nemtsov’s death. He faces a trial.

Over 30,000 people in Moscow have signed a petition to erect a permanent memorial on the bridge to commemorate the charismatic opposition politician who served as deputy prime minister. There have even been calls to rename the bridge, known as Bolshoy Moskvoretsky Bridge, Nemtsov Bridge.

But Moscow authorities, normally rather casual about unveiling monuments to public figures or symbols, are adamant that there is “no sufficient consensus” in society to warrant a memorial to Nemtsov.

It is a strange, quiet, but fierce standoff, and it is likely to last until the Russian parliament passes a bill banning any form of public mourning.

After the latest “zachistka” (cleansing) of the bridge by municipal workers, a volunteer, Olga Avilonova, posted a picture on Facebook of new bouquets arranged on the site, with the Kremlin towers in the background.

“The memorial is doing okay, all has been tidied up and arranged,” she wrote. “It stopped snowing, the flowers are beautiful.”

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