By Martin Austermuhle • November 29th, 2018
Ask anyone where the Russian Embassy is in D.C., and they’ll point you to the large diplomatic complex on Wisconsin Avenue NW. But the embassy may soon have a new address: 1 Boris Nemtsov Plaza.
A bill making its way through the D.C. Council would symbolically rename the portion of Wisconsin Avenue directly in front of the embassy — between Davis Street and Edmunds Street — after the former Russian politician and longtime critic of President Vladimir Putin who was assassinated in Moscow in early 2015.
The idea was born earlier this year on Capitol Hill, where Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Florida) introduced a bill to commemorate Nemtsov by making sure Russian diplomats coming in and out of the embassy couldn’t easily ignore his name. But after the bill stalled in the Senate, Rubio found a willing partner in Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3), who introduced her own bill in late October in the Council. It will get its first hearing next week.
“People are being assassinated simply because they are agitating for democracy,” said Cheh. “That’s wrong, and if this a small way of us saying that’s wrong, I’m happy to do it.”
Symbolic street renamings are par for the course in D.C. Just last week, for example, the Council gave initial approval to a bill that would designate G Street between Eighth and Ninth streets NW “Paul S. Devrouax Way,” after the African American architect who helped design the Capital One Center and Nationals Park.
Over the years, portions of city streets have been symbolically renamed to commemorate artists like Marvin Gaye and Langston Hughes, civil rights fighters like Frank Kameny and Malcolm X, and city politicians like Jerry Moore and Harry Thomas. They’ve also been renamed to recognize landmarks (Fourth Street NW between P and Q streets, home to the Masjid Muhammad mosque, is known as Islamic Way) and historic events (Drake Place SE is known as Queen’s Stroll Place, so named because of a brief visit there in 1991).
But the proposed renaming of the block-long portion of Wisconsin Avenue in front of the Russian Embassy fits into a smaller category, one in which Congress or the Council use their power over the naming of city streets and alleys to send a political message, often aimed at countries at odds with the U.S. And, in this case, that country is one that remains in the center of the national debates, with allegations that Russia interfered in the 2016 election to benefit President Donald Trump.
“We’ve done this before,” said Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, who supports Cheh’s bill. “We are a world capital, so this is not the first time international issues that are represented in the city through the embassies come before us.”
In the mid-1980s, then-mayor Marion Barry proposed renaming the portion of Massachusetts Avenue NW in front of the South African Embassy after Nelson Mandela, who was in prison at the time. Even more famously, in 1987, a short portion of 16th Street NW in front of what was then the Russian Embassy was symbolically renamed Sakharov Plaza after Andrei Sakharov, a Russian physician and dissident. The signs still remain there.
That renaming highlighted the tensions that have always existed in the undertaking: Not only did Congress order it, angering local officials who say street names are their business, but it also prompted a debate over whether a symbolic street name is worth the possible diplomatic furor.
It was that very concern that sunk an effort last year to name the street in front of the Chinese Embassy after Liu Xiaobo, the Nobel laureate imprisoned for his pro-democracy activism. President Barack Obama threatened to veto a Senate bill that ordered the renaming, saying he worried it would complicate relations between the two countries.
That’s exactly what Helen Andrews, a writer in D.C., says she fears will happen between the U.S. and Russia if Boris Nemtsov Plaza becomes a reality.
“Relations between are already bad enough we don’t need to be sticking in finger in their eye,” she said.
Andrews also says that the symbolic renamings are usually lost on residents and visitors. She points to Sakharov Plaza as an example.
“I walk down this street all the time and didn’t know it was Sakharov Plaza, so I don’t think the residents will notice Boris Nemtsov Plaza one way or another. It’s only effect will be to annoy Russia for no good reason,” she said.
Other than coming across the small signs indicating that a D.C. street has been symbolically renamed, there’s no way to find them. The D.C. Department of Transportation, which manages the city’s streets, says it does not have a master list or map indicating where the renamed streets are.
For Maryland resident James Addai, that’s not the point. Annoying Russia is reason enough to rename Wisconsin Avenue in front of the embassy, even if only symbolically.
“Russians meddled in our elections, so any little thing we can do to hit back at them, I’m all for it,” he said.
Neither the Russian Embassy nor the State Department responded to requests for comment, and neither has yet indicated whether they will offer an opinion on the Council’s bill by next week’s hearing. But one person will: Zhanna Nemtsova, Boris Nemtsov’s daughter, will testify in favor of the renaming.
For her part, Cheh says she has not been dissuaded by any possible international repercussions.
“For me, it’s the right thing to do and I’m very pleased to do it, so I’m going to go forward,” she said.
If it does make it through the Council, Congress will still have a chance to weigh in — and block the bill if it chooses. But should that happen, it still won’t be the last time a street renaming is brought up. Earlier this year, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) introduced a bill to rename the portion of 16th Street NW in front of the Cuban Embassy after pro-democracy activist Oswaldo Payá.
Original post: here