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Prague renames square in front of Russian embassy after slain Putin critic Boris Nemtsov

Posted February 24, 2020 5:19 a.m. EST

— When a group of politicians in Prague decided to honor the murdered Russian dissident Boris Nemtsov by naming a square after him, there was just one location they had in mind: The plaza in front of the Russian embassy.

Prague City Council voted on Monday in favor of renaming what was known for decades as "Under the Chestnuts Square" to "Boris Nemtsov Square," according to the city's mayor, Zdeněk Hřib.

The official renaming will take place on February 27, the fifth anniversary of the opposition leader's killing.

This will be the fourth Russian embassy to suddenly find itself based at or near an address commemorating Nemtsov, one of the most vocal critics of President Vladimir Putin.

To mark the third anniversary of Nemtsov's death, the section of Wisconsin Avenue in front of the Russian embassy in Washington was renamed "Boris Nemtsov Plaza," much to the anger of the Russian government.

A few months later, the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius followed with a similar move. Last year, a "Boris Nemtsov Park" popped up in the Ukrainian capital of Kiev, near the Russian embassy there.

It might sound like political trolling, but for Nemtsov's family, the renaming is a powerful gesture.

The Russian opposition leader was shot in the back while walking with his Ukrainian girlfriend in central Moscow in 2015, two days before he was due to attend a large opposition rally in the Russian capital. Five Chechen men were convicted for the murder and are serving prison terms, but Nemtsov's family and colleagues have expressed concern that those who ordered the killing might never be brought to justice.

"It's very, very important to keep the name in the public domain, for the next political leadership of Russia to have the responsibility to investigate this murder, to have it on the agenda," Nemtsov's daughter Zhanna Nemtsova told CNN.

She said the newly named square will also empower those Russians who oppose the current political leadership there. "Pro-democracy people, they have no representation in the Russian system of power, their ideas are not represented by any politicians, they are out of the political system," she said. "This is a very symbolic move, these people want their voice to be heard."

The Russian embassy in Prague did not respond to a request for comment, nor did the Russian Foreign Ministry comment on the move.

The decision to rename the square in Prague was sparked partly by a petition, signed by thousands of people.

For many Czechs, their country's relationship with Russia remains an emotionally charged topic. Some remember firsthand Soviet tanks rolling into the country in 1968, when Moscow decided Czechoslovakia's tilt towards democracy had to be stopped with force.

But the feeling of distrust is also shared by many of those too young to remember the invasion. For them, the idea of renaming the square right under the Russian diplomats' noses is a way of standing up to Moscow.

Daniel Kupšovský returned to Prague in 2017, after living abroad for a few years. "I was hearing the Russian language everywhere, not just from tourists in the city center, but also in many residential neighborhoods ... and some of these people were very impolite," he said.

Kupšovský was not imagining the sudden influx -- official data from the Czech Interior Ministry shows increases in both the numbers of Russian tourists visiting Prague and those getting residency permits.

He shared his feelings on Facebook and was surprised to find many of his friends sharing the same views.

Worried about what he described as "feeling xenophobic for the first time ever," Kupšovský decided to investigate his own feelings and made a documentary about his Russophobia.

He said hearing Russian in the streets made him feel anxious and uncomfortable. At the same time, he was seeing worrying headlines about Russia's disinformation campaigns, the country's conflict with Ukraine, and its crackdown on dissidents.

"I was born in 1977, so I don't remember the invasion, but I am old enough to remember going to school and being told what to think, being forced to study the Russian language and having a 'comrade teacher' who was forcing us to learn Soviet propaganda," he said.

And while making the documentary proved therapeutic for Kupšovský -- he made couple of new Russian friends and no longer feels the overwhelming anxiety he once did -- he says he understands the uneasy feelings of many Czechs.

The square renaming is a way to make a statement, he said.

"I think many Czechs are feeling proud of and grateful for the freedom we have," he said. "This is a way to express solidarity with the part of the Russian society that doesn't have these freedoms."

The neighborhood surrounding the Russian embassy in Prague is used to gestures like this.

A short walk away from the future Boris Nemtsov Square is Charles De Gaulle Street -- before the Velvet Revolution, it was called Yakov Sverdlov Street, after a high-ranking Russian Bolshevik. Milady Horákoveé Street, renamed after the revolution to honor a dissident Czech politician murdered by the communist regime in 1948, is a stone's throw away.

Zhanna Nemtsova chuckles briefly, imagining her father's reaction to the idea of having a square named after him in the company of such major figures. "I don't think he could not have imagined that this would happen, he was not the kind of person."

She gets serious quickly. "He was under a lot of pressure in Russia. He didn't feel that he was that much respected."

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