Bolshoy Moskvoretsky Bridge
Stories of the guardians of the people’s memorial on the bridge near the Kremlin, where Boris Nemtsov was killed.
«Our watch is a protest against the disenfranchisment of Russians in their own country»
Ignat Bakin. Translate Georgii Bychkov
This Saturday, February 27, will mark the sixth anniversary of the murder of opposition politician Boris Nemtsov in the heart of Moscow. At the place of his death – Bolshoy Moskvoretsky Bridge – all this time there is a national memorial, where anyone can bring flowers, candles and portraits of a politician. Volunteers are on duty here: they call themselves caretakers or guardians of the bridge and make sure that the memorial symbols are preserved. They were repeatedly detained by security forces, and the memorial itself was attacked and cleaned up by «patriotic» activists and «Gormost» employees, but volunteers have always restored memorable attributes. We talked to several volunteers and learned what this watch means to them, what they achieve and how Nemtsov’s flowers and portraits interfere with the authorities.
«The bridge plays a huge information role»
Karina Starostina, 56 years old.
«I’m a native Muscovite, I work in the library. My duty began in the first ten days after the murder of Boris Nemtsov. We were gathering on Manezhnaya Square and went to the bridge. Then there were a lot of people who gave their all, sometimes they didn’t leave the bridge for days. Then the so-called backbone of volunteers was formed. Now it’s about 20 people: mostly elderly and completely different. Most of us are of democratic views. We may have different opinions on some issues, but we’re still a whole. And this unity is very important. All problems are solved by vote.
I’m a fundamentally non-party person, I’m not a supporter of any Russian party. I treat Alexey Navalny negatively. Because of his populism, nationalism. As an Armenian, the last one is not close to me at all. To be honest, I wouldn’t like such a ruler in my country.
My duty is already six years old. There were breaks, again due to coronavirus restrictions. Now I’m on duty usually after work at night or Saturday morning. Everyone has individual hours, depending on their busy schedule. Someone can be on hold-up for a couple of hours, someone goes out for half a day. The only days when no one is on duty on the bridge are Monday and Tuesday. Somehow it happened.
I’ve been detained on the bridge several times. They took me to the Kitay-gorod police Department together with a volunteer partner. And they’ve always made some incredible accusations: that I quarreled with my partner, for the second time — that we fought with him. And it was also that we allegedly interfered with pedestrian traffic at 5 AM. And the last time was on the evening of February 19 this year, when the police fenced our memorial for the first time, and then it was cleaned. In general, there were a lot of such cleanings – often representatives of the SERB movement attacked, at other times the memorial was cleaned by Gormost employees. But there was no such thing as the police fenced the memorial.
You can’t kill, and we’re volunteering about it. In addition, the bridge plays a huge information role. Thousands of people pass through in a day, and millions have passed through in all these years. They see that we remember about Nemtsov. Someone comes up, asks questions. We’re talking about Nemtsov, Navalny, what’s going on in the country. Sometimes these conversations last for hours. Especially at night when people are in no hurry.
At the same time, the life of both the state and each person in particular changes, and the memorial remains. Our goal is to install a commemorative plaque on the Bolshoy Moskvoretsky Bridge in memory of the murder of Boris Nemtsov, an official memorial sign. We also demand a normal investigation of the crime so that customers can be brought to justice».
«After the meeting on the bridge, we got married»
Grigory Simakov, 58 years old and Natalia Garcia, 35 years old.
Grigory: In the first days after Nemtsov’s murder, the whole bridge was filled with flowers. And on the ninth day, Gormost employees cleaned everything up. Around that time, it was decided to be on duty around the clock. Prior to quarantine in 2020, there were 24 hours a day, seven days a week. There are fewer volunteers after coronavirus restrictions. And today we temporarily don’t have any duty on Monday and Tuesday. But we hope that the situation will change.
Natalia: Many duty officers are already old. That’s why you have to think about health. We’re looking for new people, someone’s responding. But the backbone – about 20 people of independent volunteers – is preserved. And people continue to go out even in the rain, even at minus 25 degrees.
It’s gratifying that young people are also on duty. A schoolgirl came to the memorial three years ago as a guest. And recently, as a student, she joined our regular duty officers.
Grigory: Natalia and I were on duty and there was a terrible snowfall. We helped the janitors, cleared the sidewalk. The snowdrifts were huge.
Natalia: For such extreme cases, we have special jumpsuits. In addition, everyone takes «dry rations» and «self-heating» with them. On the bridge there is a storage of inventory, including flower pruning shears, shovels and so on.
Grigory: Personally, I’ve been on duty on the bridge since 2016: I came soon after the first anniversary of Nemtsov’s murder. And Natalia came in December 2019, and we met on the bridge. I was only a night duty officer for a long time, then evening, morning and day. And now Natalia and I are on duty once a week at night and again in the evening.
Natalia: I met Grigory in 2019, and since then my life has changed a lot. Grigory and I got married. That’s how the bridge, where Nemtsov was killed, can affect the fate of people.
Grigory: We’re both creative people. By education, we are philologists. Our field of activity is Russian poetry of 20th century. We have registered the publishing house, trying to promote it. I also translate from German and French. Sometimes I do unskilled work, for example, distribute newspapers on the subway.
At one time, I was in a small movement – «14%», which actually broke up. Campaigned for PARNAS. Natasha is not a member of any parties. But we’re engaged in social activism. We go to pickets, protests. We visit high-profile trials — we were at «New Greatness», the court in the case of Yuri Dmitriev (former head of the Karelian «Memorial» — Ed.).
Natalia: If we talk about Navalny, we need to divide him as a political prisoner and a politician. We condemn Navalny’s persecution, he is one of the largest list of people who are persecuted for dissent in Russia. But we don’t consider him as the future leader of the country.
Grigory: When we go to the bridge, we show our civil position. Many people ask: why don’t we honor Nemtsov’s memory in the cemetery? But we’re talking about a contracted political murder that was committed a stone’s throw from the Kremlin. Our task is to remind people on the other side of the Kremlin wall about it.
We are seeking to install a memorial plaque on the bridge so that this place can be legitimized as the place of Boris Nemtsov’s murder.
There’s an obelisk on the Black River where Pushkin was killed. There is a memorial plaque on the house where Anna Politkovskaya was killed. Probably, if the sign appears on the bridge, we will stop watching the people’s memorial. But for now, we’re on duty. And we keep a count of the days since Nemtsov’s murder. In 2021, on February 27, there will be 2,192 days from the date of Boris Nemtsov’s death.
Natalia: Passers-by treat our watch differently. There are quite a few sympathizers who listen about Nemtsov, start conversations themselves. Sometimes people read poems. There are foreign guests and tourists from Russian cities who specially build their routes through the «Nemtsov Bridge». But, of course, there are also those who arrange provocations and destroy the memorial. However, there have been fewer such cases lately…
«Our watch is resistance to Nemtsov’s murderers and a protest against citizens’ powerlessness»
Arkady Konnikov, 61 years old.
«I’m a member of the “Solidarity” movement. By profession and education, I’m a programmer, now I’m retired. On the bridge where Boris Nemtsov was killed, I usually on duty twice a week — a total of 10-12 hours. Also, I am currently a treasurer of volunteers who guard the memorial. We regularly buy fresh flowers, candles, make portraits of Nemtsov, plaques, etc. All this applies to the bridge.
We have little expenses, as the memorial has been operating only five days a week over the past year due to the pandemic. We spend about 40-50 thousand rubles a month. On our website about the Nemtsov Memorial there are details about where you can send donations. Usually people transfer funds and accompany transactions with a couple of warm words, such as «thank you», «we remember Boris» or «bright memory».
Usually our card receives transfers of 300-500-1000 rubles, occasionally people transfer 5 thousand rubles or more at once. Sometimes passers-by give us a couple of hundred rubles for flowers, although it is more convenient for us to accept donations to the card.
“Solidarity” is on duty on weekends, and independent volunteers on weekdays. Both have witnessed repeated attacks on the memorial. And ordinary people who pass by treat our activities differently. There are evildoers, there are well-wishers. Different «traditional» theories can be heard from the evildoers that Nemtsov was killed by CIA agents, Bandera, Freemasons or even us; and on TV you can hear even more ridiculous things. The fantasies of people who are already inadequate, such as Nemtsov’s imminent return to Earth from the astral world, are infinitely diverse.
Now more and more well-wishers are appearing among passers-by. They usually already know something about Nemtsov, his activities in the opposition, his death and its perpetrators. They ask the duty officers about different circumstances of Nemtsov’s life, about the details of the murder investigation, about the order of work of the volunteers themselves, read inscriptions on portraits, say words of support. In recent days, many people have also regretted the impossibility of holding an annual march in memory of Nemtsov, and are going to lay flowers on the bridge on February 27.
There were famous European and American politicians on the bridge. Boris Nemtsov’s daughter Zhanna, his son Anton, came to the bridge several times, but I wasn’t on the bridge at that time. Anton’s wife Anna, a very pleasant girl, mother of Boris Nemtsov’s grandson, brought flowers to the bridge recently.
This year, the authorities did not allow the traditional march in memory of Nemtsov to be held. So we expect people to just come to the bridge and bring bouquets of flowers. That’s what happened in previous years after the march. There are always a lot of security forces on the bridge on the day of Boris Nemtsov’s murder, cordon. But despite that, citizens come. And the duty officers are ready to meet everyone culturally and equip a memorial.
The reasons for what happened on the evening of February 19, 2021 are still unclear. This may be caused by the fear of the authorities due to the increase in protest activity, it may be an attempt to intimidate citizens who are going to lay flowers on the bridge on February 27.
Our task is to ensure the installation of an official memorial plaque on the site of the murder of Boris Nemtsov and bringing to justice of real customers of a crime, which is impossible under the current government. There was already an attempt to install a commemorative plaque, but it didn’t last long. It is difficult to say what will happen if, hypothetically, the authorities still allow Nemtsov’s memory to be immortalized on the bridge. As long as we have strength, we are ready to continue on duty. You see, at the very beginning we thought we’d last two or three months. And it’s already the sixth year of our watch. And people keep sending money for flowers. So as long as we are strong in spirit, as long as we feel support from people, the duty will continue.
Murder of Boris Nemtsov and the reasons for cleaning up the memorial on the bridge
Boris Nemtsov was shot dead on the Bolshoy Moskvoretsky Bridge on February 27, 2015. In July 2017, Zaur Dadaev, a former «North» battalion soldier, was sentenced to 20 years in a maximum security colony. The court found that it was he who killed Nemtsov.
Dadaev’s accompanies received 11 to 19 years in prison. The organizer of the murder is Ruslan Mukhudinov, the driver of the deputy commander of the battalion «North» (there was Dadaev), who was wanted.
In early 2020, Vladimir Putin said that the customers of Nemtsov’s murder have been identified, but their names are still unknown. In summer of the same year, the European Court of Human Rights communicated a complaint from Zhanna Nemtsova, daughter of Boris Nemtsov. The ECHR asked the Russian authorities questions about the effectiveness of the murder investigation.
In six years, the memorial at the site of Nemtsov’s murder has been cleaned hundreds of times. Bolshoy Moskvoretsky Bridge is cleaned by the «Gormost» budget institution, which serves the capital’s bridges. The cleaning takes place immediately after the police detain volunteers on duty at the memorial. They’re taken to the police because they allegedly interfere with pedestrian traffic. There have been cases where volunteers were suspected of fighting or drinking alcohol. In the department, they write explanatory notes, they are usually released without protocols, and during this time the bridge is cleaned.
Representatives of «Gormost» say that flowers «complicate security of people’s safety» on Bolshoy Moskvoretsky Bridge, which is a monument of cultural importance and a popular place among tourists. Most often, cleaning takes place on holidays, before events on Red Square, as well as on the days of memory of Boris Nemtsov — when there are especially many flowers and candles.
In 2021, the Moscow authorities did not agree on the application of the People’s Freedom Party (PARNAS) to hold a march in memory of Boris Nemtsov on February 27. The organizers were refused due to the current restrictions on mass events in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. That’s why people are just planning to come with flowers to the people’s memorial on Bolshoy Moskvoretsky Bridge.