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The Latest Battleground In Russia: Bridge Names

A man lays flowers on the bridge in Moscow where Russian politician Boris Nemtsov was killed.
A man lays flowers on the bridge in Moscow where Russian politician Boris Nemtsov was killed.

Two Russian bridges, one in St. Petersburg and the other in Moscow, are at the heart of passionate eponymic disputes between authorities and residents.

In St. Petersburg, a decision by local officials to name a new bridge after the father of Ramzan Kadyrov, the former warlord who has ruled Chechnya with an iron fist for almost a decade, has sparked outrage among residents of the northern Russian city.

Akhmad Kadyrov was also a former Chechen separatist warlord who fought Russian forces before switching sides and becoming president of Chechnya in 2003. He was assassinated less than a year later.

Angry residents have taken to the street to protest the initiative, stressing that neither Kadyrov has any ties to St. Petersburg. The next protest is scheduled for June 6.

An online petition has already gathered more than 74,000 signatures.

A number of St. Petersburg cultural luminaries, including renowned film director Aleksandr Sokurov and actor Oleg Basilashvili, have joined the chorus of indignation.

“St. Petersburg residents will be outraged to have a reference to this infamous family,” Sokurov wrote in an open letter to St. Petersburg Governor Georgy Poltavchenko.

Rights Abuses

Sokurov cautioned authorities against naming the bridge in honor of a man associated with a bloody conflict.

“We should not forget that during the first Chechen war it was precisely him who called for a jihad and who called on Chechens to kill as many Russians as possible,” he wrote. “Hundreds of people who died in this war are buried in our city, many people living here have not forgotten this.”

Akhmad Kadyrov’s son, Ramzan, is not particularly popular outside the southern republic of Chechnya, where he has been leader since 2007. He has long been accused of corruption and widespread abuses that include abductions, torture, and executions.

Activists protest the naming of the bridge in St. Petersburg.
Activists protest the naming of the bridge in St. Petersburg.

He has called for a return of polygamy in Russia and routinely posts pictures of himself on Instagram lifting weights, frolicking with exotic animals, and in shirts featuring likenesses of Russian President Vladimir Putin, the man who brought him to power.

A group of St. Petersburg residents has launched a campaign to name the bridge instead after Anna Akhmatova, one of Russia’s best-loved poets.

Unlike Akhmad Kadyrov, Anna Akhmatova spent most of her life and died in St. Petersburg, then known as Leningrad.

Her first husband, poet Nikolai Gumilyov, was executed by the Soviet secret police in 1921. Her son spent many years in the gulag and her common-law husband, art scholar Nikolai Punin, died in the gulag in 1953.

The activists filmed themselves declaiming poems written by Akhmatova in front of the unnamed bridge and called on others to do the same.

St. Petersburg’s commission for the naming of sites and structures, which voted on May 30 to name the bridge after Akhmad Kadyrov, has already warned it will not budge.

'Nemtsov Bridge'

Meanwhile in Moscow, activists and authorities have been clashing over a downtown bridge where opposition politician Boris Nemtsov was gunned down in February 2015.

Allies of Nemtsov have dubbed the Moskvoretsky Bridge, which stands a stone’s throw from the Kremlin, the "Nemtsov Bridge."

Their attempts to officially rename the bridge after Nemtsov, however, have been thwarted.

An ongoing memorial at the bridge, comprising portraits, flowers, and a makeshift street sign reading “Nemtsov Bridge,” is regularly vandalized.

Authorities have also turned down numerous requests to put up a monument or a plaque to commemorate the slain politician, a former deputy prime minister and fierce critic of Putin.