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The Battle For 'Nemtsov Bridge'

A woman prepares to lay flowers on April 7 at the site where Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov was shot dead in Moscow.
A woman prepares to lay flowers on April 7 at the site where Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov was shot dead in Moscow.

MOSCOW -- On the 40th day after Boris Nemtsov was assassinated, a few hundred people flocked to the bridge near the Kremlin where he was slain.

They laid out flowers, left messages, and lit candles. Others drove by honking their horns, marking a "minute of nonsilence."

The memorial event on Bolshoi Moskvoretsky Bridge, beneath the ornate domes of St. Basil's Cathedral, also marked the latest salvo from the opposition in their battle to keep their new rallying point alive.

The location has taken on iconic significance for a crestfallen opposition marginalized by the patriotic fervor in the country and Vladimir Putin's soaring approval ratings.

"I can't be indifferent," said Ivan Kaplan, 26, an architect who laid a bouquet of white roses on April 7 at the spot where Nemtsov was killed. "This is my country. I have to live here. I don't want the future being built by the men inside that fortress," he said, gesturing toward the Kremlin.

Mounds of flowers, photographs, and messages have piled up on the bridge. On March 1, two days after the February 27 killing, a procession of tens of thousands snaked round the Kremlin walls and over the Moscow River.

Nemtsov's supporters have even clamored for the entire bridge to be renamed after him.

And yet despite this outpouring of support -- or perhaps because of it -- the improvised memorial has been under concerted attack.

On March 25, pro-Kremlin activists vandalized the memorial, dumping flowers into the river below and defacing "Nemtsov Bridge" road signs left by sympathizers. Three days later, the entire memorial was mysteriously cleaned up.

Mourners like Viktor Shchitkovsky, 65, a pensioner who came to the bridge to pay his respects to Nemtsov on April 7, blamed the state for trying to "wipe away the memory of Nemtsov."

"My soul has being aching for the last 40 days -- aching for the motherland, for our Russia," Shchitkovsky said. "How can we live on when the best sons of Russia are destroyed and the truth is swept away?

Others like Kaplan were incredulous. "If these flowers are a problem for some people, then I pity them," he said.

Responsibility for the March 25 incident was claimed by a group called SERB of which little is known. Russian media reports have linked it to the pro-Kremlin group Antimaidan. It also gained notoriety for reportedly hurling excrement at opposition activists in February.

Over the weekend, a scuffle broke out on the bridge between opposition and SERB activists. The latter had been trying to replace "Nemtsov Bridge" plaques with signs saying, "Liberals are just making PR out of a murder."

"Even in death they can't stand him," wrote Ilya Yashin, an opposition activist.

Meanwhile, the opposition has mobilized to keep the rallying point alive. "I've met here people like me who are also extremely worried about this loss, this foul murder, and who also don't know if the murderers will be punished or not," Shchitkovsky said. "I want to know who ordered this hit -- why do they kill the truth and good people?"

Maksim Kats, an activist and prominent Moscow municipal deputy, has launched an online delivery service to keep bouquets flowing to the site and to allow distant Nemtsov supporters to order flowers for the bridge remotely.

Speaking to journalists by the memorial on April 7, Vladimir Ryzhkov, a prominent opposition figure, said he had agreed with opposition leaders including Aleksei Navalny that they would formally ask Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin to install a memorial plaque. "I think this is the correct thing to do in both public terms and in human terms," Ryzhkov said.

"Murderers, you will be brought to justice for your deeds. You have insulted people, and God."
"Murderers, you will be brought to justice for your deeds. You have insulted people, and God."

During the memorial, women circled with clipboards asking mourners to petition the Moscow government to confer official status -- and therefore state protection -- on the improvised memorial.

Later on April 7, independent TV Dozhd was due to host a marathon televised music concert called Nemtsov Bridge. The decision to hold the commemorative concert on television was made after venues across Moscow declined en masse to host such an event.

The marginalizing of the memorial events was no mystery to today's organizers who called on mourners to mark a "minute of nonsilence."

They wrote on Facebook: "We bring flowers to the murder site -- they take them away. We put on a concert in Boris Nemtsov's memory -- they ban it. They tell us it's better to forget. But we -- remember."

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