In May 1984, when the communist authorities prohibited Andrei Sakharov’s wife from traveling abroad for medical treatment, the Soviet dissident began a hunger strike. Four years earlier, the government had exiled Sakharov to the city of Gorky, 250 miles east of Moscow, hoping to keep him out of the public eye. Sakharov had long been the most visible domestic political critic of the Soviet Union, winning the 1975 Nobel Peace Prize, which the country’s leaders prohibited him from accepting. To keep Sakharov alive, they force-fed him. “First, they would do it intravenously, then through a tube in his nose,” Sakharov’s wife, Yelena Bonner, wrote in a note smuggled out of the country. “A clamp would then be put on his nose and whenever he opened his mouth to breathe, they would pour food down his throat. Excruciating.”
Three months later, the United States Senate took a seemingly small but provocative step in protest of Sakharov’s treatment. Responsible for much of the administration of Washington, D.C., the chamber passed a measure changing the mailing address of the Soviet Embassy from 1125 16th Street to No. 1 Andrei Sakharov Plaza. From that point forward, every Soviet official entering his place of work would be confronted with his government’s repression of its most outspoken critic. “Every piece of mail the Soviets get will remind them that we want to know what has happened to the Sakharovs,” then-Sen. Alfonse M. D’Amato (R-NY), who proposed the measure, said at the time. The following year, the Soviet authorities permitted Bonner to travel abroad, and the year after that, reformist Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev permitted Sakharov and his wife to return to Moscow.
Today, Sakharov Plaza is no more. But as Russia falls further into the depths of dictatorship under Vladimir Putin, the name of another human rights hero, Sergei Magnitsky, ought to grace the mailing addresses of Russian embassies and diplomatic postings in Washington and the capital cities of free countries around the world. A conscientious young lawyer who uncovered large-scale corruption by senior Russian government officials, Magnitsky was imprisoned, tortured, and denied medical treatment before suffering an agonizing death in 2009. A measure President Obama signed into law last year placing visa restrictions and asset freezes on Russian officials responsible for human rights violations was named after Magnitsky.
“Putin and his regime’s supporters should never be allowed to forget for a moment the tragic and brutal story of how this young man was tortured and murdered for exposing corruption,” says Russian world chess champion and former presidential candidate Garry Kasparov. “Nor should those in the free world ever forget the nature of Putin’s regime. By the end of the year, there should be a Magnitsky Plaza in front of every Russian Embassy in every country that has the courage to stand up for free speech and human rights.”
Renaming the streets, squares, and plazas outside Russian embassies and consulates after Magnitsky is the brainchild of David Keyes, executive director of the innovative advocacy organization Advancing Human Rights. Keyes is an example of how symbolic human rights protest can be more than mere symbolism. Last month in New York, he confronted Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif about the plight of Majid Takavoli, a leading student activist and political dissident imprisoned by the Iranian government since 2009. Zarif lamely replied that he “didn’t know” Takavoli, which led Keyes to launch a public shaming campaign through an article in The Daily Beast. Keyes’s piece inspired thousands of Iranians to confront their foreign minister on social media about Takavoli’s plight; two weeks later, Takavoli was freed.
“A Russian Embassy at Magnitsky Street or a Chinese Embassy at Liu Xiaobo Square is a powerful message.”
Keyes has set his sights not just on Russia and Iran but any government that holds prisoners of conscience in its cells. “We must make these dissidents’ names so famous that no dictatorship can ever claim ignorance,” says Keyes. “We must raise the international price of imprisoning bloggers, journalists, and human rights activists. Every time Iranian, Syrian, Chinese, Russian, North Korean, and Saudi diplomats walk outside their embassies, they should be confronted with the names of political prisoners in their countries.”
Keyes calls his project “Dissident Squared,” a name that evokes both the physical dimension of its purpose and its ability to multiply the notoriety of imprisoned dissidents and confront their jailers head on. The campaign has earned the support of major human rights luminaries and fighters for freedom around the world. “It will help concentrate the minds of dictatorships wonderfully well,” says Irwin Cotler, former attorney general of Canada and counsel for Nelson Mandela and Natan Sharansky, among others.
Cotler is well acquainted with the power of intense public pressure on authoritarians to help win the freedom of the men and women they oppress. He recalls a conversation he had with Gorbachev years after the Soviet authorities decided to release Sharansky, then the most famous of the Soviet Jewish refuseniks who had campaigned for the right to emigrate. “I never knew anything about Sharansky,” Gorbachev told Cotler. “I never even knew the name. I came to Canada as the minister of agriculture, and I appeared before a Canadian Parliamentary Committee on agriculture, but instead of getting questions about agriculture, I got questions about Sharansky. I left the Parliament building and saw placards of Sharansky. Wherever I went I was confronted by Sharansky. So I came back to the Soviet Union and I said, ‘Who is this guy Sharansky?’ I got the files and said, ‘Well, he might have been a troublemaker, but he isn’t a criminal,’ so we ordered his release. It wasn’t worth the international price we paid.”
Another prominent supporter of Dissident Squared is Estonian politician Eerik Kross, a recently defeated candidate for Tallinn mayor who made the renaming of streets outside dictatorial embassies a plank in his campaign. Kross, who was an anti-communist activist during the Soviet occupation of his country and later served as the head of the Estonian intelligence service, was recently the target of a Russian dirty tricks campaign. The day before the election, Moscow placed a wanted notice for Kross on the Interpol website stemming from bogus claims that he had ordered the hijacking of a Russian freighter in 2009. “Russia has interfered with elections in Tallinn,” said Estonia’s defense minister.
“Nomen est omen, as the Romans said. The name says it all. Naming streets and squares in front of dictatorial embassies in free countries proves this proverb to be more profound than usually thought,” Kross writes. “A Russian Embassy at Magnitsky Street or a Chinese Embassy at Liu Xiaobo Square is a powerful message. It’s a simple and brilliant way to show that the free world has not forgotten about its core values. And that we care.”