D.C. Councilmember Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3), pictured here in 2017, got some surprising news over the weekend: she's been barred from entering Russia.
She's about seven months from retiring from the D.C. Council, but any plans Councilmember Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3) may have had to visit every country in the world have now been tossed out the window.
That's because over the weekend Cheh was placed on a Russian government list of American politicians, activists, journalists, and tech executives who are barred from entering Russia.
In a press release issued Saturday, the Russian Foreign Ministry said the list serves as a response to "constantly imposed anti-Russian sanctions" from the U.S. in the wake of the Russian war on Ukraine. The notice adds that it is aimed at "forcing the ruling American regime, which is trying to impose a neo-colonial 'rules-based world order' on the rest of the world, to change its behavior, recognizing new geopolitical realities."
The list includes obvious targets like President Joe Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, Hillary Clinton, and congressional leaders from both parties. But it also includes Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, Microsoft President Brad Smith, George Stephanopoulos of ABC News, Bret Stephens of The New York Times, and actor Morgan Freeman.
And somehow, there at spot 911, is Cheh, a constitutional law professor and four-term local lawmaker representing some of D.C.'s toniest neighborhoods.
"Somebody sent me a text and said, 'Congratulations for being on Putin's list.' I texted back, 'What are you talking about?'" she told DCist/WAMU in an interview, recounting the surprising news she received on Sunday morning. "It's like being on Nixon's enemies list. I laughed, actually. I thought it was quite funny."
On Twitter, Cheh referred to it as Putin's "enemy list."
While the Ward 3 residents Cheh represents often are highly educated and involved at many levels of government, academia, and policy advocacy, there is scant evidence that she has coordinated the smuggling of military-grade weaponry from the Cleveland Park Citizens Association to Ukrainian freedom fighters or facilitated brigades of Ukrainian hackers ready to wage cyber-war on Russia from Chevy Chase hideouts.
Cheh, who has largely focused on transportation and environmental issues in D.C. in recent years (she was responsible for D.C.'s ban on gas-powered leaf-blowers, and Russia is an oil-producing country), did step into Russian politics on one occasion, though.
"I think it's basically because of the Boris Nemtsov street naming, and I'm glad it bothered them to some extent," she said.
Cheh was referring to a bill passed by the D.C. Council in 2018 that symbolically renamed a stretch of Wisconsin Avenue in front of the Russian Embassy as "Boris Nemtsov Plaza" after a critic of President Vladimir Putin who was gunned down in Moscow in 2015.
"It really impressed me that they took note of what was done across from their embassy," said Cheh of the Russian government. "That was the whole point of that. The whole thing with killing him was to erase him. And people attempting to put some sort of acknowledgment of where he died [in Moscow], and [the Russian government] kept sweeping it away. And that was the basis of trying to think of doing something here, and we could preserve it forever."
"We put it in a spot where they can never erase it," she said. "I was proud of that."
One of the main proponents of the council's bill was Vladimir Kara-Murza, a Russian politician, activist, and fierce critic of Putin's. Kara-Murza was arrested in Moscow in April after criticizing the Kremlin in a televised interview, and remains in detention to this day.
Despite a two-month council summer recess that starts in July and her impending retirement from public service, Cheh isn't worried that she won't be able to visit Moscow, St. Petersburg, or Sochi.
"That's one of the last places I would go. I would not go to Russia, and I would not go to China. Neither of those places is where I would want to spend a second or a penny, or ruble," she said.
And while she said she is honored to have been added to the Russian government's list, she's now mostly curious about who else may have gotten on it. "Is there anyone as obscure as I am? Like some county commissioner in Michigan?"
Not necessarily that obscure, but other local additions to the list included Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D-Va.) and Rep. David Trone (D-Md.). Trone is also the owner of Total Wine & More, which in February removed Russian vodka from its shelves. D.C.-based U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan was also added to the list; she sentenced Russian operative Maria Butina to 18 months in prison in 2019.
This story is from DCist.com, the local news site of WAMU.