Staunton, June 8 – Because the protests against the construction of a cathedral in Yekaterinburg’s main square lasted as long as they did, attracted the attention of the Moscow media, and prompted Vladimir Putin to intervene in a way which suggested he felt compelled to make concessions, many Russian liberals have read them as heralding a Russian Maidan.
But that is a mistake, Kseniya Kirillova says, because the protests in the Urals city were about a signally local issue, and “dividing society on secondary questions is an effective tactic for warding off a revolution,” one that would challenge the power of the center rather than continue to appeal to it (svoboda.org/a/29976906.html).
The US-based Russian journalist who comes from Yekaterinburg points out that “for an anti-system protest to reach critical mass, first, many non-indifferent citizens must unity, and second, they must come to the recognition that the powers that be are not capable of fulfilling their key demands.”
“If, however, the protest activists, not able to reach agreement among themselves, will appeal to the authorities as the only means of solving problems, then their protest activity will never go beyond the limits of the ‘local’ level,” Kirillova says; and such local protests are not a threat to the regime. Indeed, they may even help it distract people from the central issues.
It is uncertain whether the Kremlin in fact promoted these protests both to improve its own image relative to that of the odious Russian Orthodox hierarchy and to test out additional means of “cleansing” the streets of opposition figures or whether it simply took advantage of a situation that was presented to it. But regardless, this conclusion stands, she continues.
To say that, Kirillova suggests, in no way is to minimize the courage of the Yekaterinburg residents who sought to preserve their city. “However, it is important to understand that the authorities will use any pretext to divide active citizens and clarify for the powers that be the resources of those protesting.”
In that way, she says, “the powers that be will be better prepared for actions in which they see more serious threats to themselves.”
No one in Moscow – neither the Kremlin nor the opposition -- should have been surprised by the protests in the Urals city. People there have opposed plans to build a new cathedral in Yekaterinburg’s center for almost a decade, although this time many were struck by the willingness of people to continue their protests for many days rather than disperse quickly.
“The Russian Orthodox church and the local authorities responded to the angry local residents ‘as Yanukovich did’ in Ukraine,” thus giving support to those who saw these protests as the beginning of a Maidan. And as in Ukraine, the repressive actions of the authorities only further enraged the protesters and added to their number.
But what these actions did not do was change the nature of the protest from being one about a local issue into a national one. Indeed, Kirillova says, that has been the case all along, with the authorities taking actions that have focused attention on them and the church rather than on the Kremlin.
There are various reasons the local authorities have behaved that way, including simple incompetence and a desire to please oligarchs close to the church. But “one can advance a more conspiratorial theory that the Kremlin consciously allowed the popular dissatisfaction to spill into the streets.”
That may seem “fantastic,” but there is a compelling logic to it, Kirillova argues. From the beginning, she says, “it was obvious that the city action, called forth exclusively by local causes could not grow into an all-Russian one and therefore was relatively harmless.” More to the point, it could be used as it was to make Putin look good relative to the church.
But most important, the protests could divide the population, with the protesters remaining against the church but others forming new organizations to promote it, again a division that helps the powers that be in Moscow because it doesn’t threaten them (cf. windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com/2019/05/backers-of-cathedral-project-in.html).