Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Russian Protests against Orthodox Church Construction Move beyond NIMBY

Paul Goble

            Staunton, June 30 – “The struggle around the construction of churches in Russian cities has reached a new level,” according to Anna Alekseyeva of “Novyye izvestiya.” It no longer is just the usual “not in my back yard (NIMBY)” feelings but not focuses on the arrogance of the Russian Orthodox hierarchy and the complicity of Russian government authorities.

            The Moscow journalist quotes Deacon Andrey Kurayev who suggests that “many people simply have a desire to take part in protest actions” and that protests nominally against church construction are in fact “anti-government” but less risky than more overtly political ones and, when the people win, they gain a sense of efficacy (newizv.ru/society/2015-06-30/223010-protesty-vzmyli-pod-kupol.html).

            In recent times, Alekseyeva reports, “the Russian media has reported about meetings and pickets against the construction of churches which often are going up in parks and squares. The activists note that they are not against religious objects as such but only against their construction in beloved recreation areas.” Such people are typically opposed by “hired ‘Orthodox activists.”

            If the local authorities held hearings and if the Church respected the outcome of such meetings and court decisions, these conflicts would not be serious. But often such consultations take place “only on paper, and local residents frequently find out about them only after the beginning of construction.”

            Opponents of the construction of a church in St. Petersburg’s Malinovka Park have been fighting the Church for two and a half years. They’ve collected more than 30,000 signatures on petitions against the construction and gone to court three times. But the city’s legislative assembly have ignored them and approved construction, politicizing the issue.

            Boris Vishnevsky, an opposition figure in that legislature, then intervened with the governor who said he would block any construction despite the decision of the legislature.  But local people say they will continue their pickets and organize flashmob demonstrations to keep the officials and churchmen from doing an end run around them.

            Something similar has been going on in Toliatti in Samara Oblast, Alekseyeva says.  There demonstrators have called for the location of the church to be shifted but have been ignored. At their latest protest, they carried signs declaring: “’No to the church; yes to sports facilities’” and “’Why don’t we listen to the people?’”

            They were opposed by others carrying signs saying “’More churches, fewer fools’” and “’We will build the church and revive moral values.’” Their opponents plan to take them to court, but neither side has much use for the city authorities who promised once to move the church but appear to have reneged on that.
Meanwhile, in Moscow, there is a similar struggle in one of the capital’s districts. Opponents and supporters of church construction have attracted the leaders of political parties to their respective sides, prompting Patriarch Kirill to declare that everyone should calm down and reach an agreement without further conflict.

According to Deacon Kurayev, “the political forces in such conflict serve as a crystallizing element for the dissatisfied. This is not simply a spontaneous protest but involves people who are professionally active in this sphere and travel from meeting to meeting,” sometimes presenting themselves “as local residents.”

But across the country, Russians are upset that  local officials and the Church act behind the scenes, ignore their feelings and often present them with faits accomplish. As Aleksandr Verkhovsky of SOVA says, most are not anti-Church, but they want to be listened to. If officials and churchmen did so, all these things would be nothing more than “normal city conflict[s].”

Unfortunately, that is not how either the officials or the hierarchs prefer to act, and in response, NIMBY objections are growing into something else, Alekseyeva suggests.

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