Monday, May 20, 2019

Only Street Protests ‘like in Yekaterinburg’ Can Save Public Spaces, Activists in More Russian Cities Say

Paul Goble

            Staunton, May 19 – The success Yekaterinburg residents have had it getting the attention of Vladimir Putin and thus of the local authorities via their massive street protests against plans to build a cathedral in what has been a public park is convincing civic activists in ever more Russian cities that similar demonstrations are the only way they can win out.

            Groups opposed to church construction in Chelyabinsk, Ulyanovsk, Tambov and Nizhny Novgorod are among those who have drawn this conclusion, Darina Shevchenko of Radio Svoboda says, a development that threatens to spark protests in many more places if the authorities don’t listen to their demands or fail to keep their promises in Yekaterinburg.

            Denis Ibragimov, the Open Russia coordinator in Chelyabinsk, has already sent the mayor there an appeal saying that there could be a Yekaterinburg-style wave of protests in his city soon because what has happened in Yekaterinburg has “gone beyond the borders of the city and become federal” (
            “I was in Yekaterinburg during the conflict over the construction of the church in the square and spoke with many city residents. I didn’t meet one who was for building the church. People either are actively resisting or are quietly angry” about the idea, Ibragimov says, adding that “in Chelyabinsk a similar situation is arising.”

            The local bishopric is going ahead with plans to build a church in public space, citing the results of public hearings. But these hearings, the activist says, were fake and should be ignored because city residents were not informed about them “in the required way.”  When people found out what the city had done, they organized petitions and appeals.

            “I consider that officials have laid a mine under the situation,” Ibragimov says, “by ignoring the opinion of young people. We already are different and not a Soviet generation. Church people tell us to read the Old Testament, but what is the Old Testament to me if I live in the 21st century?”

            As for Vladimir Putin, the activist continues, he too is someone from the past rather than the future. In short, Ibragimov says. “Putin himself is a pensioner” and thinks like pensioners do, referring on one occasion to the Yekaterinburg protesters as “the godless,” something only a Soviet-thinking person would.

            Chelyabinsk residents are ready to take to the streets and the officials know it, he continues.  Indeed, “I am certain that a conflict is inevitable if the authorities do not leave our square in peace.”  That fact may explain why officials reacted so quickly to his appeal: they asked him to come in and promised a response within a few days.

            Meanwhile, in Tambov, Diana Rudakova, an architect who heads the Navalny staff in that city, said that the local bishopric has been pushing for the construction of a church in a major square. It has the right to ask for that but not to ignore the attitudes of everyone else in the city or play games with officials to hold hearings about this that people don’t know about.

            “We found out about the hearings late and acted quickly,” the activist says. We put out a video clip and posted it on line and at least for a time have been able to stop the actions of the Russian Orthodox Church whose behavior seems increasingly strange even though it has the support of the nominally secular officials.

            “No one understands the motivation of the church,” Rudakova continues. “I think that that the general policy of the ROC in Russia is to seize central social spaces as if the clericals are playing a computer game” rather than engaged in religious activities. The fight against  them will continue.

            “If we aren’t listened to, then we will organize meetings and pickets,” she says. “Tambov residents are in no way worse than the residents of Yekagterinburg. I am certain that the residents of our city will demonstrate their position. Now, already, the entire city is talking about the ROC’s intentions.”

            According to Rudakova, “bureaucrats -- and the metropolitanate includes the same bureaucrats -- have entirely lost their links with reality. The authorities do not understand that people need parks and squares: they do not need churches.”

            “The events in Yekaterinburg and those which possibly will occur in other cities of Russia are the result of the general policy of the state, the lack of dialogue and understanding between society and the powers that be. We have no instruments of interaction,” and officials take decisions in secret and in isolation from the people.

            And she concludes: “the residents of Yekaterinburg tried first to defend the square in legal ways. They were not given that chance. This means that street protests will be repeated throughout Russia and are beginning to gather strength.”

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