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In Moscow, Plans For Statue Of Kyiv Prince Vladimir Face Opposition

  • Tom Balmforth

An artist's depiction of a planned Moscow monument to Grand Prince Vladimir, who converted eastern Slavs to Orthodox Christianity in the ninth and tenth centuries.

An artist's depiction of a planned Moscow monument to Grand Prince Vladimir, who converted eastern Slavs to Orthodox Christianity in the ninth and tenth centuries.

MOSCOW -- The towering statue that could be up within months will commemorate 1,000 years since the death of Vladimir, the "grand prince" who converted eastern Slavs to Orthodox Christianity by performing mass baptisms in the shallows of the Dnipro River in Kyiv.

But the new monument will stand far from that historic site, on a high bank of the Moscow River in a country under the rule of another Vladimir -- President Putin -- at a time when Russia and Ukraine are locked in tension.

Far behind the front lines of the war between Kyiv's forces and Russian-backed separatists in Ukraine, the plans for a monument to Vladimir embody a bitter, if less bloody, battle: the struggle to lay claim to key elements in a long-shared history that has erupted into enmity as Kyiv looks toward Europe.

Grand Prince Vladimir -- Volodymyr in Ukrainian -- stands at the center of this struggle. He ruled Kievan Rus from Kyiv, the cradle of Russian civilization and the capital of Ukraine, and is a patron saint in both countries.

He has long been seen, however, as belonging to Kyiv, where a soaring statue has been a chief symbol of the city since it was erected on "Volodymyr's Hill," overlooking the Dnipro, in 1853.

With Moscow city authorities already issuing orders for preliminary construction to commence, the historical one-upmanship seems thinly disguised: At 24 meters, Russia's monument will stand over three meters taller than Kyiv's.

The new monument has been given pride of place. Holding aloft a great Orthodox cross, Russia's Vladimir will watch over the city from his perch at the crest of the Sparrow Hills -- one of the highest points in the city -- with his back to the Stalin-era hulk of Moscow State University.

If he is built.

Protest Petition

The initiative is not short on detractors, whose objections range from the geological to the geopolitical.

Over 55,000 Muscovites have signed a petition to protest the monument's construction.

Many protestations revolve around the prosaic realm of planning permission, dodgy paperwork, and concerns over the suitability of the land. The petition decries the plans as "illegal and dangerous," noting that the Moscow State University area is a protected cultural site, and alleging that the land there is unstable.

Plans to build on an area petitioners call a zone of "heightened geological risk" has spurred fears that the statue could simply slide down the hill -- along with a flurry of jokes about the potential fall of the other Vladimir: Putin.

Lyubov Sobol, a lawyer and activist for opposition leader Aleksei Navalny's Anticorruption Foundation, has raised suspicions of procedural violations. She alleges that city authorities ordered design engineers to begin work related to the monument days before an open competition was held to select a construction company.

Some opponents say the statue will ruin one of Moscow's most iconic locations. Pleasantly removed from the teeming city below, the "lookout area" has for decades been a popular stop for tourists -- both Russian and foreign -- and for wedding parties to toast the bride and groom.

The vantage point is flanked on one side by a ski lift and jutting ski jump, and on the other by a small church. On the shoreline below, a bow-shaped park attracts joggers, cyclists, strolling couples, and sunbathers.

Incongruous Architecture

Depictions posted on social media have shown Vladimir's sword lopping off the spire of the university building and its Soviet-style star.

Moscow's cityscape is already crammed with the incongruous architecture of bygone political eras. Under Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, the skyline narrowly escaped being taken hostage by a spectacular monument to Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin.

The Lenin statue was to stand atop a wedding-cake Palace of Soviets on the site of Christ the Savior Cathedral, which was demolished in weeks under Stalin. But plans changed: a swimming pool was installed instead, and a remake of the cathedral went up in the 1990s, after the Soviet Union came down.

If it is built, the Moscow statue of Prince Vladimir will be more than three meters taller than the statue of the Orthodox saint (pictured) on Volodymyr's Hill in Kyiv.

If it is built, the Moscow statue of Prince Vladimir will be more than three meters taller than the statue of the Orthodox saint (pictured) on Volodymyr's Hill in Kyiv.

To some critics, the planned monument looks like a blatant bid to steal some history from Kyiv, and to rope Ukraine to Russia symbolically at a time when many Ukrainians believe their country is under attack from Moscow.

Dmitry Bykov, a writer and poet and who has trained withering satire on Putin and his government, says there's more to the problem than just a bad fit.

"There's nothing you can do -- Vladimir didn't baptize Rus in the Moscow River," Bykov wrote in a blog post on Ekho Moskvy radio's website.

"The problem isn't even the maliciousness of the idea of taking away Kyiv's status as the mother of Russian cities: the problem is that Vladimir's Hill still exists only in one city, even if that city is hostile to us and we ourselves have done a lot to make that happen," he wrote.

Invoking what he suggested were the almost magical powers of the Sparrow Hills, a site that featured in the much-loved Moscow novel The Master and Margarita, Bykov predicted that the plan for the monument is doomed to "fail."

Waiting On Putin

Other opponents fear that, like many projects in Russia, its fate is in the hands of Putin.

Putin has not weighed in publicly on the issue, and any outcome from his recent visit to the area with Moscow's mayor late last month was kept under wraps.

But, in remarks since Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine in March 2014, Putin has invoked the figure of Grand Prince Vladimir and his founding role in Russian Orthodoxy, albeit not with regard to mass baptisms in Kyiv.

At an annual press conference in December, Putin latched onto Vladimir's own baptism in Crimea, claiming it imbued the Black Sea peninsula with the same sacred status for Russians "as the Temple Mount of Jerusalem does for those who profess Islam and Judaism."

According to the Russian news agency, RBK, the statue is just one project within a billion-ruble series of ventures to mark the millennial anniversary of Vladimir's death that is being organized by the Culture Ministry, the Russian Orthodox Church, and Vladimir Yakunin -- a Putin ally who heads Russian Railways.

The church, the Culture Ministry, and Moscow City Hall have not responded positively to calls for the statue to be erected at a different site.

A few dozen people who protested against the monument on June 5 were confronted by leather-clad pro-Putin bikers and black-shirted "Orthodox activists," sparking shouting matches.

The statue's sculptor, Salavat Shcherbakov, said in an interview with the pro-Kremlin newspaper Izvestia that there is nothing untoward about it.

Shcherbakov said that the planned statue is much shorter than a massive and unpopular statue of Peter the Great, which was installed incongruously in Moscow under then-Mayor Yuri Luzhkov, a friend of the man who made it.

It is due to be unveiled on November 4 -- People's Unity Day, a patriotic holiday introduced under Putin.

'Better Off Raising Pensions'

On a sunny morning this week, the area designated for the statue was cordoned off, although it was unclear whether work has commenced.

German and French tourists taking in the view said they were unaware of the planned monument, but several Russian passersby expressed objections to the project.

"It's being propagandized, so I think it will happen," said Dmitry Umnikov, 24, a recently graduated student who said he opposes placing the statue opposite the country's most prestigious university.

"I think it would be more logical to put this statue near a religious place. Perhaps near the Christ Savior Church," he said. "This is the center of science in Moscow. Here, it isn't really right."

Olga, a pensioner who declined to give her surname, grumbled that it would require ripping up newly laid paving stones.

If Putin is still mulling over a final decision, Olga said it should be a no-brainer.

"I'm against this monument," she said. "They'd be better off raising pensions or else giving the money to orphanages.

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