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'Church Of Strife': Construction Plans Divide Russia's Fourth-Largest City

Demonstrators (right) stand outside a fence blocked by police as they protest plans to construct a church in a park in Yekaterinburg on May 14.

YEKATERINBURG, Russia -- By the time Mayor Aleksandr Vysokinsky arrived at October Square on May 16 to face a crowd of protesters baying for his resignation, the days-long standoff over plans to build a church in an adjacent park had brought dozens of arrests and garnered nationwide attention.

Three days of demonstrations outside the construction site, which had been cordoned off with a metal wall hastily erected the previous night, had left some fearing Russia's fourth-largest city would spark a wave of civil unrest against a leadership increasingly viewed as out of sync with the population it oversees.

Inaudible to the hundreds of people who heckled him from every direction, Vysokinsky explained to the gaggle of reporters surrounding him that evening that he was suspending work on the new church until a public-opinion poll among the city's residents was completed.

"As of today, we have stopped the construction," Vysokinsky said. "The next thing is that we have to come to an agreement on the remaining parks and gardens regardless of what takes place in this one."

Yekaterinburg Mayor Aleksandr Vysokinsky attends the protest rally on May 16.
Yekaterinburg Mayor Aleksandr Vysokinsky attends the protest rally on May 16.

A Temporary Victory?

Vysokinsky's concession represents a small victory for thousands of the city's residents who have occupied the park on each of the previous four evenings.

The protests began on the night of May 13, when a metal fence was placed around the planned construction site. The following day a 10-hour standoff ensued between the security guards placed along its perimeter and the hundreds of activists demanding its removal.

Protesters toppled the metal fence and entered the construction site, sticking to trees posters reading "Hands off the square!" and "Church of strife!" By evening they had been dispersed by security guards and men in tracksuits, among them mixed-martial-arts fighters from a sports club belonging to the Russian Copper Company, which is financing the project alongside the Ural Mining and Metallurgical Company.

Former Mayor Yevgeny Roizman has emerged as the most prominent voice of the protest movement. In May 2018, he resigned from his post after Yekaterinburg's legislature voted to scrap direct mayoral elections, a decision he described at the time as a symptom of a broader curtailment of local democracy in Russia.

Minutes after his successor had been chased out of the square by a jeering crowd on May 16, Roizman arrived to its cheers. He told the protesters to distrust any poll results issued by the city, and to maintain pressure on the authorities until the construction site is cleared from the park. The church project includes a major redesign of the surrounding area.

The square was a gift to the city on its 275th anniversary in 1998, Roizman told RFE/RL, and it was built with donations from its residents. "In a city of 1.5 million residents, not one square meter of greenery should be touched," he said. "Squares should not be downsized or disappear -- they should not be touched."

Ex-Mayor Yevgeny Roizman attends a rally on May 16.
Ex-Mayor Yevgeny Roizman attends a rally on May 16.

The Project

The dispute in Yekaterinburg centers around plans to build a replica of St. Catherine's Cathedral, which was razed by the atheist Bolsheviks in 1930 during the height of their campaign to suppress religion in the Soviet Union. In place of the old church, on Labor Square, there now stands a large fountain, and beside it a commemorative chapel. At least four other Orthodox churches are located within 2 kilometers.

The place chosen for the new church is a small park near October Square, beside the city's famed drama theater and across the city pond from Yekaterinburg's Church on Blood, which was built on the spot where Russia's last emperor, Nicholas II, was killed along with his family in July 1918. For Orthodox believers like Father Maksim Menyailo, dean of the Church on Blood, the rebuilding of St. Catherine's Cathedral is an opportunity to right a historical wrong.

"If there's no St. Catherine's Cathedral in Yekaterinburg, then what are we building here?" he said in an interview with RFE/RL at his spacious office, below a large portrait of Moscow Patriarch Kirill. "This isn't simply a church. This is the main church."

Father Maksim Menyailo talks to protesters on May 16.
Father Maksim Menyailo talks to protesters on May 16.

On May 14, Menyailo postponed a public prayer service he had planned to hold outside the construction site with fellow believers, after a safety warning from the city's Public Security Ministry. Nevertheless, he said Orthodox believers were willing and ready to defend the church project with all means possible. "Our supporters are like greyhounds in the slips," he said. "They're ready to go."

Menyailo was among 14 representatives of the local community -- seven supporters and seven opponents of the church project -- who on May 14 met for talks aimed at resolving the dispute with regional Governor Yevgeny Kuyvashev, who hails from the Tyumen region. Following the meeting, Kuyvashev announced there was no legal justification to call off construction.

According to Innokenty Sheremet, a prominent TV journalist who also participated in the talks, "each side was simply repeating the arguments it had been making all along."

Sheremet, who identifies as Orthodox, believes opponents of the church project have lost their patriotism and have succumbed to what he sees as the destructive forces of political dissent.

"This is a story about hatred toward your own country," he told RFE/RL at the Urals Television Agency, a channel he founded in 1994. "And Orthodoxy is one of the hinges on which all of Russia hangs."

Innokenty Sheremet
Innokenty Sheremet

Beyond The Church

Many believe the conflict that has engulfed Yekaterinburg is about much more than the Orthodox Church and opposition to its post-Soviet building spree, however.

"The basic political mechanism here is a demand for participation in decision-making," says Yekaterina Schulmann, a Moscow-based political scientist and member of the Presidential Council for Civil Society and Human Rights. "People are angry that that decisions are being made for them."

Anticlerical attitudes in Russia, she says, are part of a broader anti-government mood among protesters, who in recent months have taken to the streets in several regions. Yekaterinburg is "a typical story," Schulmann says. "There's not a single regional capital in Russia where there hasn't been a protest episode of this sort."

Last year, residents of a town in the Moscow region staged a series of violent clashes with police over a proposed new landfill to store trash and garbage brought from the capital. Similar protests are taking place in the northern city of Arkhangelsk, where residents are fighting a similar proposal.

In Ingushetia, a region in Russia's North Caucasus, a continuing dispute over a proposed land swap with neighboring Chechnya has provoked a series of angry demonstrations.

"Saying these problems aren't political is silly. Demand for participation in decision-making is the basic political demand, the root of all politics," Schulmann says. "Nothing can be more political."

Polling Time

The announcement of a public-opinion poll on May 16 might be seen as a win for protesters. But many are skeptical.

A recent survey conducted among the city's residents by the state-backed VTsIOM agency was criticized for allegedly asking highly leading questions and giving no opportunity for respondents to voice their opposition to the project.

So when they heard of plans for a new poll, few protesters appeared placated.

"Whoever carries out the survey will get the result they want," says 33-year-old engineer Aleksei Chopa, who attended each of four evening demonstrations beside the construction site.

"They may conduct a poll honestly, but they won't publish the results honestly," says Anna Vyatkina, who works at Russian Internet giant Yandex.

And few doubt that Vysokinsky has received his orders from Moscow. Hours earlier, President Vladimir Putin weighed in on the escalating conflict in Yekaterinburg during an appearance in the Black Sea city of Sochi. A survey should be held, Putin said, and the minority should concede to the majority. "That is what democracy is about," he said.

The mayor's office announced its decision to hold a poll less than two hours later.

The project of the St. Catherine church in Yekaterinburg -- is there more to come?
The project of the St. Catherine church in Yekaterinburg -- is there more to come?

The news came amid indications that significant details about the construction project have been kept from public attention.

A review of documents relating to the construction by The Bell, an independent Russian news outlet, found that the church is merely one part of a much larger commercial complex that includes a 30-story office block, a fitness club, and underground parking. Approval for the project required lifting protections on several 19th- and early 20th-century buildings located in the city center, the outlet reported on May 15.

The company that got the rights to the contract, Khram Svyatoi Yekateriny, won them in a closed auction in April that lasted 15 minutes, The Bell also revealed; there was one rival bid.

Menyailo, Sheremet, and other supporters of the project denied the claim in interviews with RFE/RL. On May 16, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov also forcefully dismissed the reports.

"Information suggesting the church is merely part of a larger construction project, and that other buildings and centers are being planned there, does not reflect reality," he said on May 16. "We must be clear that the planned work will improve the area of the park."

It's an argument voiced by many supporters of the project, who say the new church will not only beautify the area but expand the park. It will be turned into "a real paradise," Menyailo said.

For Roizman, the former mayor, the promises of the administration that replaced him cannot be trusted. "Everyone sees through that ruse," Roizman said. "If they build over the square, then they won't expand it."

Despite his very public resignation last year, Roizman remains actively involved in the politics of Yekaterinburg, where he still runs City Without Drugs, an initiative that involves holding drug addicts captive until they kick their habit.

But the maverick politician insists his involvement in the campaign against the planned church is not connected to his former status as mayor, but as a resident of his native city.

"I'm here on the same basis as everyone else," he said at the protest on May 16, looking around the square at the hundreds of people gathered. "We were all born and brought up here. The governor will leave, but we need to live in this city."

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    Matthew Luxmoore

    Matthew Luxmoore is a Moscow-based journalist covering Russia and the former Soviet Union. He has reported for The New York Times in Moscow and has written for The Guardian, Politico, The New Republic, and Foreign Policy. He’s a graduate of Harvard’s Davis Center and a recipient of New York University's Reporting Award and the Fulbright Alistair Cooke Journalism Award.