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Face Off: Local Council In St. Petersburg Replaces Putin Portrait With Sakharov

Andrei Sakharov speaks to journalists in Moscow upon his return from exile on December 23, 1986.

Putin's off the wall, and Sakharov is on it.

That's the situation at a St. Petersburg district council whose deputies, at their first meeting following controversial September 8 elections, voted to ban the hanging of portraits of "active politicians" in their meeting room.

The new rule apparently rules out pictures of Russian President Vladimir Putin and the Kremlin-backed city governor, Aleksandr Beglov.

"Instead of Putin, they hung a portrait of human rights activist Andrei Sakharov," the liberal Yabloko party proclaimed in a post on Twitter after the September 30 decision.

The party won a majority on the Liteiny district council in the recent elections, in which the increasingly unpopular ruling United Russia party suffered notable setbacks in many races. The decision to remove Putin's portrait was adopted unanimously, as the United Russia members boycotted the opening session.

The resolution was a symbolic fruit of the anti-Kremlin opposition's strategy of focusing on local elections after it was shut out of the 2011 elections to the national parliament and after Putin returned to the Kremlin for a third term as president in 2012.

A protester carries a poster reading "thief" and depicting Russian President Vladimir Putin during a rally in St. Petersburg in September 2018.
A protester carries a poster reading "thief" and depicting Russian President Vladimir Putin during a rally in St. Petersburg in September 2018.

In place of Putin, a St. Petersburg native who is now in his fourth term, the Liteiny council voted to hang a portrait of Soviet physicist and human rights activist Sakharov. It was done "as a sign of respect for the struggle for freedom, democracy, and human rights," according to the resolution.

Deputies selected an iconic image of the Nobel Peace Prize laureate that was taken in May 1989 in the chamber of the Congress of People's Deputies, of which Sakharov was a member. It shows Sakharov remaining seated as all the other members stand for the national anthem of the Soviet Union.

The head of the previous incarnation of the Liteiny district council, United Russia member Pavel Dainyak, contended that the decision was illegitimate because before the election, he set the date of the first meeting of the new council for October 9.

'A Day I Dreamed Of'

Four days earlier, members of the Frunzensky district council from the pro-business Party of Growth simply removed portraits of Putin and Beglov -- one of many Kremlin favorites who ran as independents in local races across the country on September 8 to avoid being tainted by association with United Russia -- from the walls of their meeting room.

"I have always dreamed of doing this," council member Vladimir Volokhonsky wrote on Facebook. "Today we had our first district-council meeting. I announced that I had stylistic objections to our meeting. And I took down from the wall the portraits of Putin and Beglov."

As a result of the September 8 elections, the Party of Growth won 15 of the district council's 20 seats.

Volokhonsky's move produced something of a split among the council's Party of Growth deputies. Deputy Pavel Shvets wrote on Facebook on September 17 that "respect for all branches of government and their leaders, as well as to all citizens, is a fundamental principle of the work of the organs of the legislative branch."

"The removal of the portraits of the president and the governor is not an expression of disrespect toward these officials or an attempt to insult these figures," he wrote. Shvets added that he had hung the removed portraits in his own office and posted a photograph of them.

The shifting portraits follow local and regional elections in which government critics say the state authorities, concerned by United Russia's low popularity ratings, took numerous steps to keep opposition candidates and genuine independents off ballots and prevent them from winning races when they did manage to get on the ballot.

Kremlin foes said the campaign in St. Petersburg was marred by many dirty tricks, and an Election Day incident in which a man in plainclothes sucker-punched an observer at a polling place caused anger and alarm.

With reporting by RFE/RL's Russian Service