ST. PETERSBURG, Russia -- Residents of Russia's "northern capital" are once again girding themselves to defend the city's world-renowned, 18th-century skyline.
Less than five years after locals successfully fought off an effort by state-controlled natural-gas giant Gazprom to build a 400-meter-high skyscraper in the center of the city, municipal officials are now looking for a place to erect a towering statue of Jesus Christ that has been donated by the Kremlin's favorite sculptor, Zurab Tsereteli.
"Tsereteli has hardly created anything decent, even on such a holy topic," longtime Petersburg rights activist Yury Vdovin says. "But it seems the authorities of the country and the city don't give a damn about people's opinions. They are pursuing their own ends."
At 80 meters, the statue -- which itself is 33 meters tall and is intended to stand on a 47-meter pedestal -- would be twice as large as the famous Christ statue in Rio de Janeiro. Coincidentally or not, Rio is hosting the Summer Olympics next month, with Russia's track-and-field and weightlifting teams banned over a doping scandal.
It was originally intended for the Black Sea resort city of Sochi, but officials there rejected it because of its enormous scale. Last year, there were reports of plans to put it up in Vladivostok.
This spring, St. Petersburg officials tried to place it in a large park on the outskirts of the city but local residents objected and the initiative was withdrawn. On July 9, however, St. Petersburg Governor Georgy Poltavchenko ordered the city planning committee to find a new home for the statue.
Petersburgers Say No
Local reaction to the announcement has been uniformly negative, particularly after municipal authorities just last month overruled public opinion and named a local bridge after former Chechen President Akhmed Kadyrov, the controversial father of current Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov who had no discernable connection with St. Petersburg.
The National Committee +60 organization, which fanatically supports President Vladimir Putin and has in the past appealed to the Russian Orthodox Church to declare him a saint, suggested that the statue be placed next to the Kadyrov Bridge and that a mosque be built beside it.
Outspoken local clergyman Andrei Kurayev has said the best place for Tsereteli's creation would be the Novaya Zemlya archipelago more than 2,000 kilometers to the northeast in the Arctic Ocean.
The Life.ru website created a satirical photo gallery of the statue photoshopped into various iconic St. Petersburg locations such as Palace Square or next to the Peter and Paul Fortress.
"Petersburgers love their city," local lawmaker Aleksandr Kobrinsky says. "We shouldn't forget how they unanimously resisted the construction of the [Gazprom tower] and won. I am sure that if the authorities insist on placing this statue, they will meet just as much resistance."
"Instead of telling [Tsereteli] where to take his gift, the city authorities are looking for a place to put that monster," he adds. "It is exactly the same as it was with the Kadyrov Bridge, when they spat on the opinion of 90 percent of the city because Moscow pressured them."
Aesthetic, Religious Objections
Tsereteli, who has been president of the Russian Academy of Arts since 1997, is known for his controversial, massive sculptures. His tribute to Peter the Great, at 94 meters, is the eighth-tallest statue in the world and dominates a large portion of the center of Moscow.
Many Russians believe the statue was originally a tribute to Christopher Columbus that Tsereteli was unable to give to the United States. He then switched out the statue's head for the tsar's, the rumor goes, and got it erected in Moscow, a city that Peter loathed so thoroughly that he built St. Petersburg and moved his capital there.
Even local representatives of the Russian Orthodox Church in St. Petersburg think Tsereteli's statue is a bad idea that not only does not fit into the city's historic image but flies in the face of Orthodox practice as well.
"I am not opposed to new things, but they have to be canonically based," says priest Georgy Mitrofanov, a professor of the St. Petersburg Spiritual Academy. "I'm not speaking about its aesthetic basis. From the aesthetic point of view, not being a fan of Tsereteli's, I think this work clashes with the sculptural ensembles that already exist in St. Petersburg and I cannot imagine Tsereteli's masterpiece within the cultural atmosphere of the city, particularly because it is so dubious from the canonical point of view."
Father Aleksandr Sorokin, chief spokesman for the St. Petersburg Diocese, also opposes the statue, saying the effort to erect it is likely to create unnecessary tensions in society.
"The most regrettable thing is that people who love the historic appearance of St. Petersburg are going to protest against this statue," Sorokin says. "And it is sad that the object of protest will be Jesus Christ. It is one thing to protest against a building that doesn't fit into the appearance of the city. That is easy to understand. But when it comes to this image of Jesus Christ, it will create a very uncomfortable position [for such people]."
Robert Coalson contributed to this report from Prague