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Abandon Hope? Amid Church Dispute, Sign Welcomes Travelers To Russian 'City Of Demons'

The sign seems to be making reference to a dispute over plans to build a Russian Orthodox cathedral in a park in Yekaterinburg, something which sparked large protests. (file photo)
The sign seems to be making reference to a dispute over plans to build a Russian Orthodox cathedral in a park in Yekaterinburg, something which sparked large protests. (file photo)

You've heard of the City of Angels, but maybe not the City of Demons.

Yekaterinburg was given that moniker -- briefly -- when a prankster armed with a fake road sign and a wry sense of humor, perhaps, injected some dark levity into the controversy over now-scrapped plans to build a cathedral in a popular park in the Russian city.

Apparently playing on a prominent state-media personality's criticism of opponents of the planned church amid protests late last month, somebody affixed a sign reading "City of Demons" under a sign with the city name in Russian and English on a highway leading into Yekaterinburg.

The sign was swiftly removed on June 17 at the behest of traffic police, who said that, if caught, the culprit or culprits could be fined up to 10,000 rubles ($156).

The sign was seemingly a small salvo in the dispute over a project in which a Russian Orthodox cathedral was to have been built -- replacing one that was razed under communist rule in 1930 -- in what opponents say is one of the few green spaces in the country's fourth-largest city.

Rare Victory

In a rare victory for Russian protesters, government authorities backed away from the plan following persistent rallies in May in which scuffles broke out and more than 100 demonstrators were detained and dozens of those subsequently jailed for periods of up to 15 days.

After President Vladimir Putin suggested that residents should decide the matter, a poll showed that 74 percent of respondents thought the site was a poor choice and authorities announced plans for a second poll in which locals would choose from a list of several possible locations.

That list had been expected to include the original site, but the Russian Orthodox Church announced on June 16 that it will build the cathedral elsewhere, steering clear of the disputed site and all parks and public spaces.

When the dispute was at its height, TV and radio host Vladimir Solovyov -- one of the prominent media personalities whom critics say the Kremlin uses to issue propaganda and steer public opinion -- appeared to liken opponents of the church project in Yekaterinburg, where Tsar Nicholas II and his family were killed by the Bolsheviks in 1918, to demons.

Speaking on state-run Vesti FM radio on May 21, Solovyov said that "demons still walk" the streets of Yekaterinburg and suggested that the protesters were "heirs of the demons" who destroyed St. Catherine's Cathedral in the Soviet era. He reportedly threatened to come to the Urals city and "chase you demons around."

Solovyov's remarks drew fire from critics who accused him of seeking to fan the flames of controversy further, and one journalist even challenged him to a duel.

Further Disputes?

The June 16 announcement by the senior regional cleric of the Russian Orthodox Church, Metropolitan Kirill, appeared to put an end to the question of whether the church would be built in the park. But there may be room for further disputes and tension.

Many of the protesters made clear they did not oppose construction of a cathedral but did not want it built at the chosen site. But Kirill framed their opposition in a different light, saying that "with their actions they are displaying hatred for the presence of god in their lives" and the conflict has revealed many residents' "true" feelings about the Russian Orthodox Church.

The Russian Orthodox Church is by far the biggest religious denomination in Russia, with polls indicating that more than two-thirds of its citizens consider themselves Orthodox Christians but that far fewer regularly attend services.

The church has undergone a major resurgence since the collapse of communism and the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991, and some Russians have voiced concern about the extent of its ties with the state under Putin.

Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill said last month that the church was building "three temples a day."

Written by Steve Gutterman based on reporting by Current Time
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    Steve Gutterman

    Steve Gutterman is the editor of the Russia/Ukraine/Belarus Desk in RFE/RL's Central Newsroom in Prague and the author of The Week In Russia newsletter. He lived and worked in Russia and the former Soviet Union for nearly 20 years between 1989 and 2014, including postings in Moscow with the AP and Reuters. He has also reported from Afghanistan and Pakistan as well as other parts of Asia, Europe, and the United States.

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    Current Time

    Current Time is the Russian-language TV and digital network run by RFE/RL.

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