More than three weeks have passed since activists first gathered to protest the city of St. Petersburg's decision to hand over control of the iconic St. Isaac's Cathedral to the Russian Orthodox Church. But despite a variation of the blood libel against protest organizers and pressure from authorities to stand down, St. Petersburg activists continue to stand up for St. Isaac's.
On February 12, several protests were held in support of the status quo—keeping the cathedral under the management of a museum that Soviet authorities established in 1928. Activists wore blue ribbons and formed a “blue ring” around the cathedral. (Protesters have worn blue ribbons to demonstrations since 2006, when they turned out in opposition to the construction of “Gazprom-City,” a towering building named for state natural gas behemoth Gazprom that would have dominated the city's skyline; the blue symbolized the St. Petersburg sky, unobstructed by skyscrapers.)
After the protests were held, Boris Vishnevsky, one of the organizers, wrote on Facebook:
Мы показали, что встать плечом к плечу вокруг Исаакия может, как минимум, 2 тысячи человек – с умными и светлыми лицами, разного возраста, разных взглядов, но объединенных одной идеей защиты Исаакия и протеста против самодурских действий власти и ее катастрофического неуважения к людям.
Борьба продолжается. Нас много, и будет еще больше.
Правда и справедливость – на нашей стороне. Мы победим!
We have shown that at least 2000 people can stand shoulder-to-shoulder around St. Isaac's – clever and bright individuals of different ages and different views, but united by the same aim of protecting of St. Isaac's and protesting against the despotic actions of the government and its disastrous lack of respect for people. The struggle continues. There are a lot of us, and there will be even more. Truth and justice are on our side. We will win!”
In fact, reports suggest that at least 3,000 people gathered around St. Isaac’s on February 12: they managed to form four circles around the building, and the event culminated in a dance around the cathedral. Diana Kachalova, an opposition journalist from St. Petersburg and the editor of the newspaper Novaya Gazeta, took part in the event. In an article first published on Facebook, Kachalova described the scene:
Знаете, как это бывает в театре? Смотришь спектакль – хороший…и актеры стараются, а не берет за душу. И вдруг в какой-то момент, иногда совершенно непонятно почему, по залу пробегает искра и начинается искусство, которое пробирает до мурашек…Потому что стоять одному в пикете – это смело, но закрыть собор таким щитом – немаленький сигнал тем, кто принимает решения.
You know how it happens in the theater? When you're watching a performance, it is good…and the actors are doing their best, but it just doesn’t strike home. And then at some point, sometimes it is unclear why, but a spark runs through the hall and the art begins sending goosebumps down one's spine… Because to stand alone in a protest is brave, but to surround the Cathedral with a living shield – it is a rather strong signal to those who make decisions.”
Still, not all St. Petersburg citizens have opposed the transfer. Shortly before the February 12 protests, rectors from several St. Petersburg universities wrote a letter asking St. Petersburg Governor Georgy Poltavchenko to speed up the transfer, which is scheduled to happen in two years:
Мы считаем, что процесс передачи должен быть завершен в ближайшее время, чтобы воспрепятствовать так называемым оппозиционерам и политиканам, а по сути, провокаторам, которые используют вопрос об Исаакиевском соборе как повод для нагнетания напряженности в обществе и сеяния религиозной розни. В их интересах поставить под сомнение правовые и моральные основания передачи собора Церкви и затормозить выполнение решения, чтобы продолжать публичные акции, направленные на оскорбление чувств христиан.
We believe that the transfer process should be completed in the near future in order to stop the so-called opposition and politicians, who are in fact, despicable provocateurs who use the St. Isaac's Cathedral issue as a pretext to increase tension in society and sow religious discord. Their aim is to question the legal and moral foundation of the of Cathedral’s transfer to the Church and to slow down the implementation of the decision in order to continue public actions aimed at insulting the feelings of Christians.
The Russian Orthodox Church hasn’t stayed silent either: The head of the Church, Patriarch Kirill, used the opportunity to compare the current battle to the destruction of churches and the murder of priests by the Bolsheviks during the Russian Revolution: “The destruction of temples and the mass killing of believers was one of the most terrible times in our history. Now the peace surrounding the churches that have been returned must become a symbol of reconciliation and mutual forgiving.”
Meanwhile, Vitaly Milonov, a deputy from St.-Petersburg who is infamous for his aggressive anti-gay rhetoric, decided to turn back the clock 2,000 years: Milonov claimed that the ancestors of Boris Vishnevsky and Maxim Reznik—both Jewish leaders of the protests—had boiled Christians in pots and fed them to wild animals. Needless to say, the opposition condemned Milonov's quasi blood libel: Vishnevsky’s Facebook friends organized a flash mob in which the participants dressed as Vishnevsky and Reznik wearing different Roman garments. A particularly humorous depiction showed the two oppositioners as Romulus and Remus in the famous statue of the Capitoline she-wolf.
But this ridiculous episode wasn’t Milonov’s only bizarre act in defense of the transfer. On February 12, Milonov organized a kind of sacred procession around the cathedral. Despite not being an ordained priest, he managed to assemble several priests and faithful Christians, the number of whom was immediately multiplied by pro-Kremlin media, around St. Isaac's. Though videos of the procession show that only a few hundred protesters joined Milonov, the Ministry of Inner Affairs reported that there were 8 000 participants at the event.
Fortunately, news media captured video of the procession, so you can judge for yourself: