Wednesday, February 15, 2017

St. Isaac’s Fight Rare Case of Real Public Politics in Putin’s Russia, Moscow Paper Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, February 15 – The conflict that has broken out over the decision of St. Petersburg officials to hand over St. Isaac’s Cathedral to the Russian Orthodox Church represents a rare case of genuine public politics in Putin’s Russia and highlights the impossibility of managing everything from above, according to Moscow’s Gazeta.

            Not only has the controversy involved large numbers of people and continued “by Russian standards” for a long time, the paper says, it has also become “an act of real politics that expresses the real will of the people and  not just that sanctioned by a command from on high” (

                Moreover, the openly anti-Semitic remarks by United Russia Duma deputy Vitaly Milonov about the leaders of those opposing the handover and the size of the demonstrations organized by those who do not want the museum to become a church again have guaranteed that this action has attracted the attention of Russia as a whole.

            And what Russians have seen is “a clear indication” that the authorities have no  intention of entering into “a constructive dialogue” and that they are prepared to use “marginal” figures like Milonov and unsuccessful petitions from rectors (two of whom denied they had signed it) to shut people up.

            The chances that the authorities in St. Petersburg will reverse their decision to give the building back to the Russian Orthodox Church are “extremely small.” But at a minimum, what has happened is that this “situation has already gone beyond the limits of a private history of conflict between the museum and the church.”

            Instead, the back and forth over the fate of St. Isaac’s now looks to be “an indication that in the country there still remains normal politics with the participation of people who publicly declare their positions and seek to influence the authorities with the help of peaceful protests.”  That is vitally important, the paper says.

            After the mass protests of 2011-2012, “everything was done so that politics in Russia would consist of only that which the state itself sanctioned. As a result, federal politics is what the federal authorities think it should be; regional what the governors think, and municipal what the mayor or head of the district does.”

            And as the dismissal of regional governors who were not “extra-systemic opposition figures” shows, the Kremlin wants to tighten that arrangement still further apparently convinced it can manage everything this way and that no one will take the risk of challenging any of its decisions.

            But “even failed protest efforts are not forgotten,” Gazeta says. And the number of things Russians might protest about if they so choose is large and growing. At the very least, the powers that be are going to have to explain to the people why they are doing what they are, something that did not happen in this case.

            “There was no political, economic or any other necessity to transfer [St. Isaac’s] just now,” the paper says.  “But thanks to the decision a space for free politics was unexpectedly created.”  That terrifies the authorities who are now seeking to limit meetings between the voters and those they have elected.

            In short, the St. Isaac’s controversy shows how difficult it is to manage people without taking their opinions into account and how dangerous things could be if the powers that be don’t. Excluded for too long, the population will as the people of Romania are showing come into the streets in massive numbers and demand more fundamental changes.

            And this conflict in the northern capital also shows, the paper says, that despite the silence of the majority of the population, there will “always be found people are not indifferent” to any decisions, who will demand explanations and who will as they can show that they don’t view politics as only that which the authorities permit.

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