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Iekaterinbourg : la construction d'une église révèle certaines dérives du système Poutine


The story of an unbuilt church in the Ural Mountains city of Yekaterinburg has all the elements of how Russian society and government work in 2019: angry citizens who think their interests are ignored, regional authorities that ignore them and side instead with the Russian Orthodox Church and its oligarch donors, top-class muscle hired by the oligarchs — and an intervention by President Vladimir Putin, ostensibly on the citizens’ side but likely with an outcome that will favor the other party.

Yekaterinburg is a major industrial city of 1.5 million, one of Russia’s wealthiest and most important urban centers. In 1930, the Bolsheviks razed the city’s main cathedral, dedicated to St. Catherine — the namesake of Catherine I, the empress and widow of Peter the Great for whom the city was named. Ever since the Soviet Union’s collapse, the locals, city authorities and church figures have discussed rebuilding the cathedral, if not at the original site, then elsewhere.

Last year, the city government picked a public park on the bank of the Iset River after what many locals consider a rigged public hearing. Many in the neighborhood would rather have the trees than yet another church. The Yekaterinburg Diocese of the Russian Orthodox Church, which includes the city and surrounding towns, already has 312 churches and chapels.

Nevertheless, the project went ahead, sponsored by two local billionaires: copper tycoons Igor Altushkin and Andrey Kozitsyn. They also received permission for a housing and commercial development next to the new cathedral. This duo and the Orthodox Church have enlisted the help of many prominent locals in promoting the project. Even local rock heroes, known for their protest songs from the last years of the Soviet Union, have spoken up in favor of the cathedral.

But when a metal fence was erected in the park this month to mark the construction site, locals were no longer willing to listen. On May 13, an angry mob tore down the fence and tried to sink it in the river. “I didn’t notice the fence! I just pushed it and it fell,” an activist posted on Facebook.

The angry locals were chased away hours later by an overwhelming force: mixed martial arts fighters from a fighting academy set up by Altushkin, a fan of the sport. They included an international star, Ivan Shtyrkov, making the altercation news to specialized MMA publications.

Yet hundreds of protesters came back the next day, and the local authorities got serious. Almost 30 of the protesters were detained. On Wednesday, workers reinforced the fence with concrete, and riot police with rubber sticks were sent to guard it — yet the park’s defenders returned, and more clashes and dozens of further detentions followed.

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