The ongoing saga over the future status of St Isaac’s Cathedral culminated in a demonstration on 28 January in the centre of St Petersburg
The protest was called by opposition members of the city’s Legislative Assembly in response to governor Georgy Poltavechnko’s announcement that the iconic building would be transferred to the Russian Orthodox Church.
Several thousand protestors attended the event on the Field of Mars, billed as a defence of the building’s status as a museum and cultural complex. Speakers included opposition deputies Maxim Reznik and Boris Vishnevskiy, city activists, poets, and citizens concerned over the move.
The event culminated in a decision to call for a referendum on the cathedral’s status, amidst calls for the governor’s resignation.
“The governor has said that everything is decided, but we say: ‘Everything is just beginning,” said deputy Maxim Reznik.
Attendees expressed their concerns about the maintenance and status of the Unesco world heritage site.
“The church will make use of the cathedral but they’ll force taxpayers to pay for the upkeep,” said one protestor. “We are here to protest against this new church-tax.”
Currently, the cathedral is owned by the city government and functions as a popular museum complex, attracting more than three million visitors yearly. In its current form, the building generates a healthy revenue from sales of tickets and excursions, which pay for the maintenance of the building.
Under the proposed plan to transfer the building to the church, ticket sales would be cancelled. Critics say that the upkeep of the church would then be passed to the city government, further straining the public budget.
The proposed move has led to public controversy since the announcement was made by governor Poltavchenko on 10 January. A petition against the move on Change.org has collected more than 200,000 signatures.
Several prominent residents of St Petersburg have spoken out against the move, including the director of the Hermitage Museum, Mikhail Piotrovsky. In an open letter, he said that the move was leading to divisions in society and asked for the church to delay the decision.
The issue over the cathedral also led to a fight among deputies of the St Petersburg legislative assembly on 18 January, during a session in which the future status of the cathedral was discussed.
More recently, Russian MP Pyotr Tolstoy was accused of making anti-semitic statements about the protestors, saying that they are the “grandchildren and great-grandchildren of those who destroyed our churches who jumped out of the Pale of Settlement with revolvers in 1917.”