‘You want a church, we want a park, and that means war’ On the ground for night one of protests in Yekaterinburg against the construction of a new cathedral
A fence appeared overnight on May 13 in October Square in downtown Yekaterinburg, near the regional drama theater. This is the site where the Russian Copper Company (RMK) and the Ural Mining and Metallurgical Company (UGMK) intend to build “St. Catherine’s Cathedral” before 2023, when the city celebrates the 300th anniversary of its founding. The project has been approved, and arts patrons at the “St. Catherine’s Cathedral LLC” have leased the land. The construction has the support of the governor, City Hall, and the Russian Orthodox Church’s Yekaterinburg Diocese. Local activists and political oppositionists, however, don’t want to lose public space to the church, and past demonstrations already led to the cancellation of previous plans to build St. Catherine’s Cathedral on an artificial island created in the city pond. The new fence in October Square has provoked a full-scale confrontation, with sit-ins, sieges, and some violence. Meduza journalist Dmitry Andreev spent the night with the protesters, and witnessed the clashes firsthand.
Protesters got organized in a single day. In the first hour of their unpermitted demonstration, they seized a guarded construction site.
A young woman in a dress with large, red flowers sits on the grass, leaning against a chain-link fence. There’s a colorful crown of artificial flower buds on her head. “I am Mother Nature,” she says, “and I want to stay here.” Behind the fence, there are a dozen men in black uniforms with embroidered patches that read, “RMK-Security.” They’re guarding an excavator, a row of blue portable toilets, and a mysterious dark green tent. They watch as locals assemble at the perimeter for a protest against the construction of St. Catherine’s Cathedral in the city park.
The situation is still casual when a young man in a T-shirt that says “Let the park be” starts playing a steel tongue drum. The instrument’s chimes suit the evening’s atmosphere, which feels more like a holiday stroll than an unpermitted protest.
In fact, “Let’s go for a stroll” is exactly how activists mobilized supporters in Facebook posts on the morning of May 13. Throughout the demonstration, the number of protesters at the park fluctuated between a few hundred and upwards of 2,000. It’s hard to say exactly how many people came, because they spread out around the fence, always moving. A one point, some of them even joined hands and formed an enormous ring dance around the construction site. The locals call this “hugging the park,” just as activists “hugged the pond” at rallies in 2017, when the promoters of the St. Catherine’s Cathedral wanted to build their church not in the park at the shore of the city pond, but on an artificial island created in the water itself.
Not everyone circles the fence purposefully — some people are just having a good time. One woman sits under a birch tree, playing the balalaika and singing chastushki (humorous folk songs): “C’mon now, Mother Iset, how much more can you abet? Spill your banks, let’s sing duet.” Passersby record the woman on their phones, but nobody sings along. Even she seems to forget the lyrics, repeatedly looking back at her own phone, like a cheatsheet.
In the crowd, there are local opposition politicians, journalists, and social activists, but the rally is unorganized and the hierarchy on the ground is haphazard. Perhaps the most important figure is Alena Smyshlyaeva, who precipitated the demonstration when police arrested her that morning for forcing her way onto the construction site. She later wrote on Facebook that she was out jogging and didn’t notice the fence, and realized only later that it collapsed when she swung it open.
In fact, after getting past the fence, Smyshlyaeva climbed a tree and started live-streaming on Facebook, explaining that she got a late start on her morning run, climbed her favorite tree, “and now men have encircled me.” She was later charged with the misdemeanor offense of unauthorized access to a guarded site.
She tells the police that she “simply climbs trees because they have the same wavelengths as the human body, which is good for your health.” After three hours at the police station, with help from her lawyer brother, Alena is released, and she returns to the park that evening.
Back at the park, Smyshlyaeva says she faces a fine as high as 5,000 rubles ($77) and “the seizure of the instrument” she used to commit the administrative offense. “In that case, they’ll have to confiscate me entirely, because I was just out running, when I knocked down the fence. They’re going to confiscate me entirely: the National Guard has already summoned me to a barbecue,” she explains.
Not everyone at the park is so good-humored. One person says Sverdlovsk Governor Yevgeny Kuivashev should resign, and someone else criticizes the cathedral and its sponsors.
Eventually, the crowd forms a circle around the fence and protesters look in at the security guards on the other side, watching like an audience at the circus. And then the performance begins.
In the beginning, a few people occasionally hit the fence and shout slogans. The first attempts to stop this behavior come from demonstrators themselves, who worry that such outbursts could constitute an unpermitted rally. But there’s no sign of the police, and the slogans and attacks on the perimeter are gaining steam. Someone tries to shake the fence (at first, the security guards are able to handle this), but soon the attacks are more sustained. Some people knock on the chain links with their hands or they shake the fence, while someone else hammers it with a cane. Demonstrators a few rows back start shouting, more and more deliberately, “Let the park be!” “This is our city!” and “Russia will be green!” (a phrase in Russian that resembles the oppositionist slogan “Russia will be free!”).
One demonstrator — an older but energetic man in a United Russia ball cap and a T-shirt that says “Putin, Homeland, and Unity are the motherhood of our strength” — tries to stop the other protesters. He carries a homemade sign with a photograph showing Governor Kuivashev looking confused at a church service. He says his name is Vadim (he refuses to reveal his surname, even when asked directly), and he apparently used to work as an assistant to a State Duma deputy, after serving in the Interior Ministry. Today, Vadim frequents mass rallies and political protests in Yekaterinburg, and he’s opposed to the current construction of St. Catherine’s Cathedral. He’s also against unpermitted demonstrations, it turns out.
Vadim tries to thwart the most zealous protesters, calling them provocateurs. He even manages to reason with one activist, but then he makes the mistake of yelling, “Don’t disgrace our idea! Don’t touch the fence!” People turn to him and say, “The fence is your idea? You’ve got a fence for brains!” Vadim’s United Russia ball cap is slapped from his head several times, and someone even suggests tossing him into the water, but mainly what happens next is the crowd rushes the fence from different sides and knocks it over. Next, demonstrators flood the guarded area. People start sitting and even lying down, as the guards retreat with their backs to the mysterious dark green tent. For now, they abandon the porta-potties and the excavator.
A group of unknown large men, not the police, ultimately pushed back the crowd
The dark green tent is the subject of much speculation. Some activists joke that it is storage space for Russian Orthodoxy’s dearest spiritual bonds, while others wonder seriously if the construction site’s foreman was hiding there with blueprints for the cathedral. The most reasonable guess is that the tent covers the future church’s foundation stone, or the spot where the groundbreaking ceremony will take place.
Nobody wants a fistfight with the guards, however, and activists never learn the tent’s purpose. People are generally friendly with the guards, in fact, pressuring them only psychologically. Just minutes after the fence is toppled, the steel drum player takes a seat at the guards’ feet, leaning against their legs like they were tree trunks. Demonstrators surround the silent guards and try to start a conversation. A young woman accuses them of disgraceful behavior and urges them to find new jobs, because this line of work, she explains, “is no way to build a home or raise a son.” Someone wants to know if the guards are Christians, and another demonstrator asks why the cathedral can’t be built somewhere else, outside the park. One of the guards says modestly, “Yekaterinburg is a Russian city, and one more Russian church won’t hurt it.”
Because the protest is leaderless, the demonstrators assemble around people who brought their own Bluetooth speakers. In separate groups, and sometimes all together, people sing and dance. The first song to catch on is Kino’s “I Want Changes!” Next comes music by Smyslovye Gallyutsinatsii, AC/DC (though “Highway to Hell” clashes somewhat with the park’s soon-to-be holy grounds), Nautilus Pompilius, and others. It’s mostly classic rock, but somebody slips in Face’s protest track “The Humorist.”
Many are apparently unaware that a fence was knocked down, and they look surprised as they step and bike over the toppled barrier. Someone is out walking the dog, someone else is doing yoga, and another person is actually having a picnic. Parents have come to the park with their children. Demonstrators trade “Game of Thrones” quips, debating whether the defeated fence looks more like the Siege of King’s Landing or the Battle of Winterfell. A camping tent suddenly appears, decorated with leaflets criticizing the Ural Mining and Metallurgical Company (for example, accusing it of polluting the Shegultan River, 300 miles to the north).
From the very start of the rally, not far from the park on Boris Yeltsin Street, there are two or three police crews. Even after protesters knock down the fence and occupy the site, however, the number of police officers doesn’t change. But people do arrive to reinforce the security guards. People identifying themselves as “supporters of the cathedral’s construction” start showing up. They deny any connection to the Russian Copper Company or the Ural Mining and Metallurgical Company, which are funding the new church. These men — all young and well built — form a tight circle around the dark green tent. Some of them wear apparel labeled “RMK Martial Arts Academy.”
From nine in the evening until about 10 o’clock, the reinforcements gather their strength. At 10:30 p.m., when it’s dark, they counterattack. The large men charge together at the now dispersed and relaxed crowd. They’re rough, shoving aside protesters, and when they reach the fallen fence, they lift it back into place. When a protester tries to stop them from raising one section, they knock him to the ground. (This was apparently the only injury sustained throughout the evening, and the demonstrator was taken to the hospital with a wounded arm.) The men start shouting, “We support the church!” Once the perimeter is fully restored, they chant more menacingly, “Approach the fence at your own expense!”
Eyewitnesses will later claim that tear gas was used against demonstrators, and some activists will tell reporters that they heard threats against people who were filming the protest on their phones, but Meduza’s correspondent didn’t see anything like this firsthand.
With the fence back in place, some of the protesters find themselves within the perimeter, leading to the greatest nervousness of the evening, as people ready for a fight. Those locked out of the construction site demand the release of their friends, chanting, “Disgrace!” This prompts rude and aggressive responses from the “cathedral’s supporters,” and violence seems near. A local journalist named Rinat Nizamov shouts that he will call RMK head Igor Altushkin and his wife, who will be forced “to apologize personally for you pigs,” he warns. The martial arts students aren’t afraid to use physical force, but they don’t stop the demonstrators from filtering back to the opposite side of the fence.
When someone in the crowd wants to bend back the fence, so a woman trapped on the other side can pass through, the strong men don’t allow it, explaining that she can exit from the other side of the site. The woman says she won’t go where people can’t see her without a police escort. “Don’t be afraid. I’ll go with you,” one of the men offers gallantly. “Nobody in their right mind would go that way with you,” one of the demonstrators fires back.
By now, it’s close to 11 p.m., and the police and National Guard are finally showing up. There’s a special forces bus, and different crews comprising about 50 officers, but they don’t really intervene in what’s happening. The police only get involved when some of the protesters flushed from the construction site try to block traffic on a neighboring street. Some activists even sit down on the pavement, but officers ask them to clear the road, and no one is arrested.
When protesters complain about violence from the men who restored the fence, the officers advise them to file a formal report at the local police station.
Some demonstrators spent the night at the park, unlike the “supporters of the cathedral’s construction”
With the fence back in place, the siege of the construction site continues, but protesters now lack the strength for another assault. By midnight, as many as 200 people remain, including numerous journalists.
Speaking through the fence (often loudly), the cathedral’s supporters and opponents trade accusations. The protesters question the men’s commitment to the issue, saying they were probably paid or forced to come to the park. The counter-protesters deny these claims, swearing their sincere support for the church, and arguing that the city needs it. (At one point, the men produce an Image of Edessa icon.) “You want a church and we want a park. There will be a war, apparently, since our country knows no other way to solve problems,” a young woman tells one of the large men through the fence.
Neither side is above causing a little damage: protesters make off with one of the concrete blocks that holds the fencing vertical, while the burly men throw opened bottles of water into the crowd, or they just drench the demonstrators standing closest. The air turns uncomfortably frigid, but nobody freezes, and the owner of a local Vietnamese restaurant supplies blankets to the crowd.
The construction site’s defenders enjoy better provisions. They are delivered food and water, and they can take refuge in nearby parked cars with Bashkir and Chelyabinsk license plates, warming their bones and getting some rest. Protesters see this and say the men are likely out-of-towners ordered into Yekaterinburg from the city’s neighboring regions.
Around 1 a.m., the police make their only arrest of the night, grabbing a demonstrator named Maxim Skvortsov. The incident might not have happened, were it not for Vadim in the United Russia hat. Friends say Skvortsov tried to defend Vadim against the police, and they ended up taking him instead. During his arrest, Skvortsov shouts, “Fascists!” in a hoarse voice, and the crowd chants the word back several times. Vadim promises to go to the police station and call his lawyer to help Skvortsov, but he stays put and doesn’t leave.
There’s a critical moment at 1:40 a.m., when all the police officers suddenly abandon the square, presumably clearing the way for a “provocation,” the remaining demonstrators tell each other. Rumors spread fast that the other side is regrouping for a raid to break the siege. Local journalist Olga Tatarnikova writes on Facebook that the police withdrawal “smells like vigilante justice.”
But there’s no attack and no further vigilantism. The face-off drags on, and occasionally one side tells the other to go to bed. By sunrise around 4 a.m., there are fewer than 200 activists left in October Square, and 30 minutes later the cathedral’s supporters get into the parked cars and drive off. Less than an hour later, the demonstrators start clearing out, too. Just a small detachment of security guards remains near the mysterious dark green tent.