Our city, our space: Ekaterinburg residents come out against plans to construct a new church

In Ekaterinburg, city residents are speaking out against proposals to construct a new church in the centre of the city — proposals entirely out of sync with their interests. RU

Dmitry Lebedev
26 April 2017


8 April: More and more local residents are taking part in the campaign to defend Ekaterinburg's city pond. (c) Nikolai Lebedev. All rights reserved.

One and a half thousand people, all arm in arm, line the edge of Ekaterinburg’s city pond. At a recent flashmob called “Embrace the pond”, city residents came out against plans to build a new church dedicated to St Ekaterina directly in the pond’s waters. The flashmob’s organisers did not initially frame it as a political event akin to the anti-corruption protests held on 26 March in cities across Russia, including Ekaterinburg. Rather, the event was more like a festival: it was all kids, smiles and mutual applause. And if a mere 200 protesters turned up to the first such event in February, the 1500-strong crowd that materialised on 8 April is, by Russian standards at least, a pretty solid turnout.

This isn’t the first time Ekaterinburg has had to resist attempts to develop city space without consulting residents’ opinions. Seven years ago, for example, a rally of 5,000 people helped to thwart plans — mooted by the Russian Orthodox Church and former governor Alexander Misharin — to rebuild St Ekaterina’s Cathedral, which had been blown up in the 1930s, on Labour Square, a stone’s throw from the pond. This protest in 2010 united both the public and an urban elite traditionally hostile to the regional authorities, and the project was curtailed. Two years later, Misharin himself was removed from his post and replaced by Evgeny Kuivashev, a Putin appointment.

The current situation, however, has proved more problematic. Active citizens are waging a lonely battle against an alliance of regional oligarchs, authorities and church officials. The city administration, having lost its town-planning powers last year, cannot impede the implementation of the church’s plan in any way. So it’s local residents alone who must shoulder the responsibility of protecting the only open space in the centre of Ekaterinburg, and the sole component of the urban fabric (along with the city dam) to have survived since the city was founded in 1723.

Holy gifts

The plan to construct a church in the city pond’s waters — and one executed in an old-Russian style far from common in the city — was announced on the popular online portal e1.ru. The initial plans were announced in February 2016, and a detailed overview of the project, complete with diagrammatic drawings and videos, was published in late March 2016.

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A mock-up of the new St Ekaterina Church. Source: е1.ru.

The Ekaterinburg public, inured to the fact that the media landscape is constantly awash with all sorts of loopy ideas, didn’t treat the news as seriously as it should have done. According to Dmitry Moskvin, a political scientist and organiser of the “Embrace the Pond” campaign, the “influence of these bogus stories is such that most people have steered clear of this issue as if it were just a tall tale.”

The final version of the plans, presented in mid-October 2016 and featuring mock-ups by Mikhail Goloborodsky, an architect and a professor of the Ural State Architectural Academy, was soon approved by governor Kuivashev’s town-planning council. And, though there are no official documents published beyond this recommendation, opponents of the project are in no doubt that the plans will easily negotiate any bureaucratic hurdle, before being signed off by the governor. Why? Because it’s obviously being pushed through from above.

In contrast to 2010, this new project is being spearheaded not by the Orthodox Church or the governor, but big business — oligarchs Igor Altushkin (owner of Russian Copper Company) and Andrei Kozitsyn (head of the Ural Mining and Metallurgical Company). Altushkin and Kozitsyn have form when it comes to church construction. In the mid-2000s, the two businessmen rebuilt the city’s Great Zlatoust Church, destroyed in the 1930s. But while the logic of that gesture was more or less understandable — even if the reconstruction of the church may not have been strictly necessary — the plan to build a new church on an artificial island in the city centre’s only body of water has the air of a bad joke. A joke, however, that proved much to the liking of governor Kuivashev.


November 2016: Igor Altushkin, head of Russian Copper Company, and Evgeny Kuivashev, governor of Sverdlovsk oblast. Source: Vladislav Lonshakov / Znak. Some rights reserved.

So what’s going on, exactly? Several hypotheses exist, each with its own supporters. One of the most rational revolves around the entrepreneurial ambitions of Igor Altushkin.

According to Dmitry Moskvin, “Altushkin’s companies are all based in neighbouring Chelyabinsk oblast, so it’s odd that he’d be pushing the church project here. But he’s run into major problems vis-à-vis the construction of a mining and refining facility that could inflict immense damage on the environment. Everyone’s been up in arms for a long time in Chelyabinsk, and he needs to push the construction through from above. The Patriarch [Kirill] is the only source of top-down leverage available to Altkushin. The church would thus be a gift to the Patriarch, who’d then have words with all the right lobbyists in Moscow.”

This, Moskvin believes, is the only rational hypothesis as things currently stand. Although it doesn’t fully explain why the construction of the church should be a sine qua non for the governor.

Another hypothesis, according to Moskvin, is that “Kozitsyn and Altushkin are the principal bankrollers of Kuivashev’s election campaign, who is extremely unpopular, and that the church represents a gift of sorts from the latter. But it’s a strange gift to give in return for financial backing. A more typical gift would be an enterprise or even a single-industry town, yet here you’ve just got a church and a whole load of problems to boot.” With less than six months until Russia’s direct gubernatorial elections, scheduled for 10 September (the first such elections to be held in Sverdlovsk oblast in 14 years), the media are in no doubt that Kuivashev will run, even though the exact lineup of candidates is still unknown.

Ekaterinburg’s mayor Evgeny Roizman, who recently announced his own candidacy for regional governor, skated around the issue of the church when I talked to him. “It’s a cool project, but you’ve got to engage with people,” Roizman said, evasively. Roizman is convinced that there’s no political undercurrent to the two businessmen’s aims. In his opinion, the project was catalysed by “a heartfelt desire on the part of Altushkin, who was supported by Andrei Kozitsin” and is more likely motivated by Altushkin’s sincere faith in God than his business interests.

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8 April: protesters ironicise over divine influence in this city-planning conflict. (c) Nikolai Lebedev. All rights reserved.

This situation is also exacerbated by the impotence of the city administration. Last year saw the city and region authorities, which have been at loggerheads since the 1990s, come to a truce. This truce is connected to the move of Vladimir Tungusov, the city’s former vice-mayor, to become the governor’s chief of staff. In 2016, the city administration was also relieved of its town-planning powers, meaning that the final decision regarding the construction of the church lies with governor Kuivashev alone.

This, however, may potentially leave the governor in something of a quandary. According to Roizman, “everything is coming together in such a way that the church will be perceived as the governor’s project. The governor has found himself in a very difficult situation: he’s made certain promises and is committed to certain arrangements. "

Although the local Orthodox Church didn’t instigate the project, it would be strange if it turned down a gift as magnificent as a church in the very heart of the city. But for the time being, Moskvin remarks, the church is keeping quiet and “refraining from any public prayers, as were used in 2010, or internal PR campaigns. This is evidenced by our interactions with Orthodox activists, some of whom are opposed to a project, which, they believe, is sowing discord and sullying the cause of the Orthodox Church.”

That there’s no Orthodox consensus on this issue is clear from the fact that the “Embrace the Pond" campaign has attracted more than a few former seminarians — to say nothing of ordinary believers. The church, in the opinion of both Moskvin and Roizman, has a secondary role to play in these events: it was simply presented with a fait accompli regarding the construction project.

Pond Protection Committee

An group campaigning against the church was formed in December 2016. Some 40 people — predominantly architects, designers, sociologists and philosophers — attended a roundtable discussion organised by the local branch of the Centre for Applied Urban Studies, an independent national network of urban experts and campaigners, resulting in the creation of the City Pond Committee. Committee members took care to stress at the outset that they were not opposed to a new church per se, nor, by extension, to the Church as an institution, but to the construction of anything directly in the pond’s waters.

The arguments raised by the committee and its supporters can be broadly divided into two categories — urbanistic and political. As regards the former, the committee has emphasised that the pond is the city’s most important symbol.

“The pond and the dam,” notes Moskvin, are the only infrastructural elements “to have survived since the city was first built. In our eyes, this is a whole complex — it has to be safeguarded, and it stands a chance of securing UNESCO protection. Construction of a 66-metre-high church in the water would effectively mean killing the pond, turning it into a puddle.”


Ekaterinburg's Chekist Town, part of the city's constructivist heritage. СС BY-2.0 Anton Novoselov. Some rights reserved.

Furthermore, Ekaterinburg is one of the global centres of constructivism, and erecting a church on the proposed site would outright destroy the constructivist Dynamo stadium complex, the only one of the city’s constructivist monuments that might attract UNESCO’s interest. As a potential UNESCO site, the Dynamo complex would have to be protected by the state in accordance with international requirements, but “if the church is built nearby, that would end UNESCO’s interest for good,” Moskvin points out.

Equally weighty is the political argument, which holds that the church has been imposed on local residents from above without taking their opinions into account.

According to Roizman, this is the primary cause of residents’ disgruntlement. “Someone’s gone and decided something and hasn’t bothered to get anyone’s views of the matter,” he tells me. “The people have said: if you, the oligarchs, got together and came up with this whole thing all by yourselves, then what’s our place in our own city? It’s the done thing in Ekaterinburg to talk to people. If the public fails to come out in support of something, that’s got to be taken into account.” Roizman sees himself as a kind of civic intermediary between the public and the developers, emphasising that the project itself is “cool”, but noting that he has “never said that the proposed site is a particularly successful one.”


Construction of the Dynamo Sports Complex, on the edge of Ekaterinburg's city pond, began in 1929. Source: Ministry of Administration of State Property, Sverdlovsk Oblast.

Meanwhile, it’s clear that no dialogue is forthcoming from the developers as a matter of principle. They just limit themselves to slogans claiming church will be a gift to the city — and a draw for tourists to boot. “I’m always asking them to provide me with charts and tables demonstrating how tourist numbers will change, and how much money it’ll earn the city, but no such documents exist,” Moskvin tells me.

God on earth

So far, the church’s most zealous champion has proven to be architect Mikhail Goloborodsky, who provided the mock-ups for the project — and this is despite his having previously mingled with the project’s opponents on Labour Square.

According to Goloborodsky, the choice of site is motivated by the fact that the city’s main cathedral, “testifying as it does to God’s real presence on this earth, ought to be sited in an open space in the centre of the city, and that it must be maximally visible as well.” Although Orthodox churches in Russia have historically been constructed on raised ground, Goloborodsky believes that Ekaterinburg’s bowl-shaped terrain renders it an exception to that rule: “All the views here are from the top down. Which makes the pond the only good site,” he stresses in conversation with me.


8 April: 1,500 people come together to defend the city pond. (c) Nikolai Lebedev. All rights reserved.

For Goloborodsky, the absence of a church dedicated to St Yekaterina in Ekaterinburg is a paradox that needs to be corrected. Furthermore, the city lacks a main cathedral church, while the existing cathedral is too small. “When services are taken by the bishop,” he says, “a lot of people attend.” Indeed, “a lot of people” is nothing if not an example of vague wording.

According to police statistics, Palm Sunday, the day following the flashmob, saw an oblast-wide church attendance of no more than 30,000 people, and the population of Ekaterinburg alone is almost 1.5 million, with active churchgoers accounting for a mere 2-3% of its population. Protesting believers have drawn attention to precisely this fact. Church attendance in the centre of town is too low to warrant a new church, whereas some densely populated residential areas boast no churches whatsoever.

Goloborodsky denies the claim that the 66-metre-high church would tarnish the historical appearance of the pond and that of the Dynamo Stadium spit. The latter, he insists, has “already been hemmed in by skyscrapers,” so much so that it’s “now a dwarf you can scarcely see.” And the architect brushes aside concerns that the vista of the pond would be ruined, declaring that the church would only “occupy an inconsequential sliver of backwater,” and that the height of the cathedral should be measured from the upper cornice of the main structure, in which case, he says, it would come to 22 metres. Goloborodsky fails to specify how exactly the additional 40-odd metres would vanish from the view.

When confronted with the assertion that the project has been instigated from the top down without even the semblance of ongoing dialogue with ordinary residents, Goloborodsky parries with a quote from the Gospel: “Many are called, but few are chosen. The city is constantly changing. Churches are allegedly being imposed on the populace, but no one comes out to protest against office developments.”

In his opinion, the real cause of local people’s indignation is not so much the choice of site for the cathedral as their desire “that it not be built at all.” But, though anti-clerical motives on the part of certain protestors cannot be ruled out, their primary objective would nonetheless appear to be the preservation of the pond’s historical appearance.

“Something to be treasured”

The disputes over the church are demonstrative of two incompatible approaches to history and historical memory.

The proposed external appearance of the church has raised a great many questions: like the Church of the Saviour on Blood in St Petersburg, it is to be executed in a pseudo-Russian style that apes the ornamentation of St Basil's Cathedral on Red Square. According to Roizman, it “will be the third cathedral of this kind, and the challenge facing those who’ve concocted this idea is to demonstrate that Ekaterinburg is the country’s third capital.”

Goloborodsky, for his part, goes so far as to argue that, despite the fact that Ekaterinburg was founded under Peter the Great in 1723, the church oughtn’t to be constructed in the Petrine style. “The church’s relationship with Peter,” he stresses, “were complicated. Peter abolished the position of patriarch and subordinated the church to a secularly administered synod. He humiliated the church, therefore there can be no reference to the Petrine era in this new church’s architecture.” It was the seventeenth century, according to Goloborodsky, that witnessed the “crystallisation of Russia’s national self-identity,” with its architecture “evincing the joyful character of the era that saw the Romanov dynasty accede to the throne.”

The proposed church, with its architectural allusions to the pre-Petrine period, would thus be used to propagate an artificially enforced myth of the nation, while the real history of the city — its industrial past, its role in the development of Soviet constructivism — would be destroyed.

Until recently, Ekaterinburg’s constructivist legacy was scarcely even perceived as a legacy in the popular consciousness. The situation, however, has begun to change over the last couple of years, in large part thanks to the endeavours of a particular group of researchers. Larissa Piskunova, Igor Yankov and Lyudmila Starostova — all members of the City Pond Committee — are anthropologists who have been studying the architectural past of their city through the prism of its inhabitants’ histories.

With the help of excursions, exhibitions and lectures, this group seeks to explain constructivism’s aesthetic codes to as many citizens of Ekaterinburg as possible, and to draw their attention to the uniqueness of the city’s buildings. Ekaterinburg, notes Piskunova, is remarkable for the fact that entire constructivist complexes have been erected here, and not simply individual buildings, as in Moscow.

Meanwhile, the main “casualty” of the proposed project — the Dynamo sports complex — is described by Piskunova as “a unique architectural construction boasting features which in the 1930s were no less unique: the city’s first indoor pool, diving towers and an ice-skating rink. The complex provided children and athletes with the opportunity to train at Union level.”

What Piskunova, Yankov and Starostova have embarked upon represents an attempt to explore the questions of historical legacy and urban identity crystallisation “from below”. Their project, then, is diametrically opposed to that of Goloborodsky and the oligarchs.

As Yankov makes clear, “one of the objectives of our work on constructivism is to engage with the Soviet experience and lay bare the multidimensional potential of the city. At the moment, we’re still only just beginning to grow into an awareness of our past, and the battle for the survival of the pond is very much an emblematic one — we haven’t yet fully realised its significance. This city is something to be treasured, but, as far as the oligarchs are concerned, it’s an asset or source of income.”

The battle continues

For the time being, both sides are busy with their own affairs. Goloborodsky is working on the composition and engineering issues — he recently announced that the area of the pond intended for construction will have to be drained after all. The primary strategy of the City Pond Committee, meanwhile, involves keeping the greatest possible number of locals up to date with the situation, while also conducting further public campaigns.

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Protesters against the new church are, it seems, ready to move from flashmobs to pickets and rallies. (с) Nikolai Lebedev. All rights reserved.

Despite the success of the latest flashmob, the biggest battles are yet to come.

According to Roizman, “the developers have sufficient resources to get 25,000 people out on the streets,” which, in some degree, is what happened at Easter, when the procession of the cross, led by governor Kuivashev and the metropolitan bishop, was diverted from its usual route and ended up at the proposed construction site. Moskvin, for his part, has made clear his willingness to switch to rallies and pickets if the project is given a final green light. Furthermore, high-profile regional protest campaigns often appeal to the presidential administration, which could potentially clip the wings of a high-handed governor (as was the case with the transfer of St Isaac's Cathedral in St Petersburg to the Orthodox Church).

As is the case in Russia generally, the main factor that permits the abuse of power by the authorities is the passivity of a disunited population, who are preoccupied with their daily lives and pay little attention to the environment around them. This, predictably, is something the developers are keen to exploit to their own advantage. “So many people don’t care about this affair at all,” Goloborodsky openly asserts. “They’re living their own lives — it makes no difference to them what happens here.” Which means that the challenge facing Goloborodsky’s opponents is to saturate the media space and mobilise all available resources so that eventually the authorities will be forced to pull the plug on the project.

According to Moskvin, “construction is unlikely to begin until the end of summer 2018 on account of the Football World Cup. Time is on our side. So for the moment we’re just trying to get as many people as possible involved in the campaign while saying to the authorities: Guys, come to your senses.”

Translation by Leo Shtutin.

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