IN THESE times of growing authoritarianism, it is worth taking note when people fight back. Two recent events in Russia show that despite President Vladimir Putin’s intolerance for dissent, there are moments when people are willing to speak up, strongly.
In Yekaterinburg, Russia’s fourth-largest city, two local copper oligarchs, along with church and city officials, decided to build a cathedral, a replica of St. Catherine’s, which was destroyed by the Bolsheviks in 1930 at the peak of their campaign to suppress religion in the Soviet Union. The new cathedral was to be erected on a public park near the city’s October Square, on the bank of the Iset River. Although the project had been long discussed, when a fence went up to mark the construction site, it infuriated many who loved the park. On May 13, demonstrators ripped down the fence and tried to sink it in the river. On subsequent days, the authorities brought in riot police, used cement to anchor the fence and detained protesters . But the protesters did not give up.
When Mr. Putin was asked about the display of public anger, he said, “Are those people atheists?” Then he suggested the matter be settled by conducting a poll. The city’s mayor said work would be suspended, pending the survey. Separately, a new survey by the Russian Public Opinion Research Center shows that 74 percent of those questioned do not want the cathedral built in that location. It isn’t clear what will eventually happen, but the protesters stood up to the power structure, which in today’s Russia very rarely listens to popular demands or criticism.
In the second case, two journalists, Ivan Safronov and Maxim Ivanov, published an article based on unidentified sources in the Moscow business daily, Kommersant, reporting that the speaker of the upper chamber of parliament might be replaced by Mr. Putin. The two journalists were fired. Other journalists said the oligarch who owns the publishing house, Alisher Usmanov, ordered the ouster because the pair refused to reveal their sources for the story. (Mr. Usmanov denied interfering.) In protest, about a dozen other Kommersant journalists quit the politics department of the paper, and more than 180 journalists have since signed an open letter backing their colleagues and decrying “direct pressure on journalists.”
Mr. Putin’s years in power have been characterized by a gradual silencing of independent voices, often when owners friendly to the Kremlin take over news outlets, as occurred at Kommersant. Only a few truly independent organizations remain. It is extraordinary and encouraging to see so many journalists push back. Analyst Kirill Rogov correctly noted that such collective action “is the main enemy of despotism.” And collectively, some Russians are stirring.