Demonstrators with a poster reading "Let Hospital No. 31 be" take part in a protest against plans to shut down Hospital No. 31 in St. Petersburg, on Jan. 23, 2013. The Russian government has backed down from a plan to reserve the hospital exclusively for the nation’s senior judges. (Dmitry Lovetsky/AP)

In the face of widespread opposition, the Russian government has backed down from a plan to bar the public from a well-regarded St. Petersburg hospital and reserve it exclusively for the nation’s senior judges.

The decision, announced Tuesday in St. Petersburg by Health Minister Veronika Skvortsova, is being seen as a victory for public opinion — and a demonstration that even the Kremlin is responsive when confronted with sufficiently broad-based popular feeling.

The plan seemed like a throwback to Soviet times, when the best medical centers were reserved for high-
ranking officials. At stake was the future of Hospital No. 31, which sits on a parklike island north of the center of the city and is home to St. Petersburg’s main pediatric oncology center.

Denunciations of the plan in the media were followed by a large protest rally Jan. 23. Organizers said they collected 100,000 signatures on a petition to keep the hospital as it is. Charities, including some that enjoy good relations with the government, added their voices to the criticism.

The St. Petersburg city government, ordered by Moscow to come up with alternative sites for the 405-bed hospital’s various departments, was apparently unable or unwilling to do so.

Russia's president cracks down on dissent.

Skvortsova said the government now plans to build a new health center for the judges — to which, she added, the public will also have access. As to shuttering Hospital No. 31, the Interfax news agency quoted her as saying, “The question is completely closed.”

The episode reflects a peculiarity of the political dynamic in Russia today. President Vladimir Putin has built a system around what he calls the “vertical of power,” and his critics contend that the result is an authoritarian regime in which all the decisions come down from the top. But Putin has been careful about his approval rating — and although a recent poll found it at an all-time low, he still has 62 percent of the adult population behind him.

If Putin has come down hard on the political protests of the past year, it is with the knowledge that he has the support of the majority of the country. In St. Petersburg, though, his government could not portray the many thousands of opponents of the hospital move as elitist or out of touch; moreover, their outrage centered on a specific plan that was easy to understand — and easy to criticize. It wasn’t, on the face of it, about politics; it was about children with cancer.

The Kremlin nimbly stepped aside. One thing Putin didn’t have to worry about was backlash from the judges: They are among the least respected members of the legal community here.