A Kremlin plan to turn a St Petersburg hospital that specialises in treating children with cancer into a medical centre for Russia‘s top judges was shelved on Wednesday, marking a rare occasion of the government appearing to bow to public pressure.
The intention to turn City Hospital No 31 into a clinic that would exclusively serve judges and staff of the supreme court and other high courts when they are relocated to St Petersburg from Moscow caused widespread public dismay.
More than 100,000 people signed a petition to the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, a native of the city, urging him to scrap the plan. Among those who signed were prominent figures from the worlds of art and science, including physicist Zhores Alfyorov, a Nobel prize winner and member of Russia’s parliament.
The St Petersburg governor’s office said on Wednesday that the hospital would continue to serve patients and insisted there was no plan to change its location or profile. The Kremlin’s property department also issued assurances that the hospital, located on the prestigious Krestovsky island, would not be used to serve judges of the top courts.
Around 1,500 people still took part in a planned evening protest, with some saying they did not trust officials to go keep their word. Braving a bitter winter wind, they held up signs that said: “Children are more important than bureaucrats” and: “You want to kill the hospital, but you will kill children instead.”
“Even a one-day break in the work of the hospital is a potential murder,” said protester Anna Ivanova, a 29-year-old pediatrician who trained with the hospital’s doctors.
“I’m sure that it is only the fact that people have come out to defend the hospital that it might be saved,” said Nadezhda Dankova, a 32-year-old pediatric nurse.
Yelena Grachyova, the co-ordinator of a charity foundation that helps children and adults suffering from cancer, said the timing of the government’s about-turn was clearly aimed at thwarting the protest rally, which organisers had hoped would attract thousands of people. Grachyova said there had been previous attempts to take over the hospital because of the prime real estate it occupies, and she called for legal guarantees to protect it and other hospitals and schools on city land.
Other unpopular projects in St Petersburg have also been scuttled or changed in recent years in the face of public opposition. In 2010, Gazprom was forced to abandon plans to build a glass skyscraper in the historic city centre.
Putin, however, has generally ignored opposition demands and avoided giving any ground on controversial issues, apparently seeing it as a sign of weakness. His decision last month to sign a bill banning Americans from adopting Russian children came despite widespread public outrage.
He has not intervened in the hospital controversy.
In Soviet times, Hospital No 31 provided medical treatment for privileged Soviet bureaucrats. Similar specialised clinics for the Communist party elite existed elsewhere as well.
During the democratic reforms of the 1980s, the hospital was handed over to the city, with preference to be given to second world war veterans. The children’s oncology clinic also was established.
“Twenty years ago it seemed obvious that the privileged St Petersburg residents were precisely children and elderly people. We hope this is not in doubt now,” the petition to Putin says.