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Schoolchildren in crusade against Russian officials; Christian academy occupies site coveted by St. Petersburg


MOSCOW -- It's kids against cops in a standoff in St. Petersburg, and the kids aren't flinching.

The police have a court order, the might of the city government and plenty of guns on their side. On their side, the kids have nothing but their determination and the weight of Russian culture, which cherishes children.

At stake is possession of a choice piece of real estate that for eight years has been occupied by a private Christian school. The city wants the site, which the school spent about $1.5 million fixing up. The city arranged the law on its side.

But the students and teachers of the nondenominational Open Christianity School refused to budge. So, on Monday, the OMON riot police, in camouflage fatigues, came around to carry out an eviction.

It should have been straightforward, because St. Petersburg is a place where it doesn't pay to fight city hall. It's a tough, violent city. Yury Shutov, a member of the city council and a political ally of the St. Petersburg governor, was arrested last week and charged with running a hit squad out of his office. Prosecutors are tying him to several murders and have suggested that he could be linked to the city's most notorious killing, that of Galina Starovoitova, a member of parliament, in November.

That Starovoitova was a supporter of the Open Christianity School and a friend of Inga Ivanova, the school's iron-willed director, makes what has happened this week all the more striking.

The police showed up early Monday, but the students and teachers who were there refused to leave. The police tried to cordon off the building, but more youngsters piled in through a courtyard in the rear. About four dozen made it through. They stuck to their desks.

What were the riot police to do? Club them? Shoot them? Drag 4- and 5-year-old children out by their heels?

The day ended in a draw. The teachers and students spent the night inside, and Tuesday started out the same. But at 3: 30 p.m., the police stormed the old yellow building.

"When the OMON rushed into the building, children and a few adults were lying on the floor, singing Christian songs," Andrei Bolshakov, the father of two students and one of the occupiers, said yesterday by telephone. "The sight was ridiculous -- big guys, and these small children lying there. The OMON didn't know what to do. They were at a loss. There was a lot of swearing, stamping of feet, shouting. There were three generals among them.

"They asked to see our passports, but the children didn't have them. We asked to see theirs, but they didn't have them, either."

Finally, he said, the OMON began taking teachers out, but a friendly member of the city council, Pyotr Shelesh, was at that moment getting a prosecutor's order barring the police from the building. After standing around for a few hours, the police retreated to the sidewalk about 9 p.m.

Yesterday, the police had the building roped off, two guards at the door -- and 47 people inside, with enough food, they say, to last about a month. A support group of about the same size kept a vigil on the street.

Legality vs. morality

"Maybe the St. Petersburg government has a legal right to take the building, but I don't think they have a moral right to do so," said Gary Vander Hart, a 61-year-old teacher from Iowa, one of two foreigners on the faculty.

Vander Hart, who has stayed out of the building, has been a teacher at the school for three years. Most of the staff is Russian Orthodox, but financial support has come from Dutch Reformed churches in the Netherlands and the United States. The 150 students in grades one through 11 include Roman Catholics, Baptists, a Lutheran, Pentecostalists and Orthodox, Vander Hart said.

"It's a wonderful bunch of kids, and good, Christian, dedicated teachers," he said.

The school is in a building just off Nevsky Prospekt that was built for officers' housing but was undermined by subway construction. The city gave it to the Society for Open Christianity rent-free in 1991. Using donated Dutch building supplies, the society restored the building, but there was a falling out in 1995 over the misuse of money, Vander Hart said, and a disgruntled former board member went to the city to complain.

Religious connection

In a country where anything with a foreign connection is suspect, particularly a foreign religious connection, it's not surprising that the city would decide to take the building back. There was talk of a hotel, and more recently the city has declared, somewhat implausibly, that it wants to use the building as a clinic for the Interior Ministry. The back-and-forth went on for three years. In November, the school's registration ran out, and with it went the right to occupy the site.

"It's a matter of whether legalisms will rule, or, hey, would it be better for this country to have good Christian education?" said Vander Hart.

But when the question's put that way, the answer's not hard to figure out. "I think the government's going to get it back in the end," he said. "And they're going to get a really good deal out of it."

Pub Date: 2/25/99

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