Hundreds protest smashing of demon statue in Saint Petersburg

Last week, a century-old figure of Mephistopheles was ripped down from the facade of a 19th-century building in Saint Petersburg

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More than a thousand Russians rallied in Saint Petersburg on Sunday after a historic figure of a mythical demon was destroyed amid fears of an increasing religious intolerance under strongman Vladimir Putin.

Last week, a century-old figure of Mephistopheles was ripped down from the facade of a 19th-century building in Saint Petersburg. An obscure group calling itself the Cossacks of Saint Petersburg claimed responsibility.

The seemingly religiously-motivated act of vandalism caused an outcry in the former imperial capital and police launched a probe.

The figure of a bat-winged creature on Lakhtinskaya Street dated back to around 1910.

By some accounts, the bas relief paid homage to legendary Russian opera singer Feodor Chaliapin famed for his role of Mephistopheles.

More than a thousand people including architecture preservationists gathered in front of the building in the city centre to express their dismay over what activists dubbed a “brazen act of vandalism.”

“Hands off from art,” said one placard.

Cossack campaign

“What happened is awful,” said Anna Astakhova, 35.

“If it’s true that the bas relief was destroyed for religious reasons then we are descending into the Middle Ages. This is inadmissible.”

Another protester, Galina Vanina, added: “I am an Orthodox Christian myself but I do not support this absurdity.”

“Art cannot offend anyone,” added the 60-year-old woman, calling those who destroyed the “vandals.”

In an open letter, the Cossacks of Saint Petersburg said the figure encouraged “open worship of Satan” and was unacceptable because it was opposite a church.

Established Cossack groups in the city denied any knowledge of this group, however.

Cossacks once defended the borders of the Russian empire but now often campaign to promote conservative values.

Police said they had found smashed fragments of the figure in rubbish sacks.

Prosecutors opened a probe into destruction of cultural heritage, which carries a jail term of up to two years.

A spokesman for the powerful Russian Orthodox Church said the attack was an understandable reaction.

“Mephistopheles embodies evil in this world and this person decided to act, most likely, to kill Evil,” spokesman Roman Bagdasarov told pro-Kremlin daily Izvestia.

Earlier this month fundamentalist Orthodox activists attacked several exhibits at a show of sculptures in Moscow, saying they offended believers.