ST. PETERSBURG, Russia (AP) — The intention to turn a St. Petersburg clinic treating pediatric cancer patients into one that would exclusively serve judges and staff of Russia's highest courts spread widespread public dismay.
More than 100,000 people signed a petition to President Vladimir Putin, a city native, urging him to scrap the plan to change City Hospital No. 31. Among those who signed were prominent figures from the worlds of art and sciences, including physicist Zhores Alfyorov, a Nobel Prize winner who is a member of Russia's parliament.
In a rare occasion of what appears to be the government bowing to public pressure, the plan was shelved Wednesday.
The St. Petersburg governor's office said the hospital would continue to treat patients and insisted there was no plan to change its location or profile when the Supreme Court and other top courts are relocated to Russia's second largest city from Moscow.
The Kremlin's property department also issued assurances that the hospital, located on prestigious Krestovsky Island, would not be given over to judges of the top courts.
Even so, about 1,500 people took part in a planned evening protest, with some saying they did not trust officials not to go back on 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, coordinator 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 organizers had hoped would attract thousands. 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 protecting it and other hospitals and schools on city property.
Other unpopular projects in St. Petersburg also have 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 city's historical center.
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.
Putin has not weighed in on the hospital controversy.
In Soviet times, Hospital No. 31 provided medical treatment for privileged Soviet bureaucrats. Similar specialized 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 World War II 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.
Moscow has numerous hospitals that serve the presidential administration or a certain government ministry, a tradition carried down from Soviet times. Today, however, the medical services also are available to other residents on a paid basis.