Russia probes smashing of 'Mephistopheles' figure claimed by Orthodox group

Police said they found smashed fragments of a century-old figure of Mephistopheles in rubbish sacks after it disappeared from the facade of a historic building in the centre of Saint Petersburg (AFP Photo/Olga Maltseva)

Saint Petersburg (AFP) - Russia has launched a probe after a century-old figure of Mephistopheles was ripped down in Saint Petersburg, with Orthodox activists claiming responsibility amid fears of an increasing intolerance in the country.

Police said on Friday they had found smashed fragments of the figure in rubbish sacks after it disappeared from the facade of a historic building in the centre of the northwestern city on Monday.

"We knocked down this devil," a group calling itself the Cossacks of Saint Petersburg said in a letter peppered with grammatical mistakes.

The figure encouraged "open worship of Satan," said the letter sent to local news website, adding the landmark figure was unacceptable because it was opposite a church.

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

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

The seemingly religiously-motivated act of vandalism caused an outcry in the former imperial capital.

The figure on Lakhtinskaya Street dated back to around 1910 and depicted a "mythical bat-winged creature," the city's heritage committee said.

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

Residents also launched an online petition urging Prosecutor-General Yuri Chaika to intervene and track down the culprits.

-'Embodiment of evil'-

But a spokesman for the hugely powerful Russian Orthodox Church said the attack was an understandable reaction.

"It's possible to understand the culprit. As a believer, he finds images of a demon disgusting," Orthodox Church spokesman Roman Bagdasarov told pro-Kremlin daily Izvestia.

"Mephistopheles embodies evil in this world and this person decided to act, most likely, to kill Evil," he said.

Architecture preservationists are expected to gather outside the building on Sunday for an informal protest amid fears of a growing intolerance in Russia.

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

Orthodox activist Dmitry Enteo and his supporters stormed into the Manege exhibition centre next to the Kremlin walls as it showed non-conformist works banned in the Soviet era.

The attackers damaged several linocuts by renowned Soviet artist Vadim Sidur that will cost more than 1 million rubles ($15,000) to restore, according to the gallery.

Enteo called the exhibition blasphemous in its depiction of Biblical scenes and said it offended the feelings of believers.

On Wednesday, two other Orthodox activists attempted to damage works of art at the same exhibition but were detained.

So far no criminal case has been opened into either incident.