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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Activists Alter Names in Show of Solidarity

ST. PETERSBURG -- A group of liberal political activists in St. Petersburg has decided to protest the current anti-Georgian sentiment in Russia by officially adopting Georgian-sounding surnames.

Alexander Shurshev, an activist in the Yabloko Party's youth organization, said he was changing his name to Shurshadze.

"In Russia today, people are discriminated against based on their ethnicity," Shurshev said this week. "I've decided to give my name a Georgian ending to show my solidarity with the Georgians who are being oppressed."

The Admiralteisky district registration office will process Shurshev's application within one week.

Larisa Mamukina, who heads the office, said Thursday that the activists would have no trouble changing their names. "This is the right, established in law, of every Russian citizen," she told Interfax.

Applicants for a name change pay a fee of 500 rubles, plus 100 rubles for a new internal passport and birth certificate, Mamukina explained.

The protest is a joint initiative of the local Yabloko organization and the St. Petersburg bureau of Novaya Gazeta, a leading opposition newspaper.

Nikolai Donskov, the Novaya Gazeta bureau chief in the northern capital, said the protest was aimed at "the absurdity of the current anti-Georgian frenzy."

A conflict erupted between Russia and Georgia last month when four Russian military officers were arrested on suspicion of espionage. In addition to severing transport and postal links with Georgia, Moscow has moved against Georgians living in Russia illegally. Hundreds have been deported amid a general crackdown that Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili has described as "ethnic cleansing."

"There is an element of mass psychosis in the rage with which law enforcement and other officials have gone after Georgians in this country," Donskov said.

"Even though the campaign here is not as fierce as in Moscow, the hunt for Georgians is proceeding full-speed ahead, complete with unnecessary document checks, fast-track deportations and racist speeches in the Legislative Assembly," Donskov said.

St. Petersburg Governor Valentina Matviyenko on Monday delivered a speech in which she touched on Russia's conflict with Georgia.

"Only those Georgians who have broken the law and are living here illegally should be subject to punishment," she said. "The police should not take action against innocent people."

Some local politicians have shown less compunction in playing the race card. Alexei Timofeyev, a member of the St. Petersburg Legislative Assembly, called this week for the closure of what he called "Georgian casinos" and other companies owned or managed by Georgians.

Timofeyev's proposal was rejected by the assembly, though he was allowed to make a speech filled with anti-Georgian vitriol.

Roman Omari Vephvadze, senior priest at the Georgian church on Starorusskaya Ulitsa, said his parishioners were afraid to go out in public.

"Fewer people are attending services, and those who come say they are scared," Vephvadze said.

A group of well-known writers, including Boris Strugatsky and Konstantin Azadovsky, sent an open letter to Matviyenko that highlighted the fears of ordinary Georgians in the city.

Shurshev, soon to be known as Shurshadze, is convinced that he is doing the right thing.

"All of us bear responsibility for the authorities, for the people we chose to govern us," he said. "Our leaders neglect human rights and stir up whole nations against each other. We need to show that we disagree."

Police have ordered Tomsk State University to hand over information on its Georgian students, reported Thursday.

Administrators have begun to gather information not only on Georgian citizens, but also on ethnic Georgians with Russian citizenship, the news portal reported.