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Russia returns cathedral to Orthodox Church

The largest church in Saint Petersburg, Saint Isaac's Cathedral, is to be transferred from Russia's museum holdings into the hands of the Orthodox Church. The decision has caused protests and is not an isolated case.

Saint Isaac's Cathedral is a "must" for tourists. It is the largest and most famous church in Saint Petersburg, and is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The magnificent building, with its highly visible golden dome, attracted some 3.8 million visitors in 2016. However, these days the cathedral is at the center of a fight in the Russian cultural metropolis; which also happens to be Russian President Vladimir Putin's hometown.

Never owned by the church

In early January, the office of Saint Petersburg's Governor, Georgy Poltavchenko, announced that ownership of Saint Isaac's Cathedral would be transferred from Russia's state museum holdings to the Russian Orthodox Church. A spokesperson from the governor's office said that Poltavchenko had made the agreement with Patriarch Kirill of Moscow. Details were yet to be finalized, the speaker said, but the "museum role" of the cathedral would remain. Initial plans foresee the cathedral being handed over to the Orthodox Church for 49 years, beginning in 2019 at the latest.

Russland St. Petersburg Stadtansicht (picture-alliance/dpa/Sputnik/V. Astapkovich)

Saint Isaac's Cathedral is a fixture of the St. Petersburg skyline, and a major tourist attraction

Since it was built in the mid-nineteenth century, Saint Isaac's Cathedral has never been in the possession of the church, and belonged to the court during the Tsarist era. The cathedral's current museum status was established during the Soviet era, and it initially also hosted atheist exhibitions. Orthodox religious services have been regularly held in the cathedral since the 1990s. Recently, the Orthodox Church has made ever greater efforts to gain possession of the cathedral. In 2015 the church was turned down by the city. It is unclear why the city has now changed its policy, but it is known that Governor Poltavchenko is very religious.

Concerned about the museum

In any case, plans for the transfer of possession have caused protests. An open letter addressed to Kirill and written by the chairman of the Russian Museum Association and director of the famous Hermitage Museum, Mikhail Piotrovsky, caused a public stir. In the letter, Piotrovsky implored the patriarch to drop plans to take over Saint Isaac's since they had led to conflicts. A statement from the Museum Association said that a handover would "destroy the museum."

"Behind every museum stands a team of employees, not all of whom are willing to become members of a religious organization," it said. Kirill let it be known that he was open for dialogue.

Opponents to the handover have already organized two demonstrations in Saint Petersburg. Most recently, some 2,000-3,000 people gathered last Saturday at the Field of Mars to call for Saint Isaac's to remain a museum. Participants proposed holding a referendum on the fate of the cathedral. The protest could have unpleasant consequences for participants. On Wednesday, Saint Petersburg's city council asked security organizations, among them the attorney general's office, to prosecute protesters for "offending the feelings of the faithful."

Not an isolated case

The story of Saint Isaac's Cathedral is not an isolated case, and appears to be the continuation of a growing trend. In Saint Petersburg, the Smolny Cathedral and Saint Sampson's Cathedral have already been handed over to the Orthodox Church; one was a concert hall, the other a museum.

In Ukrainian Crimea, which was annexed by Russia in 2014, a similar fight has erupted over the Chersonesus Archaeological Museum in Sevastopol. In the summer of 2015, a priest was named as the museum's new director, prompting its employees to protest. The priest resigned as a result. Now Chersonesus is making headlines again. The Crimea Diocese of the Orthodox Church has submitted an application for the use of 24 of the museum complex's buildings - previously part of a monastery - free of rent for the next 50 years. The museum is hoping for a compromise. Chersonesus seems to have special meaning for Russian President Vladimir Putin. In a speech on the occasion of Russia's annexation of Crimea, he described the site as "holy," because it was where the medieval Grand Prince Vladimir of Kyiv was baptized.

Russland Eröffnung des Fürst-Wladimir-Denkmals in Moskau (Reuters/S. Karpukhin)

Patriarch Kirill is said to enjoy a close relationship with Medvedev (left) and Putin (center)

President, army, church

Those in favor of giving possession of Saint Isaac's Cathedral to the Orthodox Church have planned a procession though Saint Petersburg on February 11. Some 10,000 marchers are expected. Local politicians from the governing Kremlin party United Russia are co-organizers of the event.

One cannot overstate the influence of the Orthodox Church in Russia today. President Putin is considered to be religious and is eager to be filmed in churches. Patriarch Kirill is said to have a close relationship with the president. February 1 was the eighth anniversary of Kirill having become the head of the Orthodox Church. To mark the occasion, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev came to the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow to personally convey his best wishes and present the patriarch white roses.

According to polls conducted by the state-affiliated WZIOM institute, the Orthodox Church is an institution that enjoys especially high repute in Russia. Some 73 percent of Russians say they trust the Orthodox Church. Only the president and the army are more popular.

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