The Russian Orthodox Cathedral Saint-Nicolas in Nice is a sign of the longtime Russian presence on the French Riviera. Yet a debate surrounding its rightful ownership is developing into a power struggle.
The Saint-Nicolas Cathedral is a refuge for Nice's older Russian generation
Nice is considered to be the capital of the French Riviera. The British made the climate and beauty of the Côte d'Azur famous at the end of the 19th century. However, the Russians have an equally valid claim on discovering the area's beauty.
Throughout the second half of the 19th century, members of Russia's imperial family regularly spent their winters in Nice. The opulence of their receptions made a deep impression on the local citizens, says Alexis Obolensky, vice-president of the Cultural Association of Orthodox Russians in Nice.
"Many Russians came during the period to enjoy the great receptions that were given," says Obolensky, heir to an aristocratic family and a retired university professor. "Everyone was invited, all of the Côte d'Azur, and that created a great impression."
This is reflected in the stained glass window of the Russian Cathedral of Saint-Nicolas -- the most visited monument in Nice. However, the prestige of the church is now so great that Russia has launched a legal battle to retrieve the property.
Searching for a Russian identity
The roots of the Russian presence in Nice can be traced back to 1856 -- the year when the wealthy empress Alexandra Feodorovna landed in the Côte d'Azur. In 1908, the last czar of Russia, Nicolas II, bequeathed the land of his villa Bermond for the construction of the Saint-Nicolas Cathedral, a project that was finally completed in 1912.
Father Jean Gueit says many Russians are still searching for an identity
In the 1920s, a new wave of immigrants came to Nice, most of whom were from dismantled aristocratic families. Uprooted, the community nevertheless kept part of its identity alive through the orthodox church.
However, even though the orthodox church was fashioned in the style of Russia, the Saint-Nicolas Cathedral is dependent on the Greek Orthodox Church and not on church authorities in Moscow.
Finding an identity is a problem that Archpriest Father Jean Gueit is well aware of.
"Who are we? Are we Russians or are we first and foremost members of the orthodox church?," Father Jean says. "This is not a political question, for although it is true that there was a certain relationship between the affirmation of orthodoxy and the fight against the communist regime, that wasn't a question of identity. We are Christians of Russian origin. We are not Christians simply because we are Russian."
Older generation is critical of the "new Russians" in Nice
In recent years, a new generation of Russians has arrived on the Côte d'Azur. They are the "new Russians," who show off their wealth in the palaces and casinos along the Promenade des Anglais.
Czar Nicolas II provided the site for Saint-Nicolas
However, the Russians who have been in Nice for three generations are keen to distance themselves for this new group and regard them with a certain disdain, says Obolensky. He points out that the new residents live in huge houses with security guards and openly spend great deals of money.
"The Russians of the past didn't have such things," Obolensky says. "They lived peacefully and had no fears because they believed that they had acquired their wealth legitimately. A large number of the 'new Russians' have acquired their money through dubious routes and want to protect themselves. Therefore, a comparison between the two simply doesn't work."
For Nice's older Russian generation, the Saint-Nicolas Cathedral is their refuge and serves as a protector for a community unable to identify with the Russians of today.
Russia Wants Saint-Nicolas Back
Considering the older generation's attachment to Saint-Nicolas, it is all the more painful for them to observe the current legal battle between the Cultural Association of Orthodox Russians in Nice and Russia over the cathedral.
Saint-Nicolas is one of Nice's landmark sites
Russia considers itself the rightful heir to the Russian Empire prior to 1917. Moscow is demanding the property of the cathedral back, because it is built on land given by Czar Nicolas II under the terms of a 99-year lease agreement, which runs out this year.
Father Jean believes that the cathedral is a pawn in a power game led by Russia and the patriarchy, which has more to do with politics than religious artifacts.
The authorities in France have responded to this growing problem. Last April, the General Council sped up the classification of many items of furniture in the cathedral. However, this protection has no bearing on the question of ownership of the cathedral.
This issue rages on, but the Russian community of Nice has lost an ally. After having supported the Cultural Association of Orthodox Russians in their endeavors, the mayor of Nice, Jacques Peyrat, appears to have changed sides -- precisely around the time he returned from a visit to Moscow.