Protesters confront Russian Orthodox Church in cathedral dispute
Russians living in the northwestern city of Saint Petersburg have been protesting against city authorities’ decision to hand control of the country’s largest cathedral to the powerful Russian Orthodox Church.
Currently owned by the city, the imposing 19th-century St Isaac’s Cathedral on the main street Nevsky Prospekt, is a popular tourist attraction, open as a museum, gallery and concert hall, and also used for religious services.
The dispute centres on a decision by the state to hand the cathedral’s management over to the Russian Orthodox Church.
Some fear the Church will make the cathedral less accessible — which it denies — while others oppose the state handing over control of a key asset without consulting local residents.
On Friday evening, some 600 residents gathered for a protest outside the Cathedral organised by opposition lawmakers, with slogans on placards including “Church – know your place”.
“It’s obvious the Church intends to grab the tastiest morsel. What’s most disgusting is the decision was taken behind the backs of the residents. No one asked us if we agreed,” said one protestor, 50-year-old Sergei Anapov.
More than 100,000 people have signed an online petition on Change.org opposing the handover of the church, which was the main cathedral in Tsarist Russia.
– Spectacular revival –
The cathedral became a museum in the Soviet era after the Bolsheviks suppressed the Church and seized its valuable assets, turning them into factories, sports halls or offices. At one time, St Isaac’s cathedral was even used as a museum of atheism.
The Church’s influence has enjoyed a spectacular revival since the fall of the USSR and particularly under Vladimir Putin’s presidency, with a growing role in schools and the armed forces.
Many Russians welcome the Church’s resurgence, with some 70 percent describing themselves as Orthodox Christians.
Yet there is also opposition to its clout in a nominally secular state and protests have broken out in Moscow over handovers of public land for building new churches.
The Russian Orthodox Church first asked the city authorities to hand over the cathedral in 2015.
On January 10, the city authorities announced that the Church will receive full control of the cathedral by 2019.
The city will remain legal owner, however, meaning that it will have to cover expenses such as restoration.
Senior Church figures promised at a news conference in Saint Petersburg on Thursday that the cathedral will remain open as a public space.
“Museum activities will continue,” said Russian Orthodox Church spokesman Vladimir Legoida.
Archimandrite Tikhon, an influential monk said to act as President Vladimir Putin’s spiritual advisor, promised that “of course there will tours and exhibitions”.
However, the Church officials gave no details on what would happen to revenues from tourists visiting the cathedral.
“Saint Petersburg lives off tourism. What now? Does this mean we’ll give it all to the Church? The cathedral is a museum that earns money for the city,” said one protester, Galina Poverenova, a 40-year-old tourist guide.
St Isaac’s Cathedral earned more than 800 million rubles ($13.4 million, 12.6 million euros) in 2016 from more than 3.9 million visitors.
But the Church has said it will stop charging the current entrance fee of 250 rubles ($4.20, 3.90 euros).
Activists who oppose the handover announced protests will continue, with the next set for January 28.
– ‘A church isn’t a museum’ –
Yet some city residents say they back the handover.
“I don’t really understand the idea behind these protests. Is it because the cathedral will be closed to visitors after it’s returned to the Orthodox Church? No. So, what’s the problem?” said one passerby, Vasily Semyonov.
Another passer-by, 30-year-old Svetlana Kuzmina, said she agreed.
“Giving the church to the Church is normal. The cathedral was built not as a storage facility, nor as a theatre, nor even a museum as it was in the Soviet era.”
St Isaac’s Cathedral was designed by French architect Auguste Ricard de Montferrand and built between 1818 and 1858. Under the tsars it had the status of Russia’s main cathedral.
Under the USSR, it became a museum of atheism, then from 1937 an art history museum.
Religious services on major holidays resumed there in 1990 with the permission of the museum’s organisers.
“Once it used to be a cathedral attached to a museum. Now it will be the other way round: a museum attached to a cathedral,” said Legoida.