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17 February 2017

Conflict erupts over St. Isaac’s Cathedral: the end of neutrality

The fight for St. Isaac’s Cathedral in Saint Petersburg illustrates the deepening of the divide initiated by the Kremlin in 2012

The decision of Governor Georgy Poltavchenko to hand St. Isaac’s Cathedral State Museum-Memorial over to the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) sparked mass protests in St. Petersburg. Several thousand residents protested in favor of the museum, while the diocese organized a cross procession in response. According to a Circulaire made public by the opposition, five members of every parish were sent as delegates to attend.

According to an opinion poll conducted by the Foundation for Political Culture, 17.8% of respondents are in favor of handing over St. Isaac’s Cathedral to the ROC, 57.1% are against it and 25.1% of city residents are indifferent. Dissatisfaction over the cathedral changing hands stems from several factors: infringements of the very procedure of the transfer of the property to the ROC, the fact that not a single attempt to establish a dialogue with society has been undertaken, the lack of rational justification for the governor’s decision as well as overt narrowing of the cultural space in the city, widely believed to be the cultural capital of Russia.

The ROC claims rights to St. Isaac’s Cathedral on the grounds of the law “on the transfer of property used for religious purposes” adopted in 2010. However, the cathedral was not owned by the church and belonged to government agencies prior to the revolution. Construction in line with the design of architect Auguste de Montferrand commenced in 1818 and went on for several decades. The European architecture of the cathedral serves as a reminder that St. Petersburg used to be the capital of the enlightened European Empire. St. Isaac’s Cathedral changed hands after the revolution and became the responsibility of the Renovated Church for a period. It had been under the ownership of Glavnauka (i.e. the Central Administration for Scientific, Scholarly-Artistic and Museum Institutions) since 1928 and was turned into the (anti-religious) Museum of History of Religion and Atheism in 1931. Among other things, the Foucault pendulum, which symbolizes the victory of scientific knowledge over religion, takes pride of place within. This fact is often cited by church representatives as an argument in support of the cathedral’s transfer to the ROC. Conversely, it was precisely the museum which enabled the preservation of religious artifacts in Soviet Russia: this was the only way to save icons and other sacred objects. Exhibits from nearby palaces were taken to St. Isaac’s Cathedral just before the Siege of Leningrad. Residents grew vegetables near the cathedral following a harsh winter during the siege and for this reason, Leningrad and St. Petersburg residents cherish the cultural memory of St. Isaac’s as a source of nourishment.

St. Isaac’s Cathedral has also housed a museum since 1991 and scheduled religious services continue to be held there. The cathedral is visited by nearly 4 million tourists annually. This is the only museum in Russia not reliant on governmental subsidies, even yielding a profit. St. Isaac’s Cathedral State Museum used to be called the “Museum of Four Cathedrals” since it incorporated four churches. Two of them – St. Sampson’s Cathedral and Smolny Cathedral – are already in the possession of the ROC. The diocese announced its intention to regain the fourth cathedral, too: the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood, built on the site of the assassination of Emperor Alexander II. In other words, nothing will remain of the successful museum which was able to self-fund a large choir, restoration works, and educational programs.

Should the cathedral be handed over to the ROC, for the next 49 years, maintenance costs will still be met using funds from the budget of the city of St. Petersburg. It is entirely unclear who is to be responsible for the building’s conservation and its exhibits. The museum community cites negative examples of restoration projects carried out on buildings passed over to the church, such as one in Pskov. Another example is that of a church on the island of Valaam where, according to art conservators, frescos crumbled from the walls as a result of damp that had gathered due to improper maintenance. On the other hand, a positive example of a restoration exists in the form of a historical church in Novgorod carried out by the ROC alongside the museum’s staff.

Still, the Governor of St. Petersburg, Georgy Poltavchenko, has not commented on the upcoming transfer of the cathedral in over a month and a half. His announcement regarding the final decision was published in the press. Deputy Governor, Mikhail Mokretsov, reported that the ROC has never made an application to obtain the rights to the cathedral, even though this is required by federal law. The local branch of United Russia announced that no application is necessary as such an application was previously submitted in 2015 when the diocese attempted to acquire the cathedral. However, a year and a half ago, the governor refused to hand the building over to the ROC. Supporters of the neutral status of St. Isaac’s Cathedral point out that such an option is also available under the federal law.

The current conflict unfolds on the fifth anniversary of mass protests which began in the period between the Duma and presidential elections in 2011-2012. In those days, the Kremlin confronted advocates of modernization, the “creative class” with so-called “traditional” Russia. The authorities condemned Pussy Riot’s performance at Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior, labeling it “a threat to traditional values”. Following the election, President Vladimir Putin spoke about the lack of “spiritual bonds” in the country. Thus, a conservative agenda for the new presidential term was formed. Religion plays a significant role in this agenda. The law on the recovery of property by religious organizations sits well with this rhetoric.

The ROC, which claims rights to St. Isaac’s Cathedral, resembles something akin to a collective Donald Trumps who vows to “Make America Great Again”. Church representatives refer to filling the gap and to restitution of the loss by invoking imagery of the Civil War and the first decades of Soviet rule. . However, the image of the persecuted and defiled church in today’s Russia is equally deceptive as the picture of national humiliation of today’s America as painted by Trump.

Two high-ranking officials representing secular authorities – both confidants of President Vladimir Putin – are helpless to save St. Isaac’s Cathedral in its current form. One of them is Nikolay Burov – the director of the museum-memorial in question. The other is Mikhail Piotrovsky, the director of the Hermitage Museum (and head of the Union of Museums). Burov stated officially that the decision on handing over the cathedral is entirely lawful and that he has no intention of joining the street protests himself. He hints that the decision was made at the very top and so everything else is just a formality. Therefore, we are only left with mitigating losses. Mikhail Piotrovsky wrote a letter to the Patriarch containing a request to suspend the transfer of St. Isaac’s Cathedral but was rebuked by representatives of the diocese in response; he was advised to concentrate on minding what was going on in the Hermitage, namely, contemporary art exhibitions. 

Five years ago, when the country was at the crossroads of political modernization and regression to olden times, both Piotrovsky and Burov legitimized Vladimir Putin’s choice. This can be seen as a decision made by apparatchiks, or as a wise move by responsible directors who wanted to play by the rules for the benefit of their institutions. It is, nevertheless, clear that the system has changed since 2012 and Church plenipotentiaries no longer perceive Piotrovsky and Burov as figures of gravitas.

The conflict surrounding St. Isaac’s Cathedral is also reminiscent of a medieval-style tale of personal revenge in the context of a quarrel during a royal feast, in which a word of insult unleashes a real war… Nikolay Burov, the director of St. Isaac’s Cathedral, spoke negatively of the Metropolitan Varsonofy and his team during a closed Easter reception in 2015. Six months later, the ROC formally appealed to the governor to transfer St. Isaac’s Cathedral to the Church. The diocese later repeatedly underlined its determination to take all four cathedral-museums away from Burov.

The system of power has been simplified so much so that no checks and balances remain. Even the Speaker of the Legislative Assembly of Saint Petersburg demands that St. Isaac’s Cathedral be handed over to the ROC as soon as possible. Petersburgers who have taken to the streets as well as experts from the museum community are unable to affect the outcome of the confrontation. By taking to the streets, you may save face but not the museum housed in St. Isaac’s Cathedral. 

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