Orthodox Church and culture sector clash over property restitution in Russia

Since the 2010 law allowing for the restoration of church property in Russia, competing interests continue to battle over just what its implementation means for the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC). This can be seen in the recent request of the ROC to take ownership of the UNESCO-protected 12th-century Golden Gate in the city of Vladimir, a request opposed by officials and locals who consider it an important part of local identity and not a religious monument, according to a report by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (August 18). Currently owned by the Culture Ministry, the Golden Gate indeed includes a small church, but one that was not used during most of the long history of the building. Moreover, since the end of the Soviet period of enforced atheism, the museum complex has been willing to allow the church to conduct services on its grounds under its control. Usually, when the ROC applies for a monument that was used for religious purposes, it is able to get it back. But some museum curators are critical of the consequences, claiming that access to such monuments subsequently becomes more difficult, taking them off the tourist map.

Moreover, the curators say that the ROC does not take proper care of such monuments, citing the instance of the famous wooden Uspensky Church in Northern Russia that had been given to the ROC in 2017 and burnt down last August. Art history experts are concerned that some important frescoes might be damaged if the full cycle of services and a constant flow of pilgrims burning candles inside the buildings would return to such places. They also stress that a number of significant buildings returned to the ROC are in a poor state of maintenance (Nachrichtendienst Östliche Kirchen, September 6). According to those voices, such buildings should stay under the protection of the Culture Ministry. In St. Petersburg, the St. Isaac Cathedral was given back for use by the ROC while remaining state property and still serving as a museum—with the city in charge of maintenance costs. Across Russia, there are other important monuments currently claimed by the church. While museum curators are asking for adjustments to the 2010 restitution law in order to better guarantee the protection of cultural monuments, the legal service of the Moscow Patriarchate held a seminar in July at the Yaroslavl Theological Seminary regarding the application of the 2010 law (Patriarchia.ru, July 14).