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By John Helmer, Moscow

Mystery moves in a godly way, wonders to perform. Even on state television, in Russia’s secular democracy.    

President Vladimir Putin (lead image, right) was taken by surprise, he said yesterday, by the first question ever asked during his annual Direct Line national broadcast about the affairs of the Russian Orthodox Church and Patriarch Kirill (left). Ivan Bratsev, identifying himself as a worker at the state-owned Baltic Shipyard in St. Petersburg, asked Putin about the future of St. Isaac’s Cathedral, the 180-year old city landmark.

There is no mystery about that because the transfer, demanded by the patriarch, of the cathedral from state control to the Russian Orthodox Church has been bitterly protested in the city for months, and reported widely in the national media.  The wonder was performed by Putin in his answer.

A petition signed by about 300,000 city residents opposed to the transfer and calling for a formal voter referendum to decide the status of the building has been ignored. The Kremlin party majority in the city’s parliamentary assembly has twice put off a formal ballot on calling the referendum.  The city courts have refused to consider the legality of the delaying tactics.  

Six of the deputies leading the referendum campaign were targeted a month ago by a proposal to the Municipal Electoral Commission to revoke their mandates and evict them from their seats. 

The city governor Georgy Poltavchenko (right) – appointed by the Kremlin in 2011, elected in 2014 — refuses to answer questions about why he changed last year’s decision not to allow the transfer of  St. Isaac’s to Church property, and then on January 10 ordered the transfer to go through. According to the legal documents, Poltavchenko’s order keeps city and state ownership but gives the Church a 49-year lease.

On May 25, in its most recent response to the controversy, a spokesman for Patriarch Kirill  in Moscow told the press the Church has nothing to do with the tactics in the city parliament. “It is an internal affair of the Legislative Assembly of Saint-Petersburg. That would be involvement in the political struggle in which we, according to our constitutional documents, are not involved.”

There is no mystery in the extent of the Church’s involvement in the general privatization of state property. Between 2010, when the State Duma in Moscow enacted a federal law authorizing the return of state-owned assets which had belonged to the Church before the 1917 revolution, the Federal Property Management Agency transferred legal title for 270 state-owned properties to the Church in 45 regions. In 2015 the Church applied to take 1,971 new properties from the state, but only 212 were approved by the start of 2016. 

Church spokesmen claimed at the time of the 2010 enactment that it had agreed on a compromise with parliament – it would not seek the return of all Church property confiscated during the Communist period. “We did not insist on restitution for Church property lost… Now we usually do not ask for [return of] any of the normal buildings in large cities, but only for ruined objects that are costly [to restore]. We took a bunch of ruined churches in the 90s, and now, of course, we have wanted to get something better.” Read more. The takeover of St. Isaac’s Cathedral, which Church officials commenced in 2015, is “something better”.  For the details, read this.    

Public opposition to asset raiding by the Church has also produced unprecedented public investigation of the financial operations of the Church, including the bank accounts of Kirill and his predecessor, Alexei II. RBC has led the media reporting; the publishing company was owned at the time by Mikhail Prokhorov; he recently sold it to Grigory Beryozkin.   The investigations have also revealed fraud and financial collapse at Church-controlled banks – Alexander Bank, the International Bank of the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, Sofrino  Bank, Peresvet Bank,  and Ergobank.  The Peresvet failure, confirmed by the Central Bank before Christmas,  is so far estimated to cost at least $1.2 billion.  How much of this will be covered by state budget money is not yet clear. For this story, click to open

Control of St. Isaac’s has become the symbol of secular resistance to the Church. Poltavchenko’s resistance to the handover continued through 2015 and 2016, despite the intervention of Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev on the Church’s behalf.   In September last, Poltavchenko repeated in public his refusal. In letters to the state property authorities in Moscow, which Poltavchenko leaked, he warned that the majority of St. Petersburgers were against the transfer; that the Church’s demand would violate their rights in Russian law; and upset “the priority of human rights over the rights of religious organizations.”

A recent official photograph of Prime Minister Medvedev meeting Patriarch Kirill. In April, in Medvedev’s Easter message to the Patriarch, the prime minister said: “under Your guidance, she [the Church] conducts a lot of charitable and educational activities. Does a lot for harmonization of interethnic and interreligious relations.” Source: http://chelorg.com/2017/04/16/medvedev-noted-the-great-contribution-of-the-russian-orthodox-church-in-the-establishment-of-international-relations/

Then on November 8 Poltavchenko met Putin. The president followed up two weeks later, on November 22, by meeting Kirill.  From December 17 to 19, the patriarch was in St. Petersburg, where he and Poltavchenko met privately.  Within days Poltavchenko announced a change of his mind on St. Isaac’s.

There is no direct corroboration that Kirill asked; that Putin conceded; and that Poltavchenko clicked his heels and saluted.  Tass reported on January 17: “‘The issue of the transfer of St. Isaac’s Cathedral to the use of the Russian Orthodox Church is resolved, but the building will fully retain its museum functions’, the Governor of St. Petersburg Georgy Poltavchenko has reported to Tass today. ‘The issue is resolved,’ he has said. ‘By agreement between the Patriarch and me the cathedral will keep the museum and educational function’, Poltavchenko has explained. He has given his assurance that ‘access to the building will be provided to representatives of one and all faiths.’” Tass was told the process of transfer agreed between Krill and Poltavchenko should be completed within twelve months, with formal handover by December 2017.  

“It is necessary only to guess why our dear head of St. Petersburg so sharply changed his opinion in a year,” editorialized Fontanka.ru, a city internet website. “I like our Governor, I even feel sorry for him,” a city government insider told RBC.  “He could not make that decision on his own. Everything was decided for him.” The implication is that since there were only two officials who could do that to Poltavchenko, they must have been Putin and Kirill.

Yesterday’s exchange between the shipyard worker and the president clarified in five minutes and for the first time, where Putin stands.  Follow the exchange between them here, starting at Min. 2:26:27 and concluding at 2:31:19.

The official Kremlin transcript and English translation is this.

“Ivan Bratsev: Good afternoon, Mr President. We work in the Baltic Shipyard, where we build the most powerful and the largest icebreakers in the world. However, my question is not related to industrial matters. Many residents of this wonderful city, myself included, are eager to hear your personal perspective on the future of St Isaac’s Cathedral.

As someone who was born and grew up in St Petersburg, do you think that it would be right for the city to keep the cathedral and preserve it as a museum and an architectural landmark or transfer it to the Russian Orthodox Church?

“Vladimir Putin: I did not expect this question, especially from the Baltic Shipyard.

What I can say is that Russia is a secular state. This is the way it was created, and it will stay this way. This is my first point.

Second, after the October Revolution, the state went to great lengths to destroy our spiritual and religious roots, and was unwavering and cruel in pursuing this objective. Many churches were razed to the ground.

Back then the state attempted to come up with a quasi-religion and replace the Bible with the Moral Code of the Builder of Communism. It did not work. Many cathedrals were demolished; many priests perished, were killed, sent to camps or executed by firing squads.

And the traces of what happened back then are all around us. Here in Moscow, not far from where we now are, the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour was razed to the ground. It was not uncommon for churches to be used as stables or workshops. Thank God St Isaac’s Cathedral was spared.

You know, of course I looked into this issue. It is true that this cathedral never belonged to the Church. Throughout its history it was operated by the state. However, the Tsar used to be the head of the Church, so if we see it this way, the Church did own the building. It was built as a cathedral, as a church, not a museum. It was intended for worship, for people to pray there.

And what did they do there in the Soviet days? They set up Foucault’s pendulum to demonstrate the rotation of the earth. In fact, it was a museum of atheism, a quasi museum of atheism. In a sense, it was a subtle mockery of people’s religious feelings. However, hundreds of thousands, millions of people, including foreigners, visit it. There is no getting away from this fact.

So yes, we have a law passed, I believe, in 2010 on the transfer of religious buildings to religious organisations, and we are supposed to enforce it. At the same time, we have international obligations and other laws that ban the transfer of architectural landmarks under UNESCO protection. There are some disagreements, but I believe we can easily overcome them if we ensure both museum activity and the exercise of religious beliefs. I do not want to jump ahead of myself, but such solutions have been found in other countries. Say, St Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican – people go there and there are guided tours.

Therefore, it is important to depoliticise this problem, to stop thinking about it as such, to respect people’s religious feelings and never forget that this building and structure was built as a church, not as a museum. Nevertheless, it should retain its function as a museum, of course.

How can these interrelations be fostered? As a matter of fact, it is not so difficult. Simply, there should be no agitation, no exploitation of this issue. People should not be provoked and used as a tool in some petty internal political squabbling.”

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