St Isaac’s Cathedral in St Petersburg is no ordinary church. Built in the 18th century, its huge golden dome — the fourth largest in the world — dominates the skyline of the former imperial capital. It is as much a symbol of the city as the Vatican in Rome or St Paul’s in London. It is a lightning rod for residents during times of mourning or celebration. Last year it hosted services for those mourning the loss of hundreds of local residents killed returning from Egypt in a plane brought down over the Sinai Peninsula by a terrorist bomb. 

Last month, City Hall controversially decided to hand over management of the iconic cathedral to the Russian Orthodox Church, a move that has prompted large street demonstrations – a rare phenomenon in modern Russia – and a vicious war of words. 

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    St Isaac’s cathedral dominates the St Petersburg skyline (4 my friends under a CC licence)

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    A view of St Isaac’s from the River Neva (brando.n under a CC licence)

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    St Isaac’s cathedral at night (Dmitry Khatov under a CC licence)

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    The interior of St Isaac’s (BRJ INC. under a CC licence)

Museum directors and cultural figures in St Petersburg have led the charge against the changes. The head of the Museum complex that includes St Isaac’s, Nikolai Burov, has warned that the decision is a mistake and that the loss of the cathedral will mean the “liquidation” of the museum it houses. Mikhail Piotrovsky, the director of the Hermitage, said the handover represents a “savage provincialisation of St Petersburg” and has requested a meeting with the Patriarch. 

It is hard not to agree with Piotrovsky. St Petersburg prides itself on being Russia’s cultural capital, and handing over landmark buildings to a resurgent Orthodox Church, with its own agenda and priorities, is obviously fraught with risk. In the case of St Isaac’s, the Church’s claims are historically baseless: it was never owned by the Orthodox Church. It was constructed with government funds and has never left the control of the state, whether tsarist or Soviet. 

Burov’s official title is Director of the Museum of Four Cathedrals in St Petersburg. Soon, however, he will be managing only one. Last year, the city authorities ceded management of the iconic Smolny Cathedral, perched on the Neva River, to the Church. Early in February, Burov handed over the keys to St Sampson’s, one of the city’s oldest religious buildings. Once St Isaac’s has been formally transferred to the Church, he will oversee only the Cathedral of the Saviour on the Spilled Blood, built on the spot where Tsar Alexander II was assassinated in 1881, just off the city’s main thoroughfare of Nevsky Prospekt. 

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    The Saviour on the Spilt Blood cathedral in central St Petersburg (Jorge Lascar under a CC licence)

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    The interior of the Saviour on the Spilt Blood (BRJ INC. under a CC licence)

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    The Smolny cathedral, which has already passed into the hands of the Russian Orthodox Church (David Casteel under a CC licence)

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    The Smolny cathedral at night (Oleg Kovalenko under a CC licence)

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    St Sampson’s cathedral, one of the oldest in St Petersburg (Aleksandr Razumov under a CC licence)

With these moves in mind, perhaps the most important reason for current high tempers is that both sides see St Isaac’s as a test case. Opponents fear the cathedral’s acquisition will embolden the Church to seek control of other cultural and historical monuments of religious significance. The Orthodox Church’s real estate portfolio has grown rapidly in recent years: a 2010 law — the basis for the handover of St Isaac’s — mandates the transfer of religious properties to Church control. In the wake of the decision on St Isaac’s, the Church has reportedly already submitted a formal request to take over the Cathedral of the Saviour on the Spilled Blood — a move that, if approved, would seal its control of all St Petersburg’s landmark cathedrals. 

It is impossible to dismiss Burov’s fears that the museum in St Isaac’s (which includes works by French neoclassical architect Auguste de Montferrand and many Russian artists) will be broken up or neglected by its new owners. When St Sampson’s Cathedral was handed to the Orthodox Church, for instance, an exhibition about the Battle of Poltava was removed. There are also worries over public access and whether the Church will respect the building’s legacy and recent history. 

Dissatisfaction is not restricted to cultural elites. On a recent foggy Saturday, about 2,000 people attended a protest in the centre of the city calling for the decision to be cancelled. Over 200,000 have signed an online petition. 

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    Protesters gather outside St Isaac’s cathedral in January 2017 (Alexei Kouprianov under a CC licence)

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    A protester holds up a sign reading ‘Museum’ (Alexei Kouprianov under a CC licence)

It is also hard to sympathise with the Church’s claim given the ugly rhetoric of some of its prominent sympathisers. Pyotr Tolstoy, the deputy speaker of the Duma (a chamber of the Russian parliament), invoked the Pale of Settlement – the area to which Jews were confined under the Tsarist Empire – when he described those trying to block the handover as “the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of those who destroyed our churches, who shot out of the Pale of Settlement with revolvers in 1917.”

Tolstoy’s language seems more reminiscent of the 19th than the 21st century. And it only fuels fears that St Isaac’s is being handed over to a group of dangerous obscurantists. 

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    The newly-built St Vladimir Cathedral above the antique ruins at Chersonesus (Alexxx Malev under a CC licence)

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    Ruins of antique fortifications at Chersonesus (Alexxx Malev under a CC licence)

Perhaps most dangerously of all, calls have also been heard in recent weeks for the Church to take over parts of Chersonesus, the site of an Ancient Greek colony on the Crimean peninsula annexed by Russia from Ukraine in 2014. Chersonesus is imbued with significance for Orthodox believers as the site of the baptism of Vladimir the Great, the leader who converted the medieval Slavic state of Kievan Rus to Christianity. The long pre-Christian history of Chersonesus, which stretches back millennia, would be under threat of being sidelined or damaged under Orthodox management. 

But Chersonesus’s recent history of resisting such encroachments offers some hopeful lessons. In 2015, the local governor replaced the head of the Chersonesus National Park with a priest. In the ensuing scandal, museum staff went on strike until the Ministry of Culture caved in and appointed a new director. Those opposed to a resurgent Orthodox Church should prepare for further struggle.

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