Who should have the last word?

The Economist‘s Erasmus wrote last Sunday about the “row” concerning Saint Isaac’s Cathedral in Saint Petersburg:

After the Bolshevik revolution a century ago, [the building] became a museum, dedicated at various times to science, atheism or simply its own history. Services have been held there since the fall of communism, but it continued to be administered as a secular tourist attraction.

However last month, the regional governor announced a dramatic change: the control of the building would be transferred to the church for at least 49 years, although the city would retain the title deeds…

The announcement triggered a civic furore…

I wish some of the opponents of this move would argue along the following lines. St. Isaac’s is a national treasure even if, due to an accident of post-Soviet history, it has come to be owned by the city of St. Petersburg. The city’s mayor should not be able to transfer away buildings of such enormous value and significance without the consent of his constituents or the whole nation. (The incumbent mayor of St. Petersburg, officially styled governor, has not been elected by popular vote, in contrast to his Moscow counterpart.) It’s unimaginable that the mayor of Moscow could have similar authority over St. Basil’s or any of the Kremlin cathedrals.

As for legal arguments against this long-term lease, it appears that a bill enacted in 2010 allows regional governors to transfer buildings to religious organizations if these buildings were originally intended for religious use. The bill also covers the case of “monuments of culture,” allowing for them to be handed over with special conditions. One could argue that St Isaac’s was built by a caesaropapist regime for purposes well beyond Christian worship, but that would be a thorny route to take.


  1. From what I can tell, this is simply the vehicle by which a lot of people’s displeasure at the Church is being made known, specifically what the Church has become and how embedded it is in corrupt politics. Leviathan covered this subject in some detail, and I don’t think the situation has improved much since.

    • Few people actually go to church in Russia so corruption within the organization is not of particular concern to most Russians. It’s only when the church started pushing the limits too hard that people went from shrugging their shoulders to getting angry. It got really bad under the current Patriarch, a wannabe Eastern Pope. But this particular standoff is also about the governor’s indifference to public opinion in the city.

      • Few people actually go to church in Russia so corruption within the organization is not of particular concern to most Russians.

        No, I meant their often supporting, or colluding with, the corruption of the state.

        • That’s neither new nor peculiar to Putin’s era, although Kirill’s ambition for secular power is unprecedented. To understand the church as an organization, you have to bear in mind two things. First, the divide between the black and the white clergy, that is the bishops and the parish priests and deacons. The clerical villain in Leviathan is a bishop. Second, the origins of the present-day Russian Orthodox Church as an organization, dating back to the concordat of 1943 and the so-called Sergianism.

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