In January St. Petersburg Governor Georgy Poltavchenko announced that Saint Isaac’s Cathedral would be returned to the Russian Orthodox Church via a free lease for 49 years. Given that the Communists had seized the Cathedral in the 1930s, one might naturally expect that someday it be returned.
The Soviets desecrated the Cathedral by converting it into the Museum of Atheism. Now the church would like to have it back, but some citizens are against the idea. Services are allowed on special church holidays and a small group of priests serve in a side chapel most weekdays.
Opponents point out that it is the largest Orthodox basilica and the fourth largest cathedral in the world by capacity (14,000 persons). It is a UNESCO world heritage site visited by nearly 4 million tourists every year. Thus, they say it is important for the church to remain as a museum controlled and operated by the state.
The Russian Orthodox Church takes a different view. The Cathedral was built and financed by citizens who intended for it to serve as a house of worship and to be operated by the Orthodox Church.
Today as a state museum, visitors pay 250-rubles (approximately $4.50) for admission. The church plans to abolish that fee, saying that no one should have to pay to enter the house of God. Opponents fear that with 4 million tourists annually, the church will not be able to handle maintenance, guest services, and upkeep of the Cathedral.
As readers might expect, the Patriarch has weighed in on the matter. Speaking to reporters, Patriarch Kirill said that after years of seizure, imprisonment and desecration during the Soviet period, “The return of these churches can become a symbol of harmony and mutual forgiveness.”
The governor is now proposing a city-wide referendum on the fate of the Cathedral and it is up to the city Legislative Assembly to decide if, and when, such a referendum will be held.
Russia’s most recognized symbol, the Cathedral of Saint Basil on Moscow’s Red Square, remains a museum operated by the state.
(photo credits: Creative Commons)