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St. Petersburg Split Over Cathedral Handover

Opponents say decision highlights growing influence of Orthodox Church in Russian life.

16 February 2017

St. Petersburg Governor Georgi Poltavchenko’s decision to hand ownership of St. Isaac’s Cathedral to the Orthodox Church has divided Russia’s second largest city.


The huge, domed structure was built in the 18th century with government funds and has never been under church ownership.  Supporters and opponents of the decision have held rallies and an online petition drive against church ownership has so far gathered more than 210,000 signatures.


Opponents fear that the acquisition of the cathedral will give a green light to the church to take control over other cultural and historical properties of religious significance. 


st isaacs cathedral protests 350Protesters rally against the handover of St. Isaac's Cathedral to the Russian Orthodox Church. Image via Mihail Rishov/Facebook.


Protesters see the decision as another example of the increasing influence of the Orthodox Church in Russia's political life and the preferential treatment of Orthodox believers over, The New York Times reports. 


Opposition to the handover is being led by cultural figures in the city that claims to be Russia’s cultural capital.


St. Isaacs has been used as a museum for much of the past century. The head of the museum complex comprising the cathedral claimed its museum would be devastated if the church took control, while the director of the city’s famed Hermitage, Mikhail Piotrovsky said the handover represents a “savage provincialization of St. Petersburg,” the Calvert Journal writes.


The conflict over the transfer has spread into politics, with two rightwing State Duma deputies directing anti-Semitic remarks at Boris Vishnevsky and Maxim Reznik, the St. Petersburg city councilmen who led protests against the handover.


Vishnevsky rejected Duma member Vitaly Mironov’s public apology for his remark and said he was consulting lawyers regarding possible legal action against him.


In January Poltavchenko told TASS that, despite the protests, the transfer will certainly take place, at the same time saying the cathedral will retain its function as a museum and remain accessible to people of all faiths.



  • St. Isaac’s Cathedral is included in the UNESCO list of world heritage sites. The listing does not prohibit daily church services in the building.


  • The director of the city’s Museum of Four Cathedrals will soon be managing only one, the Calvert Journal says. The Smolny Cathedral and the church of St. Sampson are now under church management, leaving only the Cathedral of the Savior on the Spilled Blood fully under secular control once St. Isaac’s is transferred  to church ownership.


  • Amid the cathedral controversy Milonov was recently caught shopping for embargoed fish in Finland, RFE reports. While perfectly legal, his actions were seen as highly unpatriotic, as he supports the embargo on European Union goods.

Compiled by Liga Rudzite

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Moldovan diaries

The Moldovan Diaries is a multimedia, interactive examination of the country's ethnic, religious, social and political identities by Paolo Paterlini and Cesare De Giglio.

This innovative approach to story telling gives voice to ordinary people and takes the reader on the virtual trip across Moldovan rural and urban landscapes. 

It is a unique and intimate map of the nation.


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