The stunning 16th-century fortified convent of Novodevichy, a pearl of Russian architecture nestled in a broad bend of the Moskva River about three miles from the Kremlin, is at the heart of a tense battle. Cultural secularists want the UNESCO Heritage Site to remain a state-run museum, but the Kremlin has made a political decision to return the entire complex to the stewardship of the Russian Orthodox Church.
In January, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin ordered the handover, which will make Novodevichy a fully functioning convent for the first time since the Bolsheviks seized the property almost a century ago. But the directive may also force museums to relinquish thousands of icons and other worship-related items that originally belonged to the site, so they, too, can be used once again in religious ceremonies.
Novodevichy is the last of about 20 Moscow-area monasteries to be returned to the church, along with hundreds of similar buildings around the country, in a process that church spokespeople and nationalist politicians in the State Duma hail as "historical justice."
But critics allege the mass giveaway of art and real estate to the church endangers precious artifacts, removes vast swaths of Russia's heritage from the public sphere, and cements a controversial political compact between church and Kremlin.
"Novodevichy is an outstanding historical monument, and it should be left to professionals to preserve it," says Alexei Lebedev, with the Institute of Cultural Studies in Moscow, which is run by the Ministry of Culture. "This process of 'demuseumification' that's going on now is a sign of serious social illness. The church is not an institution dedicated to preserving the heritage of history and culture, it has a different mission. It's not going to be their keeper, and that's a potential tragedy."
Church leader: 'This is a sacred place'
Church leaders, however, insist the returned assets are needed to serve Russia's huge Orthodox community, who associate the historical buildings and objects with the foundations of their faith.
"Novodevichy is an ancient convent that has been at the center of our nation's spiritual life for centuries," says Sergei Zvonaryov, a spokesman for the patriarch, who is the head of the Russian Orthodox Church. "It was created for this purpose, and every Russian believer knows of it. This is a sacred place, and with its transference Novodevichy will again become a place of prayer, a place one can associate with God."
No one is exactly sure how many churches and monasteries have been given back since "restitution" began in earnest about a decade ago. But the director of Russia's State History Museum, Alexander Shkurko, says about two-thirds of all former church buildings nationalized by the Communists have already been returned, and he would like to see the new legislation being drafted in the State Duma set some limits on the handovers and require the church to cooperate with the museum service.
"There are thousands of specialists working in museums who love these places and objects and are professionally qualified to take care of them," he says. "The church should be interested in working with us. But, unfortunately, the laws do not so far provide any role for the state museums after these places have been handed over. Nor is there any clarity on the final aim of this process."
The church estimates that more than 70 percent of Russians are Orthodox, but critics say that statistic includes every ethnic Russian. An opinion survey conducted in March by the state-run Public Opinion Foundation found that two-thirds of respondents did indeed self-identify as "Orthodox Christian."
Violating separation of church and state?
But when asked if they observe religious rites and festivals, the vast majority answered no. For example, 80 percent said they do not attend church regularly.
"It's not at all clear that the church needs all these structures and, in any case, why is it being given all the most prominent ones, which have already been fully restored by the state museums?" asks Konstantin Mikhailov, coordinator of Arkhnadzor, an independent preservationist society. "Why don't they take some of the thousands of derelict churches around the country and restore them for use by believers?"
The church insists it will maintain public access and preserve the monuments to the level that state museums have.
"Novodevichy will be open to the public just as before," says Mr. Zvonaryov. "Of course, there are some special rules of life in a monastery, but that won't affect visitors.... The Soviets turned Novodevichy into a museum, but it can't go on that way. It has to be alive."
Some critics allege the Kremlin is violating the spirit of Russia's 1993 Constitution, which mandates separation of church and state, by restoring the Orthodox Church to its traditional czarist-era role as ideological pillar of the government. They say that the policy was authored by Putin, who turned away from democratic ways of securing public consent, and resorted to buying the backing of the church.
"The growing role of religious organizations can cause problems, but the majority of our society insists upon this," says Sergei Markov, a pro-Kremlin member of the State Duma's committee on religious affairs.
"Russia lacks fully developed institutions, and people don't fully trust the state, but they do believe the church can be relied on," he says. "Putin and Medvedev believe that sometimes the law has to be bent in order to solve problems. [Cooperation between Kremlin and church] is a practical necessity at this stage."