It cost twice the price of Alaska, took more than 40 years to build during the 19th century, and is the fourth largest church in the world. The immense, golden-domed St. Isaac's Cathedral dominates the skyline of historic St. Petersburg, occupies a special place in the hearts of its citizens, and is a main tourist attraction. It's been a state museum for 80-plus years, is a UNESCO heritage site, and receives 4 million paying visitors per year.
But Isaaki, as locals call it, is suddenly at the center of the most passionate political conflict this city has seen in years, after Gov. Georgy Poltavchenko unexpectedly announced last month that the huge cathedral is to be transferred to the Russian Orthodox Church before the year is out.
That triggered a wave of public controversy, with about 8,000 St. Petersburgers coming out one Sunday to hold hands in protective rings around the enormous cathedral, and to engage every weekend since in dueling demonstrations with supporters of the handover. An online petition opposing the move has since garnered more than 200,000 signatures, and the heads of major Russian museums such as the Kremlin and the Hermitage have publicly begged the church to calm public unease by withdrawing the request for its return.
And the controversy is just the most high-profile example to date of the ongoing campaign by the Russian Orthodox Church to regain religious properties seized by the Bolsheviks after the Russian Revolution – a campaign that church authorities argue is a matter of historical justice, but others see as a power grab that overlooks public interests.
"The handover of St. Isaac Cathedral in St. Petersburg comes in a year that marks the centennial of the Russian Revolution, so it may become a symbol of national reconciliation," Patriarch Kirill said last week in his first public comment on the subject. "In the past, the destruction of churches and mass killings of believers carved out a horrible chapter in the book of our history and indicated a division in the nation. But now, the peaceful atmosphere surrounding the churches returned to the believers should become a symbol of accord and mutual forgiveness."
The director of St. Isaac's Museum, Nikolai Burov, says he thought the issue had been satisfactorily resolved back in 1990, when a deal allowed for regular services to be held in a side-chapel of the cavernous cathedral. There are now about two such services daily, usually attended by fewer than 30 people, which don't interfere with the much larger flow of paying tourists. On major holidays, much larger services take place.
"We have good relations with the local parish. Entry for worshipers and pilgrims is, of course, free. And the museum takes care of all the expenses," he says. "Until now, this arrangement has worked very well."
But Vitaly Milonov, a conservative member of the State Duma, says that setup is demeaning to the church.
"St. Isaac's is a museum with the possibility to hold occasional services," he says. "That cannot suit Christians, who are compelled to witness one of Russia's main cathedrals reduced to a trade center, a big souvenir shop, where priests are part of the show."
Critics include political activists who say the abrupt decision, made without any public consultation, must be opposed as a basic matter of civil rights. They complain that the church, which increasingly uses its influence to promote socially conservative causes such as anti-LGBT legislation or to rail against the modern status of women, is conspiring with political authorities to take over publicly loved symbols like St. Isaac's without obtaining any kind of democratic consent.
Local tour operators fear church management will deter visitors by enforcing dress codes: women should cover their heads, men should take off their hats, and no shorts or short skirts should be worn by anyone. They are also concerned that photography will be curbed and secular content may be removed from the lectures given by guides. Some 400 museum workers worry about losing their jobs.
"In the Leningrad region [where St. Petersburg is located] there are a huge number of ruined churches and monasteries that cry out for restoration," says Andrei Pivovarov, an activist of the liberal Parnas party, who argues that Isaaki is being traded to the church for political favors at the expense of public interests. "The church shows little interest in taking those projects on. They want famous objects that have already been restored by the state."
But an even bigger issue is the church's insistence that entry fees will be abolished, since a house of worship must be open to all. For many years, the 250-ruble ($4.30) admission paid by tourists has funded not only the cathedral's upkeep, but also the restoration of several other local churches. Now, while management and daily costs will pass to the church, formal ownership of the vast building and the ongoing restoration expenses will remain a public burden. And there is concern about the church's ability to maintain St. Isaac's magnificent interior as effectively as state museum workers have.
"There are a lot of reasons why the Isaaki situation has triggered so much public irritation, and brought a lot of different people out to protest," says Boris Vishnevsky, a city councilor who is leading the battle against the handover. "It's not such an unusual kind of decision in this city, but somehow this one hit a raw nerve."
The process of returning properties from state to church usage has been under way for some time, as the Kremlin seeks the political support of religious authorities and the church looks to regain its lost czarist-era prestige. Several famous sites around St. Petersburg have been handed back in recent years without even a murmur from the public. Around Moscow, about two dozen historic monasteries have been returned, including the famous Novodevichy convent. Similar battles between the church and museum workers around the country have inevitably ended with the transfer of even longstanding museums back to religious use. [Editor's note: The original version misstated the name of the Novodevichy convent.]
"This is a mark of respect to our ancestors, who built St. Isaac's to be a house of God," says Natalya Rodomanova, communications director for the St. Petersburg church authority. "You have to remember, in St. Petersburg before the Revolution there were 500 churches and monasteries for a population of just 2 million people. Today there are just 200 churches, for over 5 million people. So how can people say the church already has enough?"
It's more complicated than that, say critics. In fact, all the churches in Russia were effectively state property for more than 300 years, since Peter the Great abolished the patriarchy, made the czar head of the Russian Orthodox Church, and transformed the priesthood into a wing of the state bureaucracy.
Ironically, the Bolsheviks restored the church's independence, at least in theory, but persecuted believers and repurposed thousands of church properties as factories, storehouses, and hostels. For a time after 1931, St. Isaac's was used as an anti-religion museum, and later a World War II bunker. After 1945, its interior frescoes, icons, and alcoves, and its neoclassical exterior were fully restored, and it became the prime tourist attraction that it remains today.
What about a compromise?
Public opinion on the proposed handover of St. Isaac's is hard to gauge, since no major polls appear to have so far addressed the issue. Although more than 70 percent of Russians self-identify as Orthodox Christians, polls show that barely 5 percent of them go to services regularly.
City councilman Mr. Vishnevsky admits the majority of local legislators support the church's handover. But he adds that protests against it are justified.
"The authorities don't consider it necessary to consult public opinion. We want them to at least listen to our concerns."
Many people say a compromise solution in which Isaaki was shared would be best. In theory, both Mr. Burov, the museum director, and representatives of the church, seem to agree with that.
"We see that the people leading these protests are heads of opposition parties that appeal to protest voters. They seem only interested in fanning anti-clerical moods," says Ms. Rodomanova, the church spokeswoman.
However, she adds, "we do not want to see political passions stirred up around this issue. Emotions are running high among both supporters and opponents. It would not be good to provoke any actions that might destabilize the situation. So, we are open for dialogue and hope it will be solved" in an amicable way, she says.