Why Russia Wants Its Orthodox Churches Back

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Lionel Cironneau / AP

The Russian Orthodox Cathedral of Saint Nicholas in Nice, France

Though not even two decades have passed since the Soviet state collapsed in 1991, the Orthodox Russians who came to France to flee communism say they're starting to view Moscow with mistrust again. The reason: the recent move by Russia to take control of a dazzling Orthodox cathedral built in Nice during the reign of Czar Nicholas II, which some opponents say is part a wider, nationalistic power play by Moscow to regain symbols of Russia's historical, cultural and religious grandeur abroad.

The tussle centers on the Cathedral of Saint Nicholas — a breathtaking church topped with spires and domes that was built in 1912 on land that Nicholas' grandfather Alexander II had purchased half a century earlier. Initially intended as a place of worship for the Russian aristocrats and industrialists who flocked to the Côte d'Azur before the 1917 Russian Revolution, the cathedral became a spiritual and cultural focal point for the mass of exiles who fled to Nice during the Soviet era. Since the fall of communism nearly 19 years ago, the so-called white Russian community and its offspring have been joined by Russian jet-setters who've grown extremely wealthy under the country's current leadership and bought pricey mansions in Nice to use as their second homes.

To the Russian diaspora, as well as the 85,000 paying tourists who visit the church every year, the Cathedral of Saint Nicholas has represented a slice of Mother Russia on the shores of the Mediterranean. And that's exactly the logic the Russian government used to win a court case in France on Jan. 20 that recognized Moscow's ownership of the church. The Nice Russian Orthodox Cultural Association (ACOR), which managed the church under a 99-year lease it signed with the czarist regime in 1909, had maintained that it effectively inherited the cathedral when Russia's royal family was executed during the revolution. But the court upheld the Russian government's position that since the czarists had bought the land and built the church using state money, the cathedral remains the property of the Russian government, meaning that Moscow could legally reclaim it now that ACOR's lease has expired. Decades of Soviet uninterest in the property, the court decided, did not undermine Russia's entitlement to it today.

ACOR, which says it will appeal the ruling, has derided the case as yet another attempt by Russian leaders to manipulate the Orthodox Church for political and nationalistic purposes. Under the Soviet regime, communist leaders enlisted Russian Orthodox officials to fan patriotism and encourage support for the state among the population, in return for which the authorities held back from stamping out the religion for good. Now detractors say that Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and his government allies are similarly seeking to gain public support by reclaiming relics of Russia's former greatness abroad to stoke patriotism among voters.

"It's a tradition that goes back to Ivan the Terrible and Peter the Great, in which political leaders used symbols of Russian grandeur — including an entirely submissive church — to create greater support for the regime," says Jean Gueit, rector of the Nice cathedral. "Russian society has been so disoriented and adrift following the changes of the past 20 years that Putin is playing the old nationalist game to snap people out of it by responding to simplistic messages and emotions. Part of that is rebuilding the equally shattered Russian Orthodox Church and help it snatch up all these parishes abroad."

Indeed, the Cathedral of Saint Nicholas is not the only prize catching Moscow's eye. Last year Italy agreed to cede ownership of a similarly spectacular cathedral in Bari to the Russian Orthodox Church, and the year before that, Paris did the same with a cathedral there. And last October, Israel agreed to turn over a building in Jerusalem known as "Sergei's Courtyard" that was constructed in 1890 to accommodate Russian pilgrims to the Holy Land. Moscow is also currently in a legal battle over control of London's St. Andrews Cathedral, home to a large Orthodox congregation.

But Moscow's drive isn't just about real estate and nationalism. Critics say the government is also trying to bring back into the fold the congregations that broke with the Russian Orthodox Church during the Soviet era to join a rival Orthodox branch, the Patriarchate of Constantinople — as the faithful in Nice did in 1931. Many of these overseas congregations have started to restore their ties to the Russian Orthodox Church in recent years, though Gueit says this is only in response to the government's putting the squeeze on their churches.

The Nice congregation isn't planning to rejoin the Russian church anytime soon. In fact, Gueit says the congregation wants to stake out an independent, pan-Orthodox position by breaking with the Constantinople Patriarchate too. He hopes to then attract other congregations to his nonaligned movement — whether he has a cathedral to use as his base or not.