Thou­sands rally against trans­fer of Rus­sian cathe­dral to sect

Sanc­tu­ary that houses mu­seum to be given to Ortho­dox Church

The Washington Post Sunday - - SUNDAY OPINION - BY IRINA TITOVA

st. peters­burg — More than 2,000 peo­ple ral­lied in St. Peters­burg on Saturday to protest plans by the city au­thor­i­ties to give a land­mark cathe­dral to the Rus­sian Ortho­dox Church amid an in­creas­ingly pas­sion­ate de­bate over the re­la­tion­ship be­tween the church and state.

“We won’t give St. Isaac’s to the church. We want to save it as a mu­seum,” Boris Vish­nevsky, a lo­cal lawmaker, told pro­test­ers in cen­tral St. Peters­burg.

“St. Isaac’s Cathe­dral is part of our cul­tural her­itage. There are so many valu­able ex­hibits that re­quire the work of mu­seum spe­cial­ists. The Rus­sian Ortho­dox Church does not have those spe­cial­ists,” said Irina Az­bel, 43, a doc­tor, who was among those protest­ing.

A few dozen coun­ter­protesters gath­ered in the same place to sup­port the plans. “The return of the cathe­dral to the church is a return to our na­tional roots,” said Ye­lena Se­my­onova, 52, a pro­fes­sor.

The an­nounce­ment ear­lier this month that the neo­clas­si­cal St. Isaac’s Cathe­dral, which is run as a mu­seum, will be put un­der Ortho­dox Church own­er­ship has sparked a back­lash from city res­i­dents. More than 200,000 peo­ple have signed an on­line pe­ti­tion call­ing on the city au­thor­i­ties to re­con­sider.

Prom­i­nent cul­tural fig­ures in­clud­ing the di­rec­tor of St. Peters­burg’s world-renowned Her­mitage Mu­seum have crit­i­cized the de­ci­sion.

Speak­ers at Saturday’s protest said that the gath­er­ing was the first stage of a civil cam­paign aim­ing to keep St. Isaac’s un­der state con­trol.

St. Isaac’s, one of the most vis­ited tourist sites in Rus­sia’s old im­pe­rial cap­i­tal, has been a mu­seum since 1917. Some ex­perts are con­cerned that when it gains own­er­ship the Ortho­dox Church will ne­glect the ex­hibits on dis­play, which in­clude a rare Fou­cault pen­du­lum.

The han­dover has been seen as in­dica­tive of the grow­ing power of the Ortho­dox Church and part of a trend of so­cial con­ser­vatism in Rus­sia, where Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin has ap­pealed to tra­di­tional val­ues as op­posed to Western lib­er­al­ism to help tighten his grip on so­ci­ety.

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