Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has ordered the handover of about 20 Moscow-area monasteries to the Russian Orthodox Church, returning properties seized during the Bolshevik Revolution almost a century ago.
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 Min-ister 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. …