Saturday, April 13, 2013

Window on Eurasia: Moscow Steps Up Efforts to Reclaim Russian Church Property Abroad

Paul Goble

            Staunton, April 13 –Russian Orthodox churches constructed abroad before 1917 belonged to the Russian state, lawyers say, and consequently, as a recent French decision about the Orthodox Cathedral in Nice confirms, the Russian government has every right to reclaim all of them as its state property, a Russian activist in France argues.

            Such an expansive reading of the Nice decision suggests that some in Russian church and political circles believe they can increase their efforts to gain control of these churches, efforts that would further weaken independent Russian Orthodox congregations abroad and give Moscow control of some extremely valuable real estate in key cities around the world.

            On Wednesday, a French appeals court ruled in favor of the Russian government’s claim that it and not the Orthodox congregation at Nice is the legal owner of the St. Nicholas Cathedral in that southern French city, thus apparently ending a decade of controversy and a four-year-long legal proceeding, although a further appeal is possible.

            The Russian Service of Radio France International featured interviews  with Dmitry Litvinsky, a Franco-Russian lawyer, and Nikita Krivoshein, a Russian émigré activist, about the implications of this case ( and

            Litvinsky argued that the Nice case was “above all” about financial interests and control over a specific piece of property, but he added that no one could ignore that it also had religious consequences because the court’s decision means that the Moscow Patriarchate rather than the Universal Patriarchate will have control of the facility.

            When property for the Nice church was purchased in 1865, the lawyer continued, it was the position of the Russian state that the property belonged to Tsar Aleksandr II “personally.”  The Orthodox community of Nice disputed that, but neither the French court of first instance nor the appeals court accepted its argument.

            The French court followed the international legal principle of “legal continuity” of states, a principle that “means that even when there are significant political and economic changes in a country, such as a change of regime which brings new people to power, the state as such does not cease its existence.”

            The Soviet Union ceased to exist in 1991, he noted, but “today the Russian Federation acts as the official legal successor of the USSR both with regard to its obligations and also concerning its possible claims.” And at the same time, the Russian Federation is “the legal successor of both the USSR and the Russian Empire.”

             Krivoshein offered an even more expansive reading of the French court’s decision on the Nice facility.  On the one hand, he suggested that Moscow had tried to reach an accommodation with the Orthodox community there. But on the other, he said that it is the Russian state rather than the Russian church whose interests are most directly involved.

            Asked to explain this and why the Russian government rather than the Moscow Patriarchate had brought suit in this case, he pointed to the legal situation that existed before 1917 when the state and church were not separate and when the state was the owner of all property used by the church.

            Now that the Russian state has won this case, Krivoshein added, it will retain ownership even though it will allow the Russian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate to use it. That, of course, will further entwine the state and the church in Russia and give the state an even larger voice in church affairs, despite the provisions of the Russian Constitution.

            He added in conclusion that in his view, “all churches built in the 19th century by the Russian Empire in Western Europe should undoubtedly be returned to their lawful owner, that is, to Russia,” including such prominent facilities as the Aleksandr Nevsky Cathedral on the Rue Daru in Paris, an indication that Moscow is set to become more active in this sphere.

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