Saint Isaac’s debate

While I was writing yesterdays’s post, I remember an interesting fact about Saint Isaac’s Cathedral, which I discovered last time I was in Saint Petersburg. I decided it deserves “a post on its own”.

Every year more than three million people visit this Unesco World Heritage site. It is definitely one of the city’s most important landmarks and it also played an important role in World War II, when On its top, in the skylight, a geodesical intersection point was placed, to determine the positions of German artillery batteries, so the people of Saint Petersburg feel a bond with the Cathedral (which also hosts a permanent exhibition on the Leningrad blockade). But on January 10, 2017 Georgy Poltavchenko, the Governor of St. Petersburg , announced that the Cathedral would be transferred to the Russian Orthodox Church for a period of 49 years (but it also stipulates that the “cathedral will preserve its museum and educational function”).

This is not, by any means, an isolated instance, as the Russian Orthodox Church has reportedly already received 184 buildings from the state since 2015. It is, however, one of the most important buildings to ever undergo this “change of management” and city authorities have previously refused requests to hand over the cathedral to the church. Church officials have pledged that tourist activities will continue, but opponents of the move doubt that the promises can be kept. Boris Vishnyovsky, a city council member, said he would challenge the decision in court.

There is also a petition on (understandably, in Russian), which is rapidly approaching the 300.000 signatures goal to repel this plan.


There are a few main reasons for this opposition. The most obvious one is that a lot of people feel this building is now part of the city’s and the state’s own heritage and as such it should not return to be a place of religious only worship. Another important concern is that under the church’s control, the cathedral would lose most of its income as it would not be allowed to charge an admission fee (as declared by Boris Vishnyovsky). This comes as a huge surprise to me: as a European and Italian I am quite used to seeing religious buildings, owned and run by the Catholic church, where you have to pay a significant (if not steep) entrance fee! Nikolai Burov, director of the state museum organisation, fears that the transfer would lead to the “destruction of the museum in its current form as a museum complex” and put most of the current 393 employees out of work. A statement by the Museums Union of Russia echoes this sentiment by explicitly saying that a handover of control would result in the “liquidation of one of the most successful museums” in the country.

What do you think about this? Do you believe the Cathedral should go back to its original function or should it remain a museum in its current form? I am looking forward to your comments!

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6 thoughts on “Saint Isaac’s debate

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  1. Now what could have motivated the Governor to consider such a decisions. I wonder. Changing the management of the site could jeopardize the status of the cathedral as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. I’ll be interested in following this little drama!


    1. The “balance of power” between State and Church (and this goes for all religions) in Russia is a delicate one today and I am guessing there is also a sense of need to “make amends” for what the previous government did to the religious institutions during Soviet times… I will try to stay up-to-date on this and write more when there are new developments!


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