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Russia Unveils Cultural, Orthodox Jewel On The Seine

  • Antoine Blua

The complex is widely seen as a grand expression of Moscow's quest to project the image of a powerful, religious Russia, and assert itself as a champion of traditional values.

The complex is widely seen as a grand expression of Moscow's quest to project the image of a powerful, religious Russia, and assert itself as a champion of traditional values.

A massive Russian "spiritual and cultural center," crowned by a golden-domed Orthodox cathedral, is opening its gates in downtown Paris, thrusting Russian religious and political outreach to the fore in one of Europe's most prestigious and influential capitals.

The complex is widely seen as a grand expression of Moscow's quest to project the image of a powerful, religious Russia, and assert itself as a champion of traditional values.

Its construction has been marred by architectural, financial, and political disputes and shadowed by fears that it could help an increasingly assertive Russia spy on French officials or sow division within an already quarrelsome European Union.

Highlighting its symbolic importance, the October 19 unveiling was due to be attended by President Vladimir Putin until the Russian leader last week nixed his planned visit amid a row with France and Western powers over the continuing war in Syria.

The cathedral was reportedly first proposed in 2007 by the head of the Russian Orthodox Church at the time, the late Patriarch Aleksii II, during his historic visit to the French capital.

The cost of the construction work, by French company Bouygues, has been estimated at around 100 million euros

The cost of the construction work, by French company Bouygues, has been estimated at around 100 million euros

It is part of a Russian campaign to gain control of churches and graves dating from tsarist times and reassert control over the Russian diaspora, including in France, where there are an estimated 200,000 followers of Russian Orthodoxy.

In Paris, the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral broke with the Russian church hierarchy after the 1917 revolution, transferring its allegiance from Moscow to the rival Patriarchate of Constantinople.

Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy reportedly intervened personally to ensure that Russia could buy and develop a plot near the famed Eiffel Tower and Alexandre III bridge.

In 2010, then-President Dmitry Medvedev signed the deal on behalf of Russia to purchase the prized property by the banks of the Seine River -- a UNESCO-protected site -- for 73 million euros ($80 million). Reports said other countries seeking to buy the plot included Saudi Arabia and Canada.

An initial request to build the Russian Orthodox Spiritual and Cultural Center was filed in January 2012, but opposition to architect Manuel Nunez Yanowsky's design quickly mounted in the French capital, where preserving the integrity of the city's famed architecture is taken seriously.

Then-Paris Mayor Bertrand Delanoe described the architecture -- five golden onion domes, white limestone, and glass -- as "pastiche," "mediocre," and "utterly inappropriate for the site."

After Francois Hollande succeeded Sarkozy as France's head of state in 2012, French cultural and heritage officials issued unfavorable opinions before Russia withdrew its first application for a building permit.

The project was then redesigned under the supervision of architect Jean-Michel Wilmotte, and a building permit was issued in December 2013.

Sensitive Site

The 4,800-square-meter complex includes four distinct entities: Holy Trinity Cathedral, capped with five gilded domes and its highest cross reaching 35 meters into the sky; a parish center comprising an auditorium and foyer, offices, and apartments; a French-Russian primary school for 150 pupils; and a cultural center, including a book shop, exhibitions spaces, and a coffee shop.

Construction finally began in 2014 against a backdrop of deteriorating ties between Moscow and the West over Russia's actions in Ukraine, where it occupied and annexed Crimea and has lent support to armed separatists who control parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions.

The golden main dome, an 8-ton structure made of composite materials, was winched into place in March with Russian Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Prikhodko in attendance.

The cost of the construction work, by French company Bouygues, has been estimated at around 100 million euros ($110 million).

From the start, French officials have expressed concern that the building is just a stone's throw from a sensitive government compound. As well as housing France's supreme magistrates' council, the neighboring Palais de l'Alma contains the Elysee Palace's postal service and the private apartments of senior presidential advisers.

French media reports say that country's counterespionage services have surrounded the building with jamming devices to prevent the Russians from using it for electronic surveillance.

There were also unsuccessful attempts by former shareholders of the now-defunct Russian oil giant Yukos to suspend work at the site and get the property seized to help settle a multibillion-dollar battle for compensation for the Russian state's seizure of the firm and its assets in 2003.

But in April, the High Court of Paris ruled that the object could not be seized, saying it a was considered a diplomatic good protected by sovereign immunity.

Russian Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky is to attend this week's opening ceremony of the center, which officials have described as a symbol of friendship between Russia and France.

Cold War Redux

The event comes with relations between Russia and the West at levels unseen since the Cold War following Russia's military seizure of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula in March 2014 and an ensuing war between Kyiv's forces and Russia-backed separatists that has killed more than 9,600 people.

Ties have further deteriorated over the war in Syria, which hosts a Russian military base and where Russia announced a bombing campaign in September 2015 to support President Bashar al-Assad and fight "international terrorists."

Paris and Moscow butted heads last week in the UN Security Council over competing draft resolutions on the Syrian conflict, where French and other Western officials have said Russia and Syria could have committed war crimes.

Russian Orthodox Church Patriarch Kirill has strongly supported Putin politically, even offering thinly veiled backing in the controversial 2012 election that returned the former KGB officer to the presidency.

Some analysts suggest that Putin, on the other hand, regards the Orthodox Church and its leadership as a channel for communication with the West.

Kirill met with Pope Francis for about three hours in Cuba in February in the first meeting between the heads of Russian Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches since the Great Schism divided Christendom in 1054.

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