The pictures show the nearly completed construction of a large colonnaded building sporting a small, red onion dome. Officially a "spiritual and cultural center," the building is rumored to be really meant as a luxury resort for the Russian Orthodox Church patriarch, built near the site of a similar project, a billion-dollar mansion reported to be under construction for Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.
A group called Environment Watch North Caucasus posted the photos
last week, saying the mansion is located on protected land near the coastal village of Divnomorskoe in the Krasnodar Region.
Patriarch Kirill (right) with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev
Dmitry Shevchenko, one of the group's activists, told RFE/RL's Russian Service that workers had cut down large fir trees in what's part of a unique stretch of forest.
"What we saw there shocked us," Shevchenko said. "It's a large territory, about 10 hectares, where it's illegal to cut down trees. That's a criminal offense unless absolutely necessary, which doesn't pertain to the patriarch's residence."
Shevchenko said the structure, which appeared to be part mansion, part chapel, is being built by the Presidential Affairs Office. He said he was on the site for 15 minutes before being ordered to leave by a worker who he said spoke Russian with a Serbian accent. He speculated the man was an employee of a Russian-Serbian company that does contract work for the presidential administration.
A view of the construction site posted by environmental activists in Russia of the Black Sea mansion they claim is being built for the head of the Russian Orthodox Church
Russian media reported the Moscow Patriarchate denying it was involved in the construction, although a project for the center was announced in 2005.
Local environmental activist Andrei Rudamakho told RFE/RL's Russian Service that environmentalists have been battling the construction since 2008, starting with a letter-writing campaign to various officials.
"But all officials close their eyes to the project -- some even told us there were no trees growing at the site," Rudamakho said. "Just like Putin's [purported] dacha and other projects, it's state property that doesn't fall under state control."
A view of the construction site posted by environmental activists in Russia of the Black Sea mansion they claim is being built for the head of the Russian Orthodox Church (photos by Dmitry Shevchenko of Environment Watch North Caucasus)
Rudamakho said the construction was confirmed by the local government environmental agency overseeing the forest, which he said made no effort to stop it.
The Kremlin hasn't commented on the rumors. Ivan Blokhov, director of Russia programs for Greenpeace, told RFE/RL's Russian Service the presidential administration has previously denied it's spearheading the construction.
"It makes our work [protecting the environment] much more difficult," Blokhov said. "I don’t know how long it will take to make the government take measures against the building, maybe months or years -- perhaps it will require going to court, even in Europe. But I'm sure it's possible to do something about this."
The reports of lavish resorts built for the country's top officials -- including Putin
and Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov
-- come when even the government's own figures show official corruption is soaring. The Kremlin says tackling corruption is one of its top priorities, but the photos of the "patriarch's dacha" will do little to reassure Russians that's the case.