The gaudily-coloured onion domes of St. Basil’s Cathedral are one of Moscow’s defining symbols – but now those hallowed towers are on the frontline of an unholy row.
It’s a battleground between church and state which dates back to the immediate aftermath of the 1917 revolution, and pits Russia’s soul against its heritage.
In the bookish, academic corner, Russia’s museums are determined to keep playing a leading role in the preservation of the nation’s religious heritage. They argue this is a role that they have carried out for almost a century, and one that they are ideally equipped to continue.
But in the incense-fragranced corner the Orthodox Church is determined to get back everything that was lost when the Communists ruled that there was no God, and therefore no need for organised religion.
And St. Basil’s, the view that launched a thousand souvenirs, is at the heart of the debate.
Since 1917 the ancient place of worship has been in state hands, first as a museum of atheism and now as an architectural monument owned and cared for by the State Historical Museum.
But new legislation is set to change all that by allowing the church – and other religious groups - to apply for permission to regain control of buildings that were once theirs.
As well as St. Basil’s, this could also see the Kremlin’s cathedrals and St. Petersburg’s Peter and Paul church handed back to Patriarch Kirill and his colleagues.
And for the director of the State Historical Museum Alexander Shkurko, this is not acceptable.
“We cannot give away the cathedrals of the Moscow Kremlin, St. Basil’s or St. Peter and St. Paul because these are national facilities,” he told Kommersant. And he has financial concerns too, since St. Basil’s raises 30 million roubles for his museum. Without this cash, he said, there would be staffing cuts or increased ticket prices.
But the church was not impressed with this “monstrous” stance, added the newspaper.
“We cannot work with this kind of monster who wants first pick of everything,” said the Patriarch’s press spokesman Vladimir Vigilyansky. “The church may not take everything, but we need to build a working relationship that takes into account the interests of churches and cultural institutions.”
United Russia, which is pushing through the legislation after Prime Minister Vladimir Putin promised Patriarch Kirill that progress was being made at a meeting earlier this year, is playing the role of peacemaker, with Sergei Popov taking the lead.
His statement on the party’s website on Monday afternoon said: “The museum community can be calm. Property which is part of the museums’ archive collection is not subject to the transfer.
“However there are many other items which are not historically valuable but which are necessary to carry out religious rites.”