Onion Domes on the Seine: Tension over New Russian Orthodox Church in Paris

Illustration by Peter Ansell for La Jeune Politique, showing a design that was originally rejected by French authorities.

Illustration by Peter Ansell for La Jeune Politique, showing a design that was originally rejected by French authorities.

PARIS. – The famous skyline on the banks of the river Seine is about to be changed for good. Soon, Gustave Eiffel’s iron tower, jutting above the 19th century Haussmann buildings, will be joined by five, shiny, onion shaped domes.

The construction of a new Russian Orthodox church might seem complementary to Putin’s recent agenda to broaden Russia’s influence abroad. In light of the recent events in Crimea, the planned construction begs the question: what is Russia’s intent for this new landmark in the heart of Paris?

The project began in 2010 when the Russian government purchased a prime spot of land near the Eiffel Tower, following the sale of France’s meteorological headquarters. The 4000 square meter cultural and spiritual center will include a Russian-French school and an exhibition hall, as well as the church. It took two years for French authorities to green light construction after many disagreements on the design of the church. Given that the cultural center will cost the Russian government at least 100 million euros, it is unsurprising that some are starting to question the eagerness for such a demanding project.

Professor of the Paris School of International Affairs at the Institut d’Etudes Politiques de Paris Manfred Hafner explains why Parisians are grumbling about the plans, “It happens that the Russian Orthodox Church today is not perceived as very independent of the Kremlin.” The idea of a stark reminder of the Kremlin near the iconic Eiffel Tower has caused tension, though Hafner admits, “It would have been worse if somebody wanted to build a Mosque … you always have people who have a problem with this sort of thing.”

Many have pointed out that the Russian Orthodox community in Paris has other options for attending religious services. Paris already has several Orthodox churches, including the Trois-Saints-Docteurs, which is controlled by the Moscow Patriarchate. Tatiana Mitrova, Head of World Energy at the Skolkovo Institute, agrees that Parisians have a right to be unhappy. Mitrova explains, “Tolerance does not mean that you have to wake up every morning to the ringing of Orthodox bells. If people do not want this church in proximity to the Eiffel Tower, there is always a solution – propose a more remote location.” But the Russian government payed over 70 million euros, outbidding other countries for this precise location.

Russia has recently acquired several Orthodox edifices across Europe. According to opponents, such acquisitions may reveal Russian desire to manipulate the Orthodox Church for nationalistic ends. In 2010 Moscow won a court battle against the Cathedral of Saint Nicolas in Nice. Since the cathedral was built using state money under Czar Nicolas II in 1912, the local court ruled that it remains Russian property. Similarly, Italy agreed to cede a cathedral to the Russian Orthodox Church in 2009, and Paris did the same with another cathedral in 2008. Jean Gueit, rector of the Nice cathedral, contends that these cathedrals are symbols of past Russian grandeur, which the Russian government has reclaimed in order to generate support for the current regime. “Why does the Russian state want this?” Gueit asked, “It is well known they are simply engaging in a policy of domination and reaffirmation of Russian identity.”

The court battle between Russia and its state church in Nice was unprecedented, and Russian eagerness in that matter may predict intense government interest over this new project on the Seine. Gabriel Matzneff, a commentator on LePoint.fr expressed a common concern among many French residents when he wrote, “My essential wish is that the new cathedral is not a church embassy.” Still, there is no way of knowing exactly how much influence the Russian government will exert over the new church.

A mutually agreeable name for the cathedral could appease both sides and cool immediate tensions. Matzneff suggested that the church could be named after a Saint born in France but greatly venerated in Russia and thus admired in both countries.

For now, the future church remains nameless. But no matter the controversy behind its creation, in two years’ time, a Russian Orthodox Church will sit on the banks of the river Seine, its five domes glinting in the sun – a new neighbor to the Eiffel Tower.

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