A Cathedral Resists the Label ‘Property of Russia’

Nice, France — On a February morning in 2006, a group of experts in Russian art approached the onion-domed Russian church here and demanded to be admitted to take an inventory of the building and its contents — icons, liturgical vestments, incense burners, everything.

“We refused them entry,” even though they had an order from a local judge, said the Rev. Jean Gueit, for the last four years the archpriest of the Cathedral of St. Nicholas. “It was a long morning,” he added.

The cathedral, completed in 1912, was built with the “solicitude and generosity” of Czar Nicholas II, as a stone plaque on the church states, for the Russians who vacationed or settled on the French Riviera.

The court order was obtained by lawyers representing the Russian government. It was a first salvo in a local struggle for the stones and, perhaps, the souls of the Russians living here.

“By obtaining the right to proceed with an inventory of the goods of the church of Nice, first its buildings, then its content,” said Alexis Obolensky, deputy chairman of the parish council, “they presented their request as though they were the normal owners.”

Church leaders like Mr. Obolensky, 62, a retired university lecturer whose grandfather immigrated to Nice from St. Petersburg, see the lawsuit as part of a broader effort to consolidate the authority and legitimacy of the present Russian state, an effort close to the heart of President Vladimir V. Putin.

Last spring, leaders of Orthodox churches outside Russia that had broken with the Russian Orthodox Church after the Bolshevik Revolution returned to the fold in services in Moscow that received Mr. Putin’s blessing. “The idea is to restore the identity of the Russian church,” Mr. Obolensky said, “and to recuperate all of its patrimony in the world, above all churches.”

Mr. Putin has not let up. On the eve of Orthodox Christmas, he donated $1 million to restore an Orthodox cemetery in northern Sainte-Geneviève-des-Bois.

But in France and other parts of Europe, some Orthodox church groups refuse to return to a union with the church leadership in Moscow. So what is at stake in Nice is a question not only of property rights, but also of spiritual jurisdiction. Some in the community here remain leery of Soviet vestiges in the Russian church; others suspect that the Russian church’s drive for unity masks a goal of grasping valuable property, like the church in Nice.

“The place of religion in the formation of the Russian identity is essential,” said Father Gueit, 62, a law professor in Aix-en-Provence when he is not serving the parish’s spiritual needs. “After the fall of the Communist identity, they had no other choice but to revive the Orthodox tradition.”

The lawsuit in Nice reflects another in Biarritz, on the Bay of Biscay, in 2004, when the parish council of the Orthodox Church there voted to restore unity with Moscow. But the vote was declared invalid by the courts, which upheld a petition by a group of parishioners who pointed to irregularities in the way the vote was held. Russians from neighboring regions, even Spain, had been brought in to pack the parish council, they said.

Russian diplomats in Paris say the cases are entirely different. In Nice, their lawyers have presented documents showing that the church was originally the property of Czar Nicholas II, but was given with a 99-year lease to the archbishop of St. Petersburg. The lease expired on Dec. 31, 2007, they say, so the property should revert to the Russian state, the successor to the czarist regime.

“We consider that the property and the church belong to Russia,” said Sergei Parinov, the Russian Embassy spokesman. But he and other Russian diplomats have sought to reassure the parishioners. “In any case,” Mr. Parinov said, “the church must remain a place of prayer, a place of communion for the faithful, who have always considered it their parish.”

Father Gueit and most of his parishioners are unconvinced. “They claim they have the original documents,” said the priest, whose grandfather was a senior officer in the czar’s army. “We fear that they have fabricated them.”

In the meantime, the parish is seeking local political support. Last year, the Côte d’Azur region, which includes Nice at its center, declared the contents of the church part of the national patrimony, meaning that no part of it may be removed from France without permission of the Ministry of Culture.

But André Chauvet, an adviser to the mayor of Nice, said that while the city viewed the church as a “fundamental part of the local patrimony,” it “serenely” awaited a court decision as an “observer.”

The churches in Biarritz and Nice are both closely tied to czarist history. The Biarritz church was built to serve a Russian community that settled there after the city became the favored vacation spot of Emperor Napoleon III of France.

On the site of the church in Nice once stood a villa, amid sprawling orange and olive orchards, where the 21-year-old heir to the Russian throne, Nicholas Alexandrovitch, died of meningitis in 1865. The area still houses residents of Russian origin. The Avenue Nicolas II leads to the church, with its emerald and gilded domes; the Boulevard Tzarewitch crosses it.

Near the crossing, David Torossian, 39, a native of Russia, ekes out a living selling Russian caviar and other food, icons and Russian nesting dolls. He hopes for an “amicable solution,” he said, since he depends on both sides for business. But he said he thought the parish would win. “They have French politics behind them, and a majority of the people,” he said.

Meanwhile, opportunities for reconciliation have been missed. In October, Patriarch Aleksei II of Moscow visited France and celebrated Mass in Paris. But he refused to do so in the Orthodox cathedral there because its clergy did not recognize Moscow’s jurisdiction. Instead, he celebrated Mass, for Orthodox and non-Orthodox worshipers alike, in Notre Dame, the Roman Catholic cathedral.