4-Way Fight for a Mansion Near Red Square

MTCossack guards watching a gate leading to a disputed mansion near Red Square. They refused to let a photographer through to take a picture of the building.
Property disputes can be complicated affairs. But an ongoing fight over a plum piece of property adjacent to Red Square is a doozie, even for Moscow.

At the heart of the disagreement is a historic mansion located on Nikolskaya Ulitsa that the Russian Orthodox Church says belonged to them before being nationalized by Soviet authorities soon after the 1917 Revolution.

The building, however, is currently occupied by the Russian State University for the Humanities and several organizations. After the church used guards to try to forcefully evict the tenants from the premises in April, suddenly City Hall and the federal government decided that they could use the property as well.

That has left the university's students in limbo -- and they are holding noisy rallies a stone's throw from the Kremlin in support of their school.

Anyone who has tried to buy or lease property knows about the bureaucratic headache that awaits in a city that still seems to be adapting to the concept of private property 17 years after the Soviet collapse. Throw in a few peculiarities, such as a Revolutionary-era claim, and the problem looks more like a nightmare.

"This building, like any other property that belonged to the church before the Revolution, must be returned to the church," said Alexander Volkov, a spokesman for the Moscow patriarchate.

Officials from both the university and Zaikonospassky Monastery, which is claiming the mansion on behalf the church, are accusing each other of being concerned primarily with profit rather than the property itself.

"We fear that the premises might not only be used not for piety," said university spokesman Alexander Gushchin. "This is an expensive area, 100 meters from the Kremlin."

Gennady Samoilov, an elder of the Zaikonospassky Monastery, called the university's interest in the building "purely commercial."

The conflict dates back to November 1999, when Patriarch Alexy II asked Mayor Yury Luzhkov to return some buildings on Nikolskaya Ulitsa to the church. Zaikonospassky Monastery says that before 1917, the buildings housed the Zaikonospassky and Nikolo-Grechesky monasteries, the Zaikonospassky religious school and the Moscow synodal printing house.

But in April, the church seemed to have run out of patience. The monastery's guards entered the university building and demanded that the school free up two rooms in a matter of hours.

Instead, over the next few days, university students took to the streets protesting the monastery's actions and demanding that the university be allowed to keep using the building or be given another one as compensation.

At present, the university and the building's other tenants are refusing to vacate the building, arguing that City Hall has to find them a new home if it wants them out.

Vladimir Silkin, head of the city's property department, said some of the tenants were impossible to evict as they were "demanding a building near Red Square" as compensation.

Igor Tabakov / MT
Students protesting attempts to evict the Russian State University for the Humanities from a building by Red Square.
Court marshals have indefinitely postponed the eviction of the tenants on Silkin's request.

Silkin himself is taking a new look at the property. "Moscow's Architecture Committee has to draft a plan for the development of the territory first, regardless of the monastery's interests," Silkin said, speaking at a news conference last month.

The Federal Property Management Agency also has its sights on the building. In mid-April, it filed a lawsuit claiming that the city's use of the buildings is illegal. The lawsuit is currently awaiting trial.

"Objects of historic and cultural value situated on the territory of the Russian Federation can only be federal property," the agency said in an e-mailed statement.

Today, the Zaikonospassky Monastery shares a building on Nikolskaya Ulitsa, which houses a church and a Sunday school, with the university.

The monastery's four monks live in a cramped space in the church, and the Sunday school needs more room, Samoilov said.

Twice in the past seven years, City Hall issued orders formally handing the buildings to the monastery, but they were never enforced.

Samoilov said the monastery has paid the city rent on the buildings since 2001, even though they continue to be used by other tenants.

The dispute on Nikolskaya Ulitsa is just one example of the church's ongoing battle for the return of property and land that it says was confiscated by the Soviets.

At least two other monasteries in Moscow and the Moscow region are also claiming property in the city center.

The Sretensky Monastery is hoping to reclaim a mansion on Rozhdestvensky Bulvar that is currently occupied by the All-Russia Music Society.

In late March, the disputed mansion was visited by "people in church robes," who "gave an ultimatum for the society to free the building within two days," said Alexei Zhidkov, the head of the music society, on Ekho Moskvy radio.

The monastery's superior, Archimadrite Tikhon, told Kommersant in April that he had visited the music society to discuss the organization's move to another place, citing a February order from City Hall handing the mansion to the monastery.

The Savvino-Storozhevsky Monastery in the Moscow region town of Zvenigorod is also claiming a former church building, on Tverskaya Ulitsa.

The organizations now renting the building remain in it despite a 2002 order from City Hall giving the building to the monastery, Vechernyaya Moskva daily reported.

Alexy said in April that the church would "not bring up the issue of restitution," calling it a "complicated process."

"The issue will not be brought up on the national scale," said church spokesman Volkov, echoing Alexy's promise. "But talks about separate churches that authorities have already promised to return will continue," he said.

Since the early 1990s, hundreds of buildings have been returned to the church, Volkov said, adding that around 10,000 buildings nationwide have yet to be returned to the church. He couldn't provide statistics on buildings whose status is currently under negotiation, however, calling such numbers "unverifiable."