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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Nuns' Repossession Rankles School

When the students of Public School 36 arrived for classes this month, they were met with armed guards, growling dogs, rubble in place of their playground and a church-made list of taboos that even their teachers find onerous.


No sports, no games, no smoking, no cars, no pets, no picture-taking, declared a sign placed over the entrance to the downtown Moscow school compound, where a small band of Russian Orthodox nuns had set up housekeeping in a cluster of decrepit buildings in the schoolyard.


"The nuns even closed off some of our old shortcuts," complained a 16-year-old student named Felix, who furtively was searching for a spot to smoke a cigarette. "And it's not fair that we have all these new rules."


Felix's public school has the misfortune to have been built on the ruins of somebody else's past misfortune. It is one of thousands of properties across the former Soviet Union now being repossessed, often with little regard for the present tenants and rival sects, by the newly resurgent Russian Orthodox Church.


Many of those properties are old churches converted in the officially atheistic Soviet times to other uses as museums, clubs, warehouses or cultural centers. Other buildings sit on land claimed by the Church, which had been Russia's second-biggest landowner, after the tsars, in the centuries before the 1917 Revolution.


PS 36, for example, was built as a school in 1933. It stands inside the compound of the 300-year-old Zachatevski, or Conception, nunnery, and on the site of a cathedral that was blown up by the Communist authorities.


A handful of nuns returned to the compound three years ago. This year, without telling school officials, the city of Moscow agreed to give the entire compound back to the church -- including the school building, which serves 430 students and 30 teachers.


"We agree that churches shouldn't be blown up but it's not our fault that it happened," said the angry school principal, Gelya Dermicheva, who has frequent run-ins with the nuns' security guards because they threaten her more rambunctious students with rubber truncheons and block deliveries of books and school supplies.


"This school cost billions [of rubles]. The heating system works. There are parquet floors. It could last another 30 years," she added. "As a taxplayer, I think it's a terrible waste of resources to spend billions more to build another school and give this one away so it, too, can be blown up."


Since the collapse of communism, the Russian Orthodox Church has worked to shake off the effects of 70 years of anti-religious propaganda and its image as a longtime collaborator with the Soviet state. With the enactment last month of a controversial law recognizing only Judaism, Islam, Buddhism and the Russian Orthodox Church as "traditional" religions with the full right to proselytize, educate and own or rent property, the patriarch, Alexy II, won a major victory. His church is now well on its way to recovering not only its real estate, but its privileged position in Russian society.


Tenants evicted by the church have no legal redress. Their landlord is the state -- and it is the state that has been transferring lands back to the church. "There also are no lawsuits because there is no law," said Anatoly Krasikov, a former spokesman for President Boris Yeltsin who now heads a Russian group called Religious Freedoms.


All of this has been difficult to explain to the children at PS 36. The city government allocated a nearby building for PS 36. It once was used as a school for the children of Soviet officials sent into exile or killed during the 1930s purges. But the building needs renovation and is being used by another city department, which refuses to leave.


"I tell them: There is faith and there is the church, which is the official representative of the believers. And the church is not always right," Dermicheva said. "I say there are nuns who work very hard, who plant things and set a good example. But on the other hand, I can't give an explanation as to why we are being dispossessed."