Museums Russian Federation

Church seeks return of cathedral

Stand-off over building that houses the “Hermitage of the Urals”

Perm’s art, religious and secular, could be rehoused

The Russian Orthodox Church is attempting to reclaim the Holy Transfiguration Cathedral of Perm, which has housed the Perm State Art Gallery since the Soviet era, a move that has led to protests within Russia and abroad. Called “the Hermitage of the Urals”, the Perm art museum’s collection contains antiquities and folk art, paintings from the 19th century to the Russian avant-garde as well as rare, wooden sculptures of Christ that are indigenous to the Perm region.

The stand-off between the church and one of the leading museums in the Urals is the latest in a series of disputes in Russia that have been simmering for years. A law passed by the Russian parliament in 2010 laid out a framework for the return to the church of religious property seized during the communist era.

Members of a newly formed international committee joined forces with local opponents to rally to the museum’s defence.

Activists raised the alarm after the diocese, led by the Metropolitan Mefody of Perm, insisted on holding services in the museum on the feast of the Transfiguration in August. An open letter addressed to the Russian government in September said that 24 works of art dating from the 18th to the early-19th century had to be moved in order for the service, which involved many lit candles, to be held.

The activists say they are not opposed in principle to the cathedral returning to the church, but are troubled by lack of clear-cut legal provisions for the move and that a new space has yet to be built for the museum. “The Perm Gallery is not a warehouse which can be easily cleared of its contents,” said the letter. “It is an art museum with a long [and] renowned history.”

Julia Volfson, who comes from Perm and is now an art consultant in San Francisco, founded the committee. “The church is an institution that should certainly know such laws,” says Volfson. “They are… pretend[ing]… they don’t exist and are acting [by] completely different means and methods.” She points to a letter from Rosimushchestvo, the Russian state property agency, saying that it cannot extend the art museum’s lease before addressing a competing claim to the cathedral by the church.

Nadezhda Belyayeva, the director of the Perm State Art Gallery, says that she wants to find compromise in what is likely to be a prolonged process. “I think the church is acting carefully,” she says. “For now the [church] services have stopped. I think this is thanks to our collective efforts.”

In October, Boris Milgram, vice governor of the Perm region, told the Public Chamber, a civil society watchdog group, that he is close to an agreement with Swiss architect Peter Zumthor to design a new museum. Earlier, Milgram was in Brussels to promote Perm as a potential European Capital of Culture.

An article on the Perm diocese’s web site (www.pravperm. ru), says that conflict between the church and museum is a myth promoted by enemies of the church and perpetuated by the media.

President Dmitry Medvedev supports the return of church property but in September, in response to questions about a similar conflict in the Smolensk region, he said that the church and cultural institutions “must display mutual understanding”, and that the latter should not be thrown out onto the street.

A former centre of the Soviet defence industry, the city’s regeneration has seen it become a centre of contemporary art and culture. Many works of art were temporarily evacuated to Perm during the second world war.

Since this article appeared in our January print edition, the director of the museum has resigned. See our February issue for an update.

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