- - Monday, July 29, 2019

SERGIEV POSAD, Russia — Russian Orthodox Christian pilgrims recite prayers and cross themselves as the melodious sound of church bells fills the air at the 14th century Trinity Lavra monastery in Sergiev Posad, a small town near Moscow.

Women, their heads covered in accordance with Orthodox tradition, sell religious icons and Bible literature, while a bearded monk dressed in a long black cassock walks slowly toward the white walls that encircle the monastery.

“It’s important for a believer to come here to feel closer to God,” said Olga Baturina, a 35-year-old pilgrim from Siberia who was on her second trip to the Trinity Lavra, one of the most sacred sites for Russian Orthodox Christians. “Just breathing the air here is a balm for the soul.”

It’s not quite St. Peter’s Square, but some Orthodox officials and believers see in the scene the germ of a vaulting ambition to create a home base for the Russian national faith that can rival the Roman Catholic ministate in the heart of Rome.

Sergiev Posad and its famous monastery have been involved in some of the most tumultuous events in Russia’s long history. They have survived attacks by Tatar hordes, monthslong sieges by enemy armies and vicious struggles for the czarist-era crown. The atheist Soviet authorities closed Trinity Lavra in 1930 and renamed the town Zagorsk in honor of a Soviet revolutionary hero.

The monastery was allowed to reopen after World War II, but the KGB closely monitored the church’s activities. It wasn’t until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 that the town’s original name was restored.

Now, Sergiev Posad, the home of the Orthodox Church’s Moscow Patriarchate until it was moved to Moscow’s Danilov Monastery in 1983*, is about to experience another momentous change. Under a plan revealed by the Vedomosti business newspaper, the government of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has long seen the church as a crucial political ally, is preparing to spend up to $2.2 billion to transform this tranquil monastery town of 110,000 people into what media outlets have dubbed an “Orthodox Vatican.”

The Kremlin and the Russian Orthodox Church are closely allied. Patriarch Kirill, the leader of the church, has described Mr. Putin’s long rule as a “miracle of God.” The government has portrayed itself as a staunch defender of traditional moral values and a bulwark against Western innovations such as gay rights and same-sex marriage.

Unlike Catholicism, Orthodox Christians have never had a single, unchallenged authority like the pope.

The faith rests on a number of nation-based independent churches, and the recent de facto declaration of independence by the large Ukrainian Orthodox Church was seen as a major blow to the power and prestige of the Russian Orthodox Church.

“This is a project designed to demonstrate the cultural and political significance of Russian Orthodox Christianity as a symbol of tradition and patriotism,” said Roman Lunkin, a religion analyst at the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow. “The Russian authorities love massive projects like this that they can show off to the world.”

The Kremlin as well sees the prestige and influence of the church as a major source of soft power at a time when Russia is shunned by many in the West and faces a string of economic sanctions.

“President Vladimir Putin can ill afford to lose yet another lever of influence abroad,” Paul Goble, an analyst for the Washington-based Jamestown Foundation, wrote earlier this month.

Big plans

According to blueprints, church administration offices and other buildings will be relocated from Moscow to Sergiev Posad, while an open-air church, a supreme ecclesiastical court, a museum of Orthodox art, a youth Orthodox cultural center and a theological library will be constructed around the Trinity Lavra. An airport is being planned near Sergei Posad.

The estimated cost of the construction project is almost three times higher than the amount Russia spends annually on nationwide urban redevelopment. About 90% of the expenses will likely be financed by the national budget, said Mikhail Tokarev, the town’s mayor. The remaining funds, he told Russian media, will come from the regional budget.

Mr. Putin and Patriarch Kirill have given the ambitious construction project the green light, said Archpriest Leonid Kalinin, who heads the church’s art and architecture council. The Kremlin has said the issue is not of national importance and that regional authorities will oversee the project.

Officials balk at the inevitable comparisons the project has sparked.

“It’s incorrect to call this an ‘Orthodox Christian Vatican,’” Mr. Kalinin told The Washington Times. “The Vatican is an independent state, with its own leadership, its own army and state institutions. This is just about the reconstruction of the town.”

He declined to comment on the hefty price tag for the project. He said that was a matter for secular authorities but insisted that the Orthodox Church “has not asked for a single kopek.”

Opposition figures warn that the project will provide massive opportunities for corrupt officials to fill their pockets through kickbacks and bribes. “Contractors close to Putin and the patriarch will funnel out hundreds of millions of dollars to their Swiss bank accounts,” said Kira Yarmysh, an activist with opposition leader Alexei Navalny’s anti-corruption organization.

Others said it was unclear why taxpayers should have to foot the bill in the first place.

Russia is a secular state, and taxpayers are also Muslims, Jews, Buddhists and atheists,” Alexander Razuvayev, a political analyst, wrote in the Nezavisimaya Gazeta newspaper. About 80% of Russians identify as Orthodox Christians, but only a small number of those regularly attend church.

Mr. Razuvayev also criticized the project as an unnecessary expense amid widespread poverty. Real disposable incomes have fallen for the fourth year in a row as Russia’s economy struggles under the weight of Western sanctions and lower prices for oil, its main export. About 20 million people — 13% of the Russian population — live below a poverty level defined as an income of $179 a month, according to government statistics.

The planned demolition of homes in Sergiev Posad to make way for the new church buildings is also a potential flashpoint. In May, the Russian Orthodox Church was forced to backtrack on plans for a new cathedral in Yekaterinburg after thousands of people protested the use of a popular park as the site. The dispute, which pitted the church against opposition supporters, was widely seen as a major setback for Patriarch Kirill.

“All too often, when large sums of money are involved, the interests of ordinary citizens are forgotten about,” said Mr. Lunkin, the religion analyst. “And the church ends up on the side of oligarchs and the government against the opposition.”

In Sergiev Posad, locals said they didn’t know much about the plans to transform their town.

“I guess it all depends on how they handle this,” said Dmitry, a shop assistant at a store near the Trinity Lavra. “If it’s done well, then we’ll be grateful, of course.”

*Due to an editing error, the home of the Moscow Patriarchate was misstated in the original story. It was relocated to Moscow’s Danilov Monastery in 1983.

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