January 13, 2010

Orthodox Church to Get Novodevichy in 2010

12 January 2010
By Alex Anishyuk
The Moscow Times

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has signed an order transferring ownership of the 500-year-old Novodevichy Convent to the Russian Orthodox Church.

Novodevichy, which currently houses both a museum and the residence of Metropolitan Yuvenaly of Krutitsky and Kolomensky and is home to more than 12,000 works of art, will be handed over to the Russian Orthodox Church this year, Putin said at a meeting with Patriarch Kirill in Svyato-Danilovsky Monastery in Moscow last week.

Patriarch Kirill praised the decision, calling it “a very important event, taking into account the historic and the spiritual importance of Novodevichy Convent.” Culture Minister Alexander Avdeyev, who was also at the meeting, said the museum would keep its altar screen and would receive another in the future to fill the missing space in a separate church on its premises.

Avdeyev said he met Yuvenaly, the rector of the convent, and assured him that “everything will be all right” and that the convent would not lose any of its property.

Novodevichye Cemetery, which houses the remains of a number of famous Russians and is located nearby, will remain under the control of the city, Avdeyev said Sunday.

The division of responsibilities between the church and the museum administration and other terms of the transfer have not yet been decided on.

“It is premature to say for certain how the whole process of transition will be organized,” said a church spokesperson, who asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the talks. “Prime Minister Putin announced this decision, and the implementation of these plans is currently being discussed.”

The convent will house a community of nuns, and both the church authorities and the State Historical Museum will cooperate to manage the exposition, said Vladimir Vigilyansky, a spokesperson for the Moscow Patriarchate, Kommersant reported Monday.

“The museum will not be removed. It will keep functioning,” he said. “The state is getting rid of its Soviet heritage in terms of confiscated church property. But it is not about restitution. It is a goodwill gesture.”

Novodevichy Convent, founded by Prince Vasily III in 1524, was confiscated by the Bolsheviks after they seized power in October 1917 and was turned into a museum in 1926. The convent has been managed by the State Historical Museum since 1934.

Alexander Shkurko, director of the State Historical Museum, told The Moscow Times that there was unlikely to be any major problems with the transition. As part of the deal, the museum will get additional properties on Izmailovsky Island, in northeastern Moscow, to house its restoration workshops and part of its collection, he said.

The process of transition has been ongoing for two years and the “only issues left to be solved are technical ones,” mostly the relocation and protection of the exhibits, he said.

Architecture preservationists, however, fear the church is ill equipped to provide proper storage conditions for ancient icons and other works of art.

“The use of ancient icons and other relics in religious rites should be prevented, as most of them are quite fragile and will not survive daily usage. Burning candles will do irreparable damage to them,” said Konstantin Mikhailov, a coordinator for Arkhnadzor, an independent preservationist organization. “Besides, the church should allow the public to see the relics, otherwise the citizens’ constitutional right for free access to the works of art will be violated.”

The church should act as a tenant and strictly observe legislation on cultural protection, he said, adding that the church had recently failed to observe certain laws.

A window trellis built in the 17th century was removed last summer in the Church of the Presentation of the Virgin Mary on Ulitsa Pokrovka in the center of Moscow and the entry gate built in the 19th century was replaced in the Church of Prophet Elijah in Cherkizovo in northeastern Moscow in 2008, according to Arkhnadzor.

The church couldn’t be reached for comment on these cases.

Shkurko rejected concerns that the building and its exhibits may be damaged under their new owner.

“We’ve known our colleagues from the Russian Orthodox Church for many years, and we know that they have an understanding of how important it is to protect our cultural heritage,” he said. “The icons will be protected under a separate agreement with the museum, while the Culture Ministry will oversee the historic monument.”

Shkurko did express fears, however, that public access to the museum’s exhibition could be limited after the transfer if certain compromises can’t be found.

“We voiced our concerns, and we hope that the new owner will sign a contract with the museum putting us in charge of bringing visitors to the convent,” he said.