Vladimir Putin’s Cathedral in Paris

From a Wall Street Journal story by Matthew Fraser headlined “Vladimir Putin’s Cathedral in Paris”:

On the banks of the Seine, in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower, sits a visually inapposite onion-domed Russian Orthodox church. When the Holy Trinity Cathedral appeared seven years ago, its austere chalk-colored facades and gleaming gold domes drew mixed reactions. This vaguely ridiculous “Moscow on the Seine” was obviously out of place in the City of Light.

In the surrounding Seventh Arrondissement, an upscale district known for elegant boulevards and foreign embassies, there were murmurs that the cathedral was a religious cover for Kremlin espionage. The Russian government made no secret that it was more than a house of worship. It was officially called a Russian Orthodox “spiritual and cultural center.”

Today, the entire compound is cordoned off and guarded round the clock by French police. Immediately following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last February, the cathedral was shut down. Protesters scrawled anti-Russian graffiti on its facades in Russian and French.

From the outset, Holy Trinity Cathedral was regarded, not without reason, as an extension of Vladimir Putin’s global ambitions. In 2007 French President Nicolas Sarkozy agreed to the construction of a Russian Orthodox cathedral on the banks of the Seine as a gesture of goodwill toward Russia. At the time France was hoping Russia would buy French-made Mistral warships. Some countries with embassies in that area of the city, however, were worried that Mr. Putin would use his new “spiritual center”—whose employees were granted diplomatic status—to install listening devices to pick up their communications.

The building was inaugurated in December 2016. Total cost: about $175 million. The cathedral was directly financed and controlled by the Russian state.

Orthodox Patriarch Kirill of Moscow presided at the cathedral’s official inauguration, attended by gold-robed prelates and Russia’s ambassador to France. The patriarch effusively praised Mr. Putin for sponsoring the cathedral’s construction. More recently, Patriarch Kirill blessed the invasion of Ukraine, declaring that the sacrifices of Russian soldiers on the battlefield will wash away their sins.

The Orthodox cathedral on the Seine—popularly dubbed “St. Vladimir’s”—deliberately combines Orthodox spirituality with a Putinesque nationalism. In Paris, which has a Russian-born population of fewer than 20,000, the faithful who attend Holy Trinity are mainly recent immigrants who adhere to Mr. Putin’s conservative, nationalist vision of the Russian Orthodox religion. Russian émigrés who settled in France a century ago after fleeing Bolshevism generally oppose Mr. Putin’s regime. They attend the much older Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, built in the 19th century on the Right Bank, not far from the Arc de Triomphe.

After Holy Trinity was shut down last February, its fate seemed uncertain. For some, the diplomatic embarrassment would doubtless best be erased with a wrecking ball. That is unlikely to happen. President Emmanuel Macron has stated publicly that Russia shouldn’t be “humiliated” in the aftermath of the war in Ukraine.

In 2023 the cathedral is quietly coming back to life. On Sundays, its bells produce a sullen ring summoning the faithful, though no worshipers can be seen entering the church. As I walked by the other day, police tape and pylons still surrounded the complex. I was surprised by a sign on the sliding glass doors indicating that the cathedral was open to visitors. I stepped inside to discover an empty reception area with airport-level security. The security staff appeared almost happy to see me. A woman handed me a sheet of paper with a schedule for Masses and confessions, most in Russian but some in French.

I crossed through a small garden courtyard to enter the domed cathedral whose facades I had viewed only from the outside. The cathedral’s interior is small compared with Catholic basilicas with long vaulting naves. Holy Trinity Cathedral is one large space with no pews, only a few standing-only stacidia facing the altar with a backdrop of Orthodox icons. The sacred sound of liturgical chants came softly through two visible speakers.

We were four or five visitors inside the cathedral, though I was obviously the only one who had come out of curiosity. A young woman made a sign of the cross before bending in a deep bow toward the altar. At the entrance, a middle-aged man was filling a goblet with holy water dispensed from a large silver vessel. I stayed and gazed at the iconography. On my way out, I stopped at the boutique where two visitors were poking about in shelves filled of candles and postcards featuring Orthodox religious icons.

One problem this spiritual and cultural center doesn’t have: crowds. It will be a long time before Parisians forget the original purpose of this house of worship.

Matthew Fraser, a former newspaper columnist and broadcaster, is a professor at the American University of Paris. His latest book is “Monumental Fury: The History of Iconoclasm and the Future of Our Past.”

Speak Your Mind