Why a far-reaching political fight has broken out over trade at the Russian landmark and site of Pussy Riot's "Punk Prayer" demonstration
MOSCOW -- Looking for a place in downtown Moscow to change your tires, have a snack, buy aspirin, launder your shirts, or purchase gold jewelry? In addition to a handful of shopping centers, Christ the Savior, Moscow' largest Orthodox cathedral, offers all of these services.
The cathedral's lucrative commercial activities are at the heart of a bitter dispute between the Russian Orthodox Church and the country's consumer rights watchdog, which claims unlawful trade is taking place on the cathedral's premises. Both the Moscow Patriarchate and the Christ the Savior Cathedral Fund, which oversees trade at the church, deny wrongdoing and accuse the watchdog of seeking to tarnish their reputation.
The dispute deepened this week when the head of the Society for Consumer Rights' Protection, Mikhail Anshakov, was called in for police questioning after the fund filed a complaint against him for defamation. Anshakov accuses the executive director of the Christ the Savior Cathedral Fund, Vasily Poddevalin, of being in league with Moscow's law-enforcement agencies to silence his watchdog organization. "The fact that this is a business center is common knowledge. As far as I understand, Vasily Poddevalin has contacts in Moscow's law-enforcement system and he is trying to put these contacts to use," Anshakov says. "Otherwise, such high-ranking officials from the prosecutor's office or the main department of internal affairs would not have taken on these cases."
The consumer rights group says trade at the cathedral violates consumer protection law because it is conducted without official price tags or cash registers. According to its findings, only 7 percent of the cathedral's territory has actually been transferred to the church. The rest is owned by Moscow City Hall, which is tied to the Christ the Savior Cathedral Fund. Anshakov says that under Russian law, the Moscow Patriarchate must either legally acquire the portion of the cathedral it is currently using or surrender it.
The commercial activities taking place at Christ the Savior are no secret. A car repair, tire service, and a souvenir kiosk are located adjacent to the building, along with a jewelry stand selling Buran watches for as much as 120,000 rubles ($3,800) and amber necklaces for around 12,000 rubles ($380). A car park, cafe, and laundry service can be found in an underground space beneath the cathedral.
'God Does Not Allow Deceit'
Many Russian Orthodox believers see nothing wrong with the practice and firmly believe the Moscow Patriarchate's assurances that it does not profit from the trade. "Everything here is done honestly, I'm absolutely sure of this," Marina Kaminskaya, a 42-year-old psychologist, said outside the cathedral. "I can vouch for our patriarch and for all priests. God would not allow any deceit to take place next to a church."
But not all churchgoers approve of the bustling trade at the cathedral, rebuilt in the early 1990s from public donations after being destroyed by Soviet authorities. "I don't think this is right," says Yulia, a 25-year-old architect. "This is religion and they are selling [things]. It isn't right."
Russia's all-female dissident punk collective Pussy Riot has been among the most vocal critics of the cathedral's commercial activities. Two of its members are serving two-year prison terms for performing a song critical of the Russian Orthodox Church's ties with authorities in the Christ the Savior Cathedral earlier this year. Members of the collective later said they targeted the cathedral in part to protest its business dealings.
'Gift-Giving at Recommended Price'
The dispute with the Society for Consumer Rights' Protection emerged after Anshakov formally asked prosecutors to look into the activities of the cathedral's fund. Prosecutors, however, turned down Anshakov's request and opened a defamation case against him instead based on a complaint from Poddevalin, the fund's executive director. In July, a Moscow court ruled that transactions conducted at Christ the Savior were not sales but legal "gift-giving at a recommended price." Another court nonetheless cleared Anshakov on October 19.
The new defamation complaint against him and his watchdog was also filed by Poddevalin and stems from a recent press article in which Anshakov reiterated his allegations against the fund. Anshakov also claims that Poddevalin's relatives own some of the fund's businesses. "On which basis are dozens of commercial firms based at Christ the Savior Cathedral?" Anshakov asks. "In addition, some of these firms are registered under the name of relatives of Poddevalin. The cathedral's car wash, tire and repair services, for example, belong to his son and daughter. That's what law enforcement should be investigating, rather than whether or not I defamed Poddevalin."
With defamation now a criminal offense in Russia since July, Anshakov risks much harsher punishment if the Christ the Savior Fund successfully presses charges against him. If found guilty, he faces a fine of up to 5 million rubles ($159,000) or up to 480 hours of community work.