St. Isaac’s Cathedral in St. Petersburg is one of the tens of thousands of churches seized, shuttered, or destroyed following the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. Instead of leveling it – the fate of so many other houses of worship – the communists turned the architectural wonder into a Museum of Atheism, then a museum in its own right. It has become a UNESCO World Heritage Site visited by 3.5 million people last year.
In January, Governor Georgy Poltavchenko announced that he would transfer ownership of the cathedral from the state to the Russian Orthodox Church, a seemingly commonsense move that has drawn massive backlash from those who hope the government will refuse to relinquish the holy site. More than 200,000 people have signed a petition demanding that the government retain control of “its” property.
The two sides clashed on Sunday, as hundreds of Orthodox Christians held a procession around the cathedral. A handful of counter-protesters tried to interrupt, and, at their own protest later in the day, approximately 2,500 people held hands in front of the church’s entrance.
They carried placards with slogans including “Russian Church: Hands off Isaac’s” and “Russia is a secular state,” and chanted “Museum! Museum!”
“The Church, they’re just parasites who are after money,” said one demonstrator, 50-year-old Natalya Gorokhova.
The crowd also complained that clerics will admit visitors to the museum for free – “No one charges people for entering a church,” said Orthodox Church spokesman Vladimir Legoida – depriving the city of revenue and denting its budget. 
The injunction that Christians get their “hands off” property that had been purloined from them seems unnatural. Yet such a mindset has become ingrained after decades of cultural conditioning – both from state-enforced atheist indoctrination as well as a longstanding belief in communal ownership, which holds that all property is “our” property, to be repossessed and repurposed as those wielding the most power decide. That which is publicly owned is subject only to the whim of the controlling governmental authority, which is so often subject only to itself.
Private property upholds freedom of conscience – it reinforces religious liberty – by setting the boundaries of state intervention. Without private property, citizens have no means of resisting government encroachments. When the Marxists finally seized control of a given country, they first reappropriated the disarmed population’s property before denuding the populace of its remaining rights.
This is not to say that the right to property is superior to freedom of religion, nor that economics determine our actions; that is precisely the Marxist tenet the West rejects. The human race, created in the image of God, is motivated by love. However, the ability to prioritize higher ends over lower ones and to live according to conscience is possible, Friedrich von Hayek wrote in The Road to Serfdom, “only in such a free economy.” Purely economic pursuits “are less important to us than many things precisely because in economic matters we are free to decide what to us is more, and what less, important.” Or, as Fyodor Dostoyevsky wrote, “Money is coined liberty.” (Interestingly, Leo Tolstoy’s great-grandson, Pyotor, is involved the fracas over St. Isaac’s from his seat in the Duma, where he has urged the state to restore the property to church use.)
The understanding that higher values rest upon private property requires that we reevaluate the threat economic collectivism poses to all pursuits, not simply material ones. We should dismiss, Hayek wrote, “the erroneous belief that there are purely economic ends separate from the other ends of life.”
Economic control is not merely control of a sector of human life which can be separated from the rest; it is the control of the means for all our ends. And whoever has sole control of the means must also determine which ends are to be served, which values are to be rated higher and which lower — in short, what men should believe and strive for.
Such power, he wrote, is “almost unlimited.”
For the Christians of St. Petersburg, the drive for boundless power is fueled by a technicality that dates back to the time of Czar Peter I (conventionally known as “Peter the Great,” although he persecuted faithful clergy and despoiled the Church of her property). Due to the system he established, the cathedral formally belonged to the state rather than the Church when it was completed. After the four-decade-long building process came to an end in 1858, the czars repeatedly refused ecclesiastical requests to cede full ownership to the Church, although Christians used it exclusively for worship. Now, protesters cite that example of state interference in the spiritual life of Russians as a precedent for perpetual interference.
In the Gospel, Zacchaeus gained eternal salvation by returning everything he embezzled while acting on behalf of the government. St. Petersburg – a name only recently restored after an interlude as Leningrad – may profit by his example.
Representatives of the Russian Orthodox Church did not immediately respond to inquiries for comment.
- St. Isaac’s is, alas, not the only controversy over returning church property. A similar dispute is taking place in the Crimean city of Sevastopol, where a monastery is asking for the free use of 24 buildings that once belonged to its monks, but which communists turned into Chersonesus Archaeological Museum. (When an attempt to turn ownership back to the monastery failed in 2015, the New Yorker cheered, “civilization appears to have defeated obscurantism.”)
(Photo credit: Dennis Jarvis, modified, CC BY-SA 2.0)
An unimpeachable classic work in political philosophy, intellectual and cultural history, and economics, The Road to Serfdom has inspired and infuriated politicians, scholars, and general readers for half a century.