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Reconstruction and restitution in Tomsk

How a conflict between the Orthodox church, the authorities and the residents is playing out in this Siberian city.

Tomsk Medical Military Institute. Source: the very centre of Tomsk stands a brick building, a listed monument in the late Russian style, with a cupola, arches and lateral porches. In 2010, the Tomsk Military Medical Institute that was based here, the only one in the country to train military chemists, closed down, and responsibility for the building was then transferred from the Ministry of Defence to the city. Over the years, the Tomsk authorities have changed their plans for this building a number of times: it was going to be an education park, an inter-university lycée for gifted children, a presidential military academy, a campus for a specialist high school and a museum.

Another of Tomsk’s listed monument, a second building belonging to the military medical institute on Nikitin Street, is in the same situation: at various times, this building was slated to be the district administrative centre, a sports and a cultural centre. However, in autumn 2017, the Tomsk diocese demanded it become church property – and this has not been a popular move with the city’s residents.


“Under Federal Law, there should be a restitution of these buildings to the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC), since they have a religious purpose,” the diocesan chief press officer told journalists in May 2017. “Metropolitan Rostislav, the archbishop of Tomsk and Asinovo, has made this position clear on numerous occasions.”

The Tomsk diocese has the right to the restitution of these buildings because, a century ago the Tomsk Military Medical Institute was a girls school belonging to the diocese, with room for 600 boarders and its own hospital; in the winter its playground was flooded to provide an ice rink for the pupils. After the 1917 revolution, the building was taken over by the Soviet state and became a military medical institute (the building on Nikitin Street had been a theological seminary before the revolution).

In an interview with Nezavisimaya Gazeta newspaper in 2002, when Metropolitan Rostislav had just been appointed Archbishop of the Tomsk diocese, he declared that the church had no money and no need for extra buildings.

“These buildings are standing empty, disconnected from the city heating system… My heart bleeds when I pass them”

Later, however, Metropolitan Rostislav changed his mind, and for the last eight years he has been lobbying for the return of the buildings – first from the Ministry of Defence and then the city authorities. He has also expressed a wish for Tomsk to have the third higher theological academy in Russia (at present there are just two, in Moscow and St Petersburg).

Two years ago, the city’s mayor announced that a new school would be built at 49 Kirov Avenue in 2017. Tomsk’s parliament made a special provision and changed the status of the land where the medical institute formerly stood so that a school could be established there.

TVMI in its heyday, before closure and fire damage. Source: Wikipedia.At the same time, the former deputy mayor Alexander Tsymbalyuk announced that, while the buildings formally belonged to the diocese, the local church was silent on the subject of their possible demolition (although in 2013 its head was actively declaring his intention to return them to the church). “These buildings are standing empty, disconnected from the city heating system, and are consequently falling into disrepair and in danger of collapse,” Rostislav commented. “My heart bleeds when I pass them.”

Schools before churches

The conflict between Tomsk’s city authorities and the diocese has been dragging on in part because the city doesn’t have enough schools – by 2025, there will be a 16,000 place shortfall. One school in a new district is working in three shifts, despite the Ministry of Education’s directive to have all schools transferred to two shifts by 2018. Some parents queue up overnight just to register their child in the first grade. New schools built on the land at present occupied by the old medical institute, as the city authorities planned, would ease the pressure on school places.

The diocese, however, is proposing the building of an Orthodox high school or nursery school, and it is supported by local parliament member and founder of a military-patriotic camp, Alexey Vasiliyev.

“The city authority, the legal successor of Soviet power, has declared the actions of the city’s previous authorities unlawful and ratified the basis, mechanisms and sequence of actions to return church property,” says Vasiliyev. “However you look at it, 70-80 years ago the church was deprived of its rights.”

“Given that the city needs schools – in two or three years the system will be at crisis point – the best thing would be to open an Orthodox school. There is a demand for them”

“People are putting forward very odd arguments: ‘The city needs leisure and cultural facilities.’ Of course it does! But if someone is asked to hand over his house for it to become a cultural centre, he’ll say, what do you mean – it’s mine! This [building] also belongs to someone: if you’re not ready to hand your property over, why should you ask the church to do so? Or another fine argument: there has been a church there for 20 years, but it belonged to the Soviet government for 70 years.”

“I think the law has to be observed, and then we need to decide what to do with the site. And given that the city needs schools – in two or three years the system will be at crisis point – the best thing would be to open an Orthodox school. There is a demand for them.” 

In 2012, there was already an attempt to open an Orthodox nursery school here. “Orthodox couples tend to have large families,” its founder Larisa Nedogovorova tells me, “and they have the means to pay for nursery education for their children. But there weren’t enough Orthodox families who wanted to send their children there, so we also took people who are tolerant towards Orthodox ideas.”

According to Anna (not her real name), an active churchgoer and teacher at a church school, the opening of any new school would improve the situation with secondary education in the city, but there is no need for a specialised Orthodox school. “An Orthodox school would actually only differ in its holiday dates, which would be tied to religious festivals, and in having religious education as a subject instead of ‘The Basis of Orthodox Culture’ as taught by ordinary schools. As a mother, it’s important to me for my child to study with children from members of various religions or none: it’s more important for him to live in the real world, and not just visit it after school.”

This situation is complicated by the fact that none of the warring factions have the cash to restore the former medical institute buildings. Surrounded by a fence and trees, for the last eight years the building on the central Kirov Avenue has been reminiscent of an abandoned mansion from a thriller movie. And since 2014, the building on Kirov Avenue has suffered 11 fires. Three years ago, it was burned to the ground as, for want of proper security measures, it had become prey to looters. The building on Nikitin Street is also in a terrible state and, as both of the buildings are listed, their restoration would be more expensive than usual.

The diocese had planned to include them in the federal-level “Culture of Russia” restoration project, but that project ends this year, and may or may not be extended. And Tomsk’s city council, having laid out more than a billion roubles on building its first new school in 25 years, is unwilling to spend anything on the restoration of the site.

Why do we need a new chapel 300 metres from a church?

In May 2017, it became clear that the Tomsk authorities had given up the idea of building a school in one part of the medical institute, and in October they announced that the other building was to be given to the Orthodox Church.

Tomsk members of the national Left Block organisation responded by picketing the city’s main thoroughfare: “We tried to organise a protest demo against it,” Maxim Kot, one of the solitary pickets told me. “But they wouldn’t give us permission, on the grounds that an event was taking place on the square where we wanted to demonstrate. They suggested we hold it at a “Hyde Park” [a site designated for protest without prior approval from city authorities] on the outskirts of Tomsk,where there’s nobody except dog walkers and mums with buggies.” Unable to hold their protest, Left Block posted a petition on the internet, and got 1500 signatures.

In May, people also learned about the plans to build a chapel on Tomsk’s central Novosobornaya (New Cathedral) Square, where, as the name suggests, the city’s main cathedral stood until 1930, when it was blown up by the Soviet authorities.

“Novosobornaya was the square where the most important sacred building in our city and indeed the entire Tomsk region, the Holy Trinity Cathedral, stood,” Metropolitan Rostislav said in April 2017. “And our goal as the people of this city is to rebuild it, whether sooner or later.”

Not everyone agrees with him. Around 3,500 people have signed a petition against the chapel. But an open letter supporting its construction has been signed by local business owners, sportspeople and public figures. Formally, the city authorities could only get permission for the project after public hearings, which the city’s residents were insisting on. But on the day chosen for the hearings the administration cancelled them.

“They’re going to build a chapel 300 metres from another church, in a student city where there are no public leisure facilities”

The Tomsk office of the Russian Communist Party is, symbolically, on Konstantin Batenkov Square, named after a revolutionary exiled to the city 200 years ago after the abortive Decembrist uprising. Its walls are painted red and a bust of Lenin stands amongst the vases of flowers. One of the local activists is Valeriya Zaikova, who has been organising protest demos against the chapel.

“They’re going to build a chapel 300 metres from another church, in a student city where there are no public leisure facilities,” she tells me. “More people came to the protests organised by the Communist Party than had ever come to any of our events before. We didn’t lobby anyone, to persuade them to protest, but when we saw how many people were on our side we realised that this was a hot issue among the public.”

Valeria Zaikova. Source: KPRF Tomsk Press Office.After the protests, Valeriya, as the local leader of the Communist Party’s youth wing became a target of abuse from active churchgoers, a symbol of their hostility: a local Orthodox radio station discussed photos of her on holiday wearing a swimsuit, which they had found on social media. And one day Valeria arrived home to find her door covered in pieces of paper carrying threats. “I went to the police, where they said if anyone attacked me they could find them from their fingerprints,” Valeriya tells me.

There is now no further talk about a chapel, which the Communists see as a victory for them. But they are still hoping to set up some communication channels with the Tomsk diocese. “We’d like to speak to the people who talk about us on the radio and social media,” says Ivan Obydennov, a member of the Communist Party.

After party members requested official correspondence with the church, they sent their list of questions: why does the diocese, in their campaign to restore the church, use the argument that a church stood here in the past but takes no notice of the fact that there was a stadium here in between? What does the city council actually want to build on Novosobornaya Square? And who will decide which events can take place on the square and which will hurt the churchgoers’ feelings? There has been no response to these questions from the diocese.

Silent conflicts

This is not the first conflict Tomsk has had in its relations with the Russian Orthodox Church. In 2013, there was a standoff between church members and other residents in the new Zarechny housing estate, where there were plans to build a church. The residents rejected this proposal: it would increase traffic in an area that was already congested enough. The first stone of the new church was officially laid and consecrated, but nothing more was heard on the issue.

Another conflict arose over plans for a church in the Kashtak district, at a spot used for executions during Stalin’s Terror. Both the locals and environmental specialists resisted: the building was slated to rise on an unstable site on a hill. After a few pickets, the subject seemed to have been dropped from the agenda, but last month a church was opened: a small, temporary structure standing beside the foundations for a large one to come.

Novosobornaya Square hasn’t become the site for a new church, but it has also lost its public and political importance

Representatives of the Tomsk diocese couldn’t answer my questions. At first they said there was no point in talking about a building being transferred before it happened, and then added that they couldn’t answer any questions without the blessing of the archbishop. Meanwhile, the church expressed the hope that yet another building that had belonged to the diocese, housing a concert hall with an organ and the local history museum, would also be returned to it.

“In the early 20th century this was the bishop’s residence,” says Elena Andreyeva, one of the museum’s researchers, as she points at the museum walls around us. “If we were to return to the church all the buildings it owned before the revolution, we would discover that there is also a household chapel in the auditorium of Tomsk State University’s main building. Other buildings that belonged to the church included the assembly hall in the high school in Mariinsky Lane, the Forestry Technical College and the building opposite this museum, now the NKVD prison museum.”

The site in Zarechny, Tomsk, where originally a school was planned, is now planned for a church. Source: to Andreyeva, a very large area of central Tomsk was church property: the Boloto district near the men’s monastery; the student residential complex of Tomsk Polytechnic University, where you can still see structures belonging to the demolished women’s monastery. There is also the area of the closed city of Seversk with its former summer residences for the men’s monastery and the Predtchensk district where the women’s monastery had its country retreats.

The future of the the former military medical institute is currently on hold.

“The formalities haven’t been completed, so the transfer can’t go through yet,” I was told in the city administration building. At the end of last year, Tomsk’s mayor announced that “after long negotiations with the Russian Orthodox Church, we were planning to build a school there. But when the planners did all their calculations it became clear that the old walls couldn’t provide the space required. There would have to be major reconstruction, which would be much more expensive – running to billions of roubles – it’s easier just to build a new school.”

“I would say that after their fingers were burnt over the Novosobornaya business, the Mayor’s Office will try anything,” historian and political scientist Sergey Shpagin tells me. “Everyone is looking in bewilderment at the federal law on the restitution of church property [passed in 2010], but the guys at City Hall just want to avoid a new ‘raid’ from the prosecutor’s office.”

Novosobornaya Square hasn’t become the site for a new church, but it has also lost its public and political importance. At the end of last year, the mayor announced a ban on protests being held there, as they disturb people while they relax. At present, the square is full of ice sculptures as part of the Crystal Tomsk competition. A ice sculpture entitled “Shaman” won first place. The city authorities are evidently not keen on their main square going Orthodox.


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