More than 80 years after its churches were seized by “godless Bolsheviks” and turned into anything from grain stores to shoe factories the Russian Orthodox Church is launching an unprecedented legal battle to win back its property.
Furious that the Russian state still owns most of the country’s churches 13 years after the collapse of Communism, and has had the gall to start charging it land tax, the church has launched the first property restitution lawsuit since the Russian Revolution in 1917.
The lawsuit, which is regarded as a test case that could open the flood gates for thousands of other restitution claims from aristocrats to foreign governments, relates to the stunning 15th-century Church of Ilia the Prophet in Moscow which currently houses Russia’s State Museum of the East. The church wants it to become a “living place of worship” once again and says it is poised to launch a rash of similar lawsuits throughout the Russian capital which could see a third of the land owned by the state in Moscow contested.
The church was dispossessed of all its property in 1918 under a sweeping decree issued by the Bolshevik leader Lenin, an atheist.
Before the revolution it had been Russia’s largest landowner with some 7.5 million acres to its name but overnight it lost it all. Icons and other religious paraphernalia were plundered, bell towers were toppled, hundreds of churches were simply bulldozed out of existence and at least 45,000 priests were murdered.