Construction of controversial 4,800 sq metre complex has been marred by architectural, financial and political disputes
A view shows the Russian Orthodox church and spiritual centre before its inauguration in Paris.
A vast Russian “spiritual and cultural centre” crowned by a golden-domed Orthodox cathedral – widely seen as a grand expression of Moscow’s quest to project an image of itself as a powerful, religious country – is set to open in Paris.
The 4,800 sq metre complex-features the newly-built Holy Trinity Cathedral capped with five gilded domes; a parish centre comprising an auditorium and foyer, offices and apartments; a French-Russian primary school for 150 pupils; and a cultural centre, including a bookshop, exhibition spaces and a coffee shop.
Vladimir Putin was due to attend the unveiling, highlighting the centre’s symbolic importance, until the Russian leader last week cancelled his planned visit amid a row with France and other western powers over the continuing war in Syria.
The construction project has also been marred by architectural, financial and political disputes. French officials have expressed concern that the building is a stone’s throw from a sensitive government compound. As well as housing France’s supreme magistrates council, the neighbouring Palais de l’Alma contains the Élysée Palace’s postal service and the private apartments of senior presidential advisers.
French media reports say that country’s counter-espionage services have surrounded the building with jamming devices to prevent the Russians from using it for electronic surveillance.
The purchase of the plot was first proposed in 2007 by the head of the Russian Orthodox church at the time, the late Patriarch Aleksii II, as part of a Russian campaign to gain control of churches and graves dating from tsarist times and reassert control over the Russian diaspora, including in France, where there are an estimated 200,000 followers of Russian Orthodoxy.
Former French president Nicolas Sarkozy reportedly intervened personally to ensure that Russia could buy and develop the plot near the Eiffel Tower and Alexandre III bridge.
Initial plans for the site were described by a former Paris mayor as “mediocre” and “utterly inappropriate”.
Initial plans for the site were described by a former Paris mayor as ‘mediocre’ and ‘utterly inappropriate’.
In 2010, the then Russian president, Dmitry Medvedev, signed the deal on behalf of Russia to purchase the prized property by the banks of the Seine river – a Unesco-protected site – for €73m (£65m). Reports said other countries seeking to buy the plot included Saudi Arabia and Canada.
But an initial request to build the Russian Orthodox Spiritual and Cultural Centre, filed in January 2012, was met with opposition in the French capital.
Then-Paris mayor, Bertrand Delanoë, described the plans drawn up by architect Manuel Núñez Yanowsky – featuring five golden onion domes, white limestone, and glass – as “pastiche”, “mediocre,” and “utterly inappropriate for the site”.
After François Hollande succeeded Sarkozy as France’s head of state in 2012, French heritage officials issued further criticisms, before Russia withdrew its first application for a building permit.
The project was then redesigned under the supervision of architect Jean-Michel Wilmotte, and a building permit was issued in December 2013.
Construction began in 2014 against a backdrop of deteriorating ties between Moscow and the west over Russia’s actions in east Ukraine, where it occupied and annexed Crimea and has lent support to armed separatists who continue to control parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions.
The cost of the construction work, by French company Bouygues, has been estimated at around €100m.
The Russian culture minister, Vladimir Medinsky, is set to attend this week’s opening ceremony for the centre, which officials have described as a “symbol of friendship” between Russia and France.