Crossing Communism's chasm

International | Renovating the rubble

Issue: "Cloning: Double trouble," March 7, 1998

In Odessa, history died along with freedom when the Bolshevik Revolution seized power 80 years ago. After confiscating privately owned buildings, communists destroyed property records and usually whole histories of what went on inside them.

That kind of state-induced amnesia-invoked all across the former Soviet Union-has made returning building sites to private hands an arduous cause. For both archivist and lawyer, there is no paper trail.

Now a young congregation is trying to outwit both the state and history-in this case, communist history-in order to establish a Reformed church in the city's historic center.

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This complicated story begins in the early 19th century when French immigrants to Odessa, escaping the aftermath of their country's revolution, began the Evangelical Reformed Church. The church eventually secured property on Khersonskaya Street, now known as Pastera Street, the church's present site. Members built a neo-Gothic building in 1896 and dedicated it in 1900. Austrians, Brits, Germans, and Swiss, along with the French, attended. Preaching was alternately in German and French. Under the Soviets, the church was closed and converted into a puppet theater.

The current, four-year-old Evangelical Reformed Church of Odessa, led by Sasha Korsakov, its pastor, traced this lineage for city officials last August in an attempt to win custody of the building that once housed its predecessor. Church leaders asked that the building be returned "to its rightful owners and to its rightful use" and cited two decrees, one issued in 1992 and one in 1994, permitting "the return to religious organizations of religious real property." Ukrainians, independent from the former Soviet Union since 1991, passed those acts to permit the return of property confiscated by the government if a proper claim is submitted and approved.

The written appeal noted that the Reformed denominations share theological roots. It was helped by the fact that the Evangelical Presbyterian Church of Odessa has been affiliated with the nationwide Reformed Evangelical Church since 1992.

The appeal was also grounded in politics. By documenting the church's existence prior to the Soviet era and pointing out preferential treatment already given to more prevalent Orthodox churches, the church leaders bolstered their claim. "Given the wanton destruction by the government during Soviet times of thousands of church buildings," they wrote, "it would seem the moral duty of the government to see that buildings were again supplied to its citizens for the worship of God in the various communions which heretofore existed in this city."

In December, the church received preliminary approval to take possession of the building from the Odessa Regional Office of the Protection of Objects of Cultural Heritage. If democracy has brought the church a foot in the door, however, neo-Orwellian bureaucracy threatens to keep it from gaining full access. Bureaucrats wanted assurances that the church would pay for repairs to the building before granting access; the cost of repairs-which will be extensive-could not be calculated without access. Church leaders say they won't commit to repairing the structure without full title.

Another complication is the building's present tenants, the 900-member Theatrical Actors Guild of Ukraine. The union has a contract to rent the facility, which it will not abandon, even though it has refused to carry out repairs promised under the terms of the agreement.

Church leaders prepared for a three-way meeting Feb. 3 with government officials and the actors' guild in hopes of reaching an agreement with all parties. When they arrived, however, they found that actors' guild president Anatoli Duda, a well-known opera singer, was also representing the government. He happens to be on the executive council of the Odessa Oblast, or state government.

In other ways the church is also learning that its work has just begun. No one from the congregation had been inside the building until January. Much of it is rubble. In some parts of the four-story structure even the subfloor is missing. Once-concrete columns have been chipped to their bone and plaster fissures abound. Graffiti rings the entryway. Remarkably, five of six original stained-glass windows remain and the sanctuary, with seating capacity of 500, retains the lines of its graceful arched balcony, a choir loft, and excellent acoustics.

Despite the work ahead, the congregation has few options for a meeting place. Worship is now prohibited in public buildings and schools in Ukraine. Church members presently rent a meeting hall, six blocks from the building they hope to acquire. The congregation, numbering just over 100, pays rent for every hour of its use.

"It's tenuous," said missionary Clay Quarterman of the present arrangement. He is an American who is part of a team working with the church from Atlanta-based Mission to the World. Renovating the building is important, he said, because "the idea of historicity is a big thing in Europe.... It is hard to get respectability as a newcomer. If you have a historic building, people are more willing to darken your door and listen to your message."


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