State has plan figured out for Estonian church upkeep in St. Petersburg

EELK Archbishop Urmas Viilma presiding over a service held at the Estonian St. John's Church in St. Petersburg, Russia. April 8, 2017.
EELK Archbishop Urmas Viilma presiding over a service held at the Estonian St. John's Church in St. Petersburg, Russia. April 8, 2017. Source: Estonian government

The board of the Estonian congregation of St. John's Church in St. Petersburg is discussing the possibility of terminating its contract with concert and festival organizer Eesti Kontsert. According to the Estonian state, a solution to the church's financing concerns, sparked by sanctions imposed on Russia this spring, has been found.

This May, Eesti Kontsert announced its intention to terminate its contract with the Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church's (EELK) St. John's congregation in St. Petersburg, the owners of the Estonian St. John's Church there, as the ongoing war in Ukraine and EU sanctions imposed on Russia have prevented the foundation from fulfilling its contractual obligations on site as well as paying its financial obligations, i.e. monthly administrative costs.

The Ministry of Culture blocked the move, however, and began seeking solutions for how contractual obligations involving the church could nonetheless be fulfilled.

Last week, the St. Petersburg Society of Estonian Culture, which is based at the church, sent a request to the ministry, Eesti Kontsert and the EELK to terminate the contract, citing the fact that, in accordance with a regulation issued by the ministry, Eesti Kontsert has banned the organization of any events at the church since May — with the exception of Sunday services.

The organization believes, however, that this restriction is jeopardizing the cultural society's activities.

"We are worried that if the Estonian side and the Government of the Republic of Estonia don't get involved in resolving these problems, it's possible that St. John's Church will end up in the hands of incompetent people," the St. Petersburg Society of Estonian Culture said in its letter.

According to the church, Eesti Kontsert being prohibited from organizing events at the church building jeopardizes the local Estonian cultural society's activity because the church hall can no longer be used to promote education and culture.

Minister of Culture Piret Hartman (SDE) said that it's clear that it's very difficult to organize substantive activities at St. John's Church, but they have reached a solution that will allow for the church building's bills to be paid.

"Regarding the administrative side — to cover the costs and keep the building in Eesti Konstert's hands — those solutions have now been found," Hartman said in an interview with ERR last week. "I don't want to go into detail right now."

According to Eesti Kontsert, their foundation operates according to the law and they would also like to find a solution that would allow them to continue to operate the St. Petersburg church.

Kertu Orro, a board member at the foundation, Eesti Kontsert has suspended economic activity at the church for an indeterminate period of time and on a contractual basis in accordance with the Ministry of Culture's instructions.

According to Meelis Kompus, director of communications and international cooperation at the Ministry of Culture, all necessary bills have been paid for now.

"The termination of this contract is not on the agenda, despite the fact that all manner of cultural cooperation and economic activity in Russia is suspended indefinitely due to the war in Ukraine," Kompus said.

49-year contract

Eesti Kontsert ceased its concert activity at St. John's Church in St. Petersburg on May 2.

Orro has previously explained to ERR that the church building belongs to the St. John's congregation of St. Petersburg, not to the Estonian state or to Eesti Kontsert. The latter had a long-term facility use agreement in place with the church which stipulates that priority use is to go to Eesti Kontsert with its core activity — to organize concerts, and to host Estonian musicians and showcase Estonian culture.

The institution is likewise obligated to maintain the building, preserve the property, cover all running costs as well as make necessary investments into the building.

The institution has rights to use the facility, described by the Eesti Kontsert board member as a "so-called Estonian House" in St. Petersburg, for 49 years, including the covering of all expenses related to the building and the investing of Estonian funds in order to preserve the property.

The Estonian state invested €10 million into the restoration of St. John's Church in St. Petersburg.


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Editor: Aili Vahtla

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