The skyline of Paris has just acquired yet another arresting feature. Only a stone’s throw from the Eiffel Tower, a spanking new Russian Orthodox cathedral, complete with five onion domes and a cultural centre, was inaugurated on December 4th by Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, amid sonorous rhetoric about the long and chequered history of the Russian diaspora in France.
To secular observers, this was the latest success for Russian soft power, showing that even in times when intergovernmental relations are frosty, ecclesiastical relations can still forge ahead. In October, Patriarch Kirill reconsecrated the Russian cathedral in London and had a brief meeting with the supreme governor of the Church of England, Queen Elizabeth; this was a more cordial chat than any conversation the political leaders of Britain and Russia have had recently.
The new temple in Paris was, in a sense, both a product and a hostage of secular politics. Nicolas Sarkozy, France’s then-president, agreed to its construction, with Russian funds, back in 2007 as a good-will gesture to Russia. Plans to turn the cathedral’s opening into a moment of diplomatic togetherness, attended by the French and Russian presidents, foundered after the countries’ row over Syria sharpened. But nothing prevented Patriarch Kirill from inaugurating the new house of prayer, with French cultural figures like the singer Mireille Matthieu in attendance.