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Since its establishment in 1860, the Russian Compound in Jerusalem has undergone many makeovers and ownership changes. Just a week before Nikita Khrushchev’s reign at the helm of affairs of the Soviet Union came to an end in 1964, he approved a decision to sell a 17-acre property in central Jerusalem that was owned by the Moscow Patriarchate for $3.5 million-worth of Jaffa oranges.
All that remained in Russian hands after the sale in the so-called Russian Compound was the Church of Holy Trinity, a landmark of Jerusalem, with its green domes and four octagonal bell towers, and another building. The sale, which was made in oranges because Palestine at that time lacked hard currency, is still considered controversial, as Russia lost a prime piece of real estate in what is the Holy Land for practitioners of three of the country’s major faiths.
In addition to the church, the Russian Compound, which was once walled, had a Russian consulate, men’s and women’s hostels, a hospital and a massive Orthodox mission, among other buildings. In 2021, it houses Jerusalem’s district courthouse, police headquarters (and even hosted nightclubs), although some parts of the compound are now back under Russian ownership (read more below).
19th century Russian legacy
Ever since Russia adopted Orthodox Christianity, one of the greatest desires of the faithful was a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. By the time relatively modern and accessible transport was available for Russian pilgrims, Ottoman control of Palestine made the task all the more difficult. In 1844, the Ottomans allowed Russia’s first Orthodox archimandrite (senior abbot) to live in Jerusalem.
A decade and a half later, after Russia came up on the losing end of a power play with the French over the control of Orthodox sites in the Holy Land, Tsar Alexander II used his good offices with the Ottomans to construct a Russian consulate in Jerusalem.
The year 1860 witnessed the formation of the Imperial Orthodox Palestine Society, which aimed to guide pilgrims from Russia. These pilgrimages were encouraged and subsidised by Alexander II. Over the next few years, under the patronage of the Tsar, property was bought outside the old city of Jerusalem and named the ‘Russian Compound’.
The centerpiece of the Russian Compound was the Holy Trinity Cathedral, which was consecrated in 1872. Reminiscent of the great cathedrals of St. Petersburg, the Holy Trinity’s main hall and aisles are a shade of blue with light pink accents and depict the pantheon of Orthodox saints.
The Russian consulate was built fusing European characteristics and local construction techniques. However, the most important building in the compound after the main cathedral was known as the Duhovnia. It hosted the Russian Orthodox Church Mission, but was initially built as a hospice in 1863. The name translates as spiritual or ecclesiastical and the courtyard structure was built with its own chapel.
Another impressive structure is the Sergei Courtyard (completed in 1889), named after Grand Duke Sergei, Tsar Alexander III’s brother. With a Renaissance-style imperial tower, the building served as a hospice for Russian aristocrats.
Sergei Alexandrovich was a deeply religious man. In 1888 Emperor Alexander III entrusted Sergei Alexandrovich to be his representative at the sanctification of the temple of Holy Mary Magdalene, built on the Holy Land of Gethsemane in the memory of their mother, Maria Alexandrovna.
Sergei Alexandrovich had already been to the Holy Land in 1881, when he participated in the foundation of the Orthodox Palestinian Society and was its elected chairman. This society raised funds for pilgrims to the Holy Land, provided assistance to the Russian Mission in Palestine, and worked towards extending missionary work, for purchasing lands and relics that came down from the time of the Saviour and were associated with His life. Having heard about the possibility of visiting the Holy Land, his wife Elizaveta Fyodorovna took it as a sign from above and prayed so that there, at the Lord’s tomb, the Saviour Himself would let her know His will.
In October 1888, Grand Prince Sergei Alexandrovich and his wife arrived in Palestine. The temple of Holy Mary Magdalene was built in the Gethsemane garden at the foot of the Mount of Olives. This temple, crowned with five gold domes, to this day retains the title of one of the most beautiful temples of Jerusalem. The mountain was topped with a great bell tower, called The Russian Candle.
Having seen this beauty and having felt the presence of God’s grace in this place, the Grand Duchess said, “Oh, if I could be buried here when I die!” At that time she did not know that those words were prophetic. As a gift to the temple of Holy Mary Magdalene, Elizaveta Fyodorovna brought precious vessels, the Gospel and incenses.
After WWI the Kaiser offered several times to provide shelter for Elisabeth in Prussia as the Wall Street bankrolled Bolshevik regime change (dubbed the Russian Revolution) developed and grew worse. She refused, saying that she would leave neither her convent, nor Russia, of her own free will. Then the Provisional Government was dissolved. The Bolsheviks took over the embers of Imperial Russia and its vast resources were conduit-fed to Wall Street and the vast American corporations.
In June 1918 Elisabeth and her servant were arrested and taken, along with the Grand Duke Serge Mikhaïlovitch, the Princes John, Constantine and Igor, sons of Grand Duke Constantin Constaninovitch and Prince Wladimir Paley, to the district of Perm, where they were imprisoned.
On the night of July 18, one day after the murder of the Tsar and his family, Elisabeth and the others of their royal entourage were thrown alive down a disused mine shaft. Inhabitants of a neighbouring town heard shrieks for help, and found the mineshaft, but for fear of the Bolsheviks no-one tried to help.
It is assumed that the victims died of suffocation and starvation and the wounds they received before and after they were hurled down the mine shaft. A division of the White Russian Army entered the town a few days later and by order of their commander, their bodies were recovered. Strips of a nun’s veil had been used to dress wounds. The Marchioness of Milford Haven subsequently took the remains of Elisabeth and her servant Varvara to Jerusalem, where they were buried in the crypt of St. Mary Magdalene, a Russian Orthodox church which stands near the Mount of Olives.
World War I and its impact
The Russian Compound continued to receive state patronage till the outbreak of World War I, when Russia and the Ottoman Empire found themselves on opposing sides. The Ottoman authorities were quick to expel the Russians in the compound after the war broke out.
By 1918, the British had seized control of Palestine. The new rulers used the Russian Compound as one of the bases for the British Mandate. Over the next three decades, the compound hosted courthouses, prisons and government offices.
The compound and nearby streets were subsequently turned into a central security zone and surrounded by a barbed wire fence. Cynical Palestinian Jews called the area ‘Bevingrad’, a combination of the name of British Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin (who denied entry of the Jewish diaspora to Palestine) and Stalingrad (for the way the city held fort during World War II).
Israeli government offices
The compound was captured by Jewish paramilitaries during the 1947-49 Palestine War. The occupying Israelis decided to return all Russian property in the country to the Soviet Union, after the latter recognised the state of Israel.
The Soviet Union placed little value on what would go on to become one of the most expensive areas in the Middle East. With religion being frowned upon in the USSR, the authorities saw little significance in keeping the compound and, hence, the exchange of this important and historic territory for mere oranges.
The Israeli government found the same use for the compound as the British. The Duhovnia now hosts Jerusalem’s lower courts and a magistrate court.
A miniscule Russian presence remained in the compound after the 1964 sale, with the Imperial Orthodox Palestine Society keeping an office there. In the Cold War era, Israeli intelligence viewed the society with a great deal of suspicion and media reports hinted that the members were actually KGB agents.
Russian Jewish immigrants to Israel also used to frequent the restaurants and bars in the area, which had nightclubs with names such as ‘Glasnost’ and a more recent ‘Putin’. The compound will soon host a new state of the art campus of the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design.
In 2008, the Israeli occupiers of Palestine agreed to give the Sergei Courtyard back to Russia. Over the decades, it has served as offices for various Israeli ministries. The Russian government has announced plans to use the courtyard for its original purpose – which is to serve pilgrims. Moscow has also requested more land and property in the compound but it’s unlikely that the asking price will be Jaffa oranges. Source
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