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Omert Gives Russia The Royal Treatment Print E-mail

By Jay Bushinsky
October 23, 2008

Outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Israel's discredited and unpopular leader, took a highly-controversial step when he handed over one of this city's architectural landmarks to the Russian government early this month.  The 120-year old building in question is part of the 16-acre Russian Compound, a cluster of regal structures erected by the Imperial Orthodox Palestine Society with the blessing of the Czarist regime.  It is in the heart of the New City and overlooks the walled Old City's Christian Quarter where the Church of the Holy Sepulcher is situated.

Its namesake, Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich, intended it to serve as a home away from home for Russian Orthodox aristocrats during their pilgrimages to the Holy Land. But that function was hampered by the outbreak of World War I in 1914 and came to an abrupt halt in October, 1917, when the Bolsheviks, under the leadership of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, seized power in the decisive second revolution of that year.

Two months later, the British conquered Jerusalem and the Russian Compound was requisitioned by them as a governmental center until their League of Nations mandate ended with the establishment of the State of Israel, May 14, 1948.  The Israelis left the exquisite Church of the Holy Trinity intact, but turned the compound's other buildings into the Supreme Court, police headquarters and a prison.  The majestic building named for Grand Duke Sergei was assigned to the Ministry of Agriculture. 

In 1964, most of the compound was bought by Israel from the USSR for $3.5 million. Payment, however, was made in oranges, which were a virtual delicacy in citrus-starved Russia.  Excluded from the deal were the church and the Sergei Imperial Hospice, however.  This allegedly enabled the Soviets to use one of the latter's annexes as a local KGB headquarters.  Its facade bore the title, "Soviet Scientific Mission."

Sarah Honig, the Jerusalem Post's astute columnist, explains that "the Russian Compound was chartered by the Russian Orthodox Church from the Ottomans in 1858."  They referred to Grand Duke Sergei as head of the Imperial Orthodox Palestine Society.  Honig points out that "Turkish law categorized his property as strictly private and emphatically not a Russian state holding."  Considering the Ottoman Turkish position, it is significant that Grand Duke Sergei and his wife, Duchess Elizabeth Feodorovna, were childless and had no heirs.

However, this did not deter the contemporary Russian Federation from claiming them as well.  Honig quotes several relevant statements which she discovered in a Russian Foreign Ministry-sponsored website, one of which contends that "Russian property in Jerusalem" is one of the most outstanding bi-lateral problems between Russia and Israel, and another which states that "Russia has a number of complaints against Israel," including "the church mission as well as various other facilities in Jerusalem."

So why did Olmert give away the Sergei complex gratis and purportedly without any strings attached?  Was it because his predecessor, Ariel Sharon, had promised it to then-President (now Prime Minister) Vladimir Putin?  Olmert's aides have no answer.  The prevalent assumption in Israel is that in return, Putin's successor, President Dmitry Medvedev, promised not to deliver sophisticated S-300 ground-to-air missiles to Iran or Syria. 

On the other hand, forfeiture of this property to a major foreign claimant could tempt the Greek Orthodox, Ethiopian Orthodox, Coptic and Armenian churches, among others, who own precious land and edifices here, to follow suit.  For example, the Knesset (Israel's Parliament) and the cities elegant Rehavia Quarter, were built on land that belongs to the Greeks.

It is ironic that Grand Duke Sergei, albeit posthumously, was the first beneficiary of this dubious largesse.  As governor-general of Moscow, a post which he assumed in 1891, he presided over the expulsion from the Russian capital of up to 30,000 Jews.  Regarded by Jewish historians as an extreme anti-Semite, he was impervious to the human suffering caused by this heartless and unwarranted edict.

An article published in the New York Times, February 2, 1904, noted that it also "applied to dead Jews and on the strength of it their descendants have been forced to leave."  A dispatch filed by the Times' correspondent, Harold Frederic, Nov. 30, 1891, specified that 14,000 Jews were compelled to move to "Pale of Settlement" (the regions in which Russian Jews were allowed to live).  Olmert and his government did not consider asking for material compensation for the ousted Muscovites' descendants. 

This seems to be based on the unique Israeli diplomatic notion that giveaways without any quid pro quo can neutralize enmity and spur good relations.  In 1905, Grand Duke Sergei literally was blown to bits by a bomb thrown by a revolutionary.  His widow, Duchess Elizabeth Fyodorovna (nee Elizabeth of Hesse) was killed during the Civil War in 1918. 

The Bolsheviks caught her along with her faithful maidservant, Sister Varvara Yakovleva, and several members of the royal family in Alapaevsk, in the Ural Mountains.  They threw them into a mineshaft and left them there to die.  Anti-Communist White Russian forces spirited the Grand Duchess' body and that of Sister Varvara across Siberia to China. 

In 1921, with the secret assistance of the Royal Navy, a Russian priest was able to accompany the two bodies to Palestine where they were laid to rest in the Russian Orthodox Church of St. Mary Magdalene in the Garden of Gethsemane.

 
 

   
      

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