Want to See the Russian Churches on the Riviera?

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Elsewhere in the world, the word may be that “the Russians are coming”; in the coastal region between Nice and Sanremo, they have arrived long ago and been part of the local communities for well over 150 years

Once upon a time, before the advent of satellite TV dishes and the world-wide web, immigrants, even the very richest ones, felt the need to huddle together in the cold environment of an alien culture. What they wanted above all was to worship together – and to do that, they had to build their own churches first.

The Riviera was no exception to this rule, and although church-building no longer sits on top of the local ex-pats’ agenda, the buildings are still there, and if you have been hiking anywhere on the Riviera, you will have seen some of them.

Most of these churches, reflecting the nationalities of the people who built them, are Lutheran and Anglican, and you can easily miss them because they are often stashed away in side streets and, at any rate, fairly inconspicuous since they blend so well into their environments.

Read also: The Remains of the Roman in the Riviera

This is not, however, something you would say about the Riviera’s Russian-Orthodox churches: it is almost impossible to pass them by without noticing them – and without registering the essential surreality of onion domes, normally associated with horse-drawn sleds, snowy scenes from the Russian taiga and Doctor Zhivago, surrounded by subtropical flora and palm trees.

"Russian Churches on the Riviera - Nice"

It is exactly because they look so incongruous that these churches have become an essential element of the “Riviera townscape” – together with castle ruins, yacht harbours and palatial 19th century casinos. So much so that it comes almost as a surprise to learn that there are only five of them. You could, if you wanted to, visit them all in a single day.

"Russian Churches on the Riviera -Nice"

The oldest Russian-Orthodox church on the Riviera was built in 1859 on Rue Longchamp in Nice (a little to the west of the old town). It is by far the least showy of the lot and the one that most looks like a local church, at least as long as you focus your eyes on the ground level.

This is no coincidence because the church had to comply with strict regulations – at the time, in principle, only Catholic churches were allowed to be built in Nice. The Russians, however, were given a special (restricted) permit, because the Kingdom of Sardinia, to which Nice belonged at the time, was a formal ally of Russia.

Sardinia gave the Russians a base for their Mediterranean fleet (Villefranche-sur-mer), something they had lost in the Crimean War, and in return, the Russian navy provided Sardinia’s rulers with some degree of protection against foreign adversaries. Before the church was completed, Russian civilians in the area had to go to Villefranche to celebrate Orthodox masses – many of the battleships brought their own priests and allowed civilians on board for services.

"Russian Churches on the Riviera - Carnoles Menton"

Menton has an even older association with Russia than Nice (Menton is where Mme. Ranevskaya in Chekhov’s Cherry Orchard owned a villa before it went under the hammer to pay off her debts) and was, throughout the 19th century, the second favourite Mediterranean base for Russia’s Imperial family and high aristocracy, beaten in popularity only by the Crimea. (Let’s just hope that this will not give Vladimir Putin any silly ideas.)

The Orthodox church in Menton (on 14 Rue Paul Morillot in the town’s Carnoles district) was built as an annex to the infamous Maison Russe, a home for Russians who had come here to arrest the progress of their tuberculosis, and was a project of the Grand Duchess Anastasia, granddaughter of Czar Nicholas I. The church, consecrated in 1892, still functions as the active centre of Menton’s Russian-Orthodox community, which includes a few venerable aristocrats with familial bonds and loyalty ties to old Czarist Russia.

Russian Churches on the Riviera - Cannes"

In the 1890s, Cannes became an important centre for the Russian community on the Riviera when Grand Duke Michael purchased a home here. Grand Duke Michael, the scandal-prone “wild child” of the Romanovs, had been exiled because of his “inappropriate” marriage with a grand-daughter of Alexander Pushkin, herself the daughter of a mesalliance between a disgraced prince and a commoner. Michael and his bride eloped, and when Michael’s mother, on hearing about her son’s latest escapade, suffered a fatal heart attack, he was not even allowed to return to Russia for her funeral.

The Russian-Orthodox Church of Cannes – called Saint Michael the Archangel and located in the east of the town, on 40 Boulevard Alexandre III – was one of Grand Duke Michael’s two great building projects: the other was the local golf club. The church was completed in 1894, and its hey-day as the centre of Russia’s Riviera aristocracy continued well into the 1920s, when one exiled Grand Duke married here and two others were laid to rest in the crypt.

"Russian Churches on the Riviera - Sanremo"

For a long time, the Italian town of Sanremo – like Menton – had served as a sanatorium town for aristocratic TB patients from Russia, but without providing a proper place of worship. In 1908, finally, an Orthodox chapel on the local cemetery was consecrated, and in 1912, the Czar himself got involved (after a first cousin of his, another Grand Duke, had died from TB in Sanremo), donating 2,000 rubles (approx. 10 percent of the acquisition price) to the purchase of a suitable piece of land.

Read also: What Made San Remo Famous

The church (on Via Nuvoloni, opposite the old train station), consecrated in 1913, was constructed according to plans by A. V. Shchusev, a renowned expert in classical Russian architecture. Shchusev was to go on from here to design an even more famous building – the Lenin Mausoleum on Moscow’s Red Square.

" Russian Churches on the Riviera - Nice"

The largest and best-known among the Russian churches on the Riviera – and the only one ranked as a Cathedral – is St Nicholas on Avenue Nicholas II in Nice, just outside the central station. The building works started in 1899, after it was decided that the old church had become too small for the growing Russian community.  The project enjoyed the active support of the royal family, and it is said that Czar Nicholas II covered most of the costs “from his private funds”.

"detail on a Russian orthodox church in Nice"

Another reason that the church is so lavish has to do with a change in political control: since the completion of the old church, Nice had become a part of France where freedom of religion ruled supreme, and the Orthodox community were free to build a proper Russian-style cathedral – bells, onion bulbs and a large dome, all the things they had been forbidden fifty years before.

But why was the Imperial family so closely involved in this project? The reason can be found in the backyard of the church: the chapel you see here …

"chapel on the grounds of the Russian Orthodox church Nice"

… actually precedes the Cathedral and was built by the Czarina Maria Alexandrovna after her son Nicholas, the czarevitch, had died here on a visit in 1865. The Czar and his wife bought the house where their 21-year-old son passed away and had it torn down. The chapel stands in the exact place of the young czarevitch’s bedroom: the place where he died.

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