Russia’s government is quietly acquiring some very prestigious international real estate. Not paying for it. Just getting it.

The latest example is the gorgeous Russian-style Cathedral of Saint Nicholas on the French Riviera. A blaze of colour, pattern, domes and spires on the outside and richly embellished inside the cathedral is undeniably a religious and architectural work of art. Designed and built in 1912, it was constructed on land that had been bought 50 years earlier by Tsar Nicholas II’s grandfather, Alexander II.


The cathedral was intended to cater to the Russian orthodox elite – aristocrats and industrialists in the main – who’d fled Russia for the French Côte d’Azur before the 1917 revolution. Many of those exiles took up residence in the lovely Mediterranean town of Nice so the cathedral became their local place of worship.


After the fall of the soviet regime two decades ago many new Russian exiles have arrived on the Riviera, many settling in and around Nice. This new Russian elite, fattened by post-Soviet governments, has made quite a splash with their huge wads of cash, buying up expensive villas with nice sea views and spending oodles of money in Riviera casinos. Whether they spend a lot of time in church is anybody’s guess.


The Russian government however, under Putin, was sufficently interested in the St Nicholas Cathedral to file a lawsuit in France requesting ownership. The grounds were that, well, the ground is theirs. And Russian money built the church. The French judges duly scratched their heads, turned the arguments about and inspected them and agreed Moscow could have ownership of the St Nicholas Cathedral on the Provencal coast at Nice.


Until the judgement, the church had been looked after for 99 years by the Nice Russian Orthodox Cultural Association (ACOR). They managed the 99-year lease granted by Russia’s czarist regime in 1909. Their legal argument, rejected, was that ACOR had in practice inherited the cathedral once the Russian royal family was executed by revolutionaries.


The cathedral in Nice is only one of a number of prime pieces of real estate that has had Russian state lawyers reaching for their books on international property law. In 2009, they snapped up another wonderful cathedral in Bari, Italy. Plus a building in Israel, “Sergei’s Courtyard”, that was built for Russian pilgrims in 1890. In 2008, they took possession of a Russian Orthodox cathedral in Paris. They’re now at work to win ownership of London’s St. Andrews Cathedral.


But Putin’s lawyers and Putin’s government are being far from even-handed when it comes to rights and responsibilities dating back to the days of the Tsarist regime.


A group of thousands of French citizens has been fighting for reimbursement of billions of euros in today’s money which have accrued in bonds their families owned in Tsarist Russia but that the Bolsheviks snatched. Vladimir Lenin refused to honour these debts owed by the Tsar. Despite an (unsatisfactory) settlement in 1996, 316,000 bondholders continue to claim reimbursement of up to 100 billion euros. A spokesman for the bond holders, Eric Sanitas, said:


“…when Russia owes money from the tsar-era we should forget about it – but when they want to claim property that belonged to the tsar we mustn’t forget that.”


In a nicely ironic twist to the soviet tale, the French bond holders have decided that – now that Russia owns the St Nicholas Cathedral in Nice – the group will legally claim it back in part-compensation for the bonds.