Moscow to evict SPNI from ‘Sergei’s Courtyard’

Environmental organization must find new home in next three months after 38 years in Russian Compound.

Sergei’s Courtyard in J'lem's Russian Compound 370 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Sergei’s Courtyard in J'lem's Russian Compound 370
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
The Russian government announced this week the decision to evict the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel from their garden courtyard in the next few months after 38 years in Jerusalem’s Russian Compound.
The decision coincides with the 24-hour whirlwind visit of Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday.
Representatives of the Russian government have already submitted plans to the municipality’s Preservation Committee detailing the renovations they want to undertake in the compound, known as Sergei’s Courtyard.
The Preservation Committee has discussed these plans twice in the past weeks but have not approved any projects, a municipality spokeswoman said.
Former SPNI Jerusalem branch director Pazit Schweid, who now serves as the national urban programming coordinator, said the final decision to evict the organization was upsetting but not a surprise.
“It was clear that we’d need to leave some time,” she said.
“Now we’re leaving. We really hope that they’ll do the renovations and it will still be open to the community so people will be able to come and enjoy the place because it’s really unique in Jerusalem,” she said.
A municipality spokeswoman echoed that hope and said the municipality asked the Foreign Ministry to ensure that the courtyard stayed open for Jerusalem residents.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Paul Hischson denied that the final decision, announced on Sunday just hours before Putin landed in Israel, was a gesture by Israel tied to Putin’s visit. He said that after Israel recognized Russia’s legal right to Sergei’s Courtyard in 2008, they had no control over whether or not the venerated Jerusalem environmental organization would be able to stay in the building and the decision was Russia’s alone.
The property was transferred following a 2007 cabinet decision, before a visit by then-prime minister Ehud Olmert to Russia, that approved the transfer of ownership of the czaristera landmark in the center of the capital to the Russian government. It went into effect in 2008.
The building was built in 1890 to accommodate Russian pilgrims visiting the Holy Land, and was named after Czar Alexander II’s son, Sergei Alexandrovich.
Israel acquired some 90 percent of the Russian Compound in 1964, paying the former Soviet Union $3.5 million. The purchase was dubbed the “Orange Deal” because Israel, lacking hard currency, paid the Russians in citrus fruit. Sergei’s Courtyard, however, was part of the remaining 10% not covered in the deal, and Putin made regaining the property a priority during his previous term as Russia’s president.
Schweid said SPNI, which organizes educational community events and other activities, is now searching for an alternative home. She wants to stay in the center of Jerusalem in an area where the group can maintain a working garden, to continue to be accessible to the community.
Because SPNI must evacuate their offices in the next three to four months, the organization might be forced to find a temporary home for a year while a more suitable location is found.
She also encouraged the public to visit the courtyard over the summer, because it could be their last opportunity. “Enjoy this magical place, because it might not stay the same way,” she said.
“We’re not sure it’ll be open to the public, especially during renovations.”
Herb Keinon contributed to this report.