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Cathedral Heralds Rebirth of a Nation

Russia’s Christ the Redeemer encapsulates the country’s tumultuous history

For Russians, the Cathedral of Christ the Redeemer is more than an enormous landmark. For some it symbolizes the rebirth of a nation, for others it marks a people’s return to the faith of their fathers and, for others still, it is a crass folly.

Whatever view is taken, the cathedral, opened in 1997 and consecrated in August 2000, stands out as the latest chapter in an extraordinary real estate saga. Few plots of land have been subject to such dramatic turnarounds as the cathedral’s site on the banks of the Moscow River near the Kremlin.

For centuries, the Alexeyevsky Convent stood on the site until it was disassembled and moved to make way for a much grander project. That project, born of a vow made to God by Tsar Alexander I, would be a glorious cathedral to commemorate Russia’s victory over Napoleon in 1812.

No finer symbol of Russia’s triumph could have been built, the Tsar reasoned, than a cathedral to glorify God, the Orthodox Church and the Russian Empire.

The Tsar chose Moscow, not the then-capital city of St. Petersburg, as the site for this tangible sign of Russia’s spirit: Rather than let Moscow – the very heart of Russian civilization – fall into the hands of Napoleon intact, Muscovites fled, burning the city. It has been reported that the French Emperor, whose forces eventually occupied Moscow, watched helplessly as the ancient city smoldered, saying, “What a people, what a people, what a people.”

The victorious Alexander, however, did not live to see his vow materialized. The Tsar’s brother, Nicholas I, revived the idea, taking an active role in the design of the cathedral. Nicholas utilized the construction of the cathedral to further his own desire for Russia to return to her past, traditions that his predecessor, Tsar Peter the Great, had abolished in his campaign to modernize Russia a century earlier.

To Nicholas, Russia’s strength had been undermined by Western secular ideals, countering his belief in God, Orthodoxy and Empire. Ultimately, Nicholas approved the construction of the cathedral in the Russo-Byzantine style, which in a stroke ended the seemingly irreversible trend toward neoclassical architecture first imposed by Peter.

Konstantin Ton, who had come to the Tsar’s attention after designing the Church of St. Catherine in St. Petersburg in the style of old Russian architecture, was appointed architect. Work began in 1839 and, 44 years later, during the coronation year of Nicholas’s grandson, Alexander III, the Cathedral of Christ the Redeemer was completed.

The edifice had walls 13 feet thick and stood over 300 feet tall. The cathedral was lined with granite, faced with precious marbles and semiprecious stones, decorated with frescoes and lighted by more than 3,000 candles.

Until the collapse of the monarchy in March 1917, the cathedral stood as an official symbol of Russia’s return to its Orthodox roots. Christ the Redeemer was to become the site of important civic and religious events, including the commemoration of the 500th anniversary of the death of the beloved St. Sergius of Radonezh, liturgies celebrating the 300th anniversary of the Romanov dynasty and the 100th anniversary of the defeat of Napoleon.

In late 1917, as militant Bolshevik revolutionaries began their reign of terror, a council of bishops, priests and laity – or sobor – gathered in the cathedral and restored the Patriarchate of Moscow (which had been eliminated by Peter the Great), electing the sainted Metropolitan of Moscow, Tikhon, as Patriarch.

As part of his campaign to build a new nation, a “socialist paradise,” in which God had no role, Josef Stalin ordered the destruction of the cathedral. After several attempts to destroy the edifice failed, the massive structure finally succumbed to dynamite in 1931. Architectural fragments of the structure were later used to build Moscow’s subway.

On the site of the demolished Christ the Redeemer, Stalin proposed the building of a Palace of the Soviets. If constructed, it would have been the tallest building in the world, at that time. It was to be topped by a 300-foot-high statue of Lenin, whose index finger alone measured 18 feet. World War II interrupted any hope of the project’s completion. In the end, it never progressed farther than its foundations. The site lay neglected until 1959, when a large outdoor swimming pool was built there.

The pool was kept at a constant 80 degrees Fahrenheit even in the coldest winter. Steam rising from the pool would keep the bathers’ heads warm and shroud the whole area in mist. Ten years ago the pool was closed and the site was made ready again, for a renewed Cathedral of Christ the Redeemer.

This cathedral is a virtual replica of the first. But whereas the first one took 44 years to build, the new one, thanks to modern construction techniques and seemingly unlimited funds, was built in three. It is said to have cost well in excess of $1 billion.

“The rebuilding of Christ the Redeemer was of particular importance to us at the turn of the new millennium,” said the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Alexei II. “It symbolizes both the rebirth of the Orthodox faith and the rebirth of the Russian nation.”

On the other hand, Father Gleb Yakunin, an outspoken Orthodox priest and former Duma deputy, opposed the project from the start.

“Now is not the time to build this cathedral,” he said. “It is wrong to spend so much money on a church when people are so poor.”

The statistics of the new building are as mind-boggling as the original: The cathedral stands 330 feet high, the cupola measures 100 feet in diameter and more than 800,000 square feet of marble and granite were brought from all over Russia or imported from throughout the world.

The white marble iconostasis, an icon screen separating the nave from the sanctuary, is shaped in the form of a chapel and stands four stories high with its own gold cupola 80 feet across and a marble surface of 7,000 square feet.

“Worthwhile things don’t just appear,” said sculptor Zurab Tseratelli, who designed the massive bronze doors at the front of the cathedral.

“This cathedral is the affirmation of the faith that was stolen from the people of Russia. I believe its rebuilding is the wisest decision.”

The cathedral impresses in the same way as St. Peter’s in the Vatican or St. Paul’s in London. Like those other famous churches, Christ the Redeemer is massive and, for the most part, built with quality in mind, despite the rush to coincide with the 850th anniversary of Moscow in 1997. Claims of “shoddy construction” are not at all apparent. Every detail of every ingredient seems to be of the finest quality.

In the Patriarch’s words, “It is a miracle that the church has been built so quickly from oblivion. The churches in this country were all built in difficult times.

“When times are hard,” he reflected, “people are more prepared to make sacrifices.”

Sean Sprague travels the globe for CNEWA WORLD.

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