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Moscow Churches

As the churches of Moscow are restored, Russian nationalism resurges.

The history of Moscow can be charted by the numerous churches that still dot the Russian capital city. Fire, war, empire, trade, theology, reform and revolution: all can be traced while walking through the city’s winding streets.

Moscow was first mentioned in the ancient chronicles of the Rus’ (the Eastern Slav ancestors of the Belorussian, Russian and Ukrainian peoples) in the 12th century. It was an obscure frontier village that sat on a bluff of a tributary of the great Volga river. However the fortunes of this backwater changed after disaster struck the Rus’ dominions.

In the mid-13th century Kiev, the capital of the Rus’, was sacked and burned by the Mongols. Two-thirds of the population were slain. Commerce with Constantinople and the West was severed and the Rus’ secular leaders were executed. For more than 200 years, the Mongols would exact severe tribute from those princes considered loyal to the Golden Horde and randomly execute those guilty of ambition.

Orthodoxy survived the Mongol onslaught and was the only force to keep the memory of Kievan Rus alive. Fleeing Kiev, holy men and women wandered the remote forests of the north in search of refuge. As the reputations of these ascetics grew, monastic and secular settlements thrived around them.

Meanwhile Moscow flourished. Its clever princes annexed land, exacted tribute for the Mongol Khan (keeping a healthy portion for themselves) and enlisted the support of the Orthodox Church.

Recognizing the preeminence of Moscow, the Orthodox metropolitan of Vladimir transferred the seat of his power to Moscow in the 14th century. Until Peter the Great’s reforms in the 18th century, the rise of Russia and Orthodoxy would be one. The great cathedrals of Moscow’s Kremlin illustrate this marriage of ecclesiastical and secular power.

The 14th-century Cathedral of the Annunciation, with its jewel-encrusted floor and its magnificent iconostasis, was the location of royal christenings and nuptials.

The Cathedral of the Dormition, a 15th-century edifice designed by an Italian, housed the most important relics of the realm: the Byzantine icon of Our Lady of Vladimir, the image of the Savior of the Fiery Eye and the icon of St. George, forcibly removed by Ivan the Terrible from Moscow’s rival city, Novgorod.

The cathedral was also the site of the tsars’ coronations; sublime events that harrowed elements from the Byzantine coronation service of the emperor and the ordination of bishops.

The Cathedral of St. Michael, with its fine Italian Renaissance appointments, protected dead monarchs. Flowers mark the tombs of a few men, their feats remembered by the masses.

Although completed at different times, the cathedrals are remarkably similar in plan: a rational design of Greek cross within a square surmounted by drums and onion domes. With the exception of the onion dome, the plan is similar to the design of Byzantine churches.

If the Kremlin cathedrals are medieval Moscow’s ode to the West, then St. Basil’s is the city’s rejection of the West.

St. Basil’s is a uniquely Russian creation: a cluster of chapels surrounding a principal sanctuary and topped with a tent roof – an element borrowed by the Russian architects from the wooden churches of Russia’s far north.

The cathedral was built by Ivan the Terrible, who ordered its construction to celebrate his defeat of the Tartars (the descendants of the Mongols) in the mid-16th century. According to legend, Ivan commanded the eyes of the architects to he plucked out – this would ensure that they would not build another like it.

Moscow’s reluctant contact with the West increased as it unified the Eastern Slavs. Filtered by the Poles and Ukrainians, Western ideas began to infiltrate the court of the tsar, the art of the church and the tastes of the gentry.

Structures like the Church of SS. Peter and Paul, built by merchants, illustrate the assimilation of Western motifs and traditional Russian forms.

In 1652, Tsar Alexis, “the pious one,” placed a Westernizer on the patriarchal throne. Nikon, a zealot of contradiction, purged the Russian church of those practices accumulated through the years. Nikon based his liturgical reforms on the texts used in the church of the Ukraine and the Greek-speaking world.

His influence also extended into the realm of iconography and church architecture: he ordered the destruction of all icons betraying Western influences, yet he scorned traditional tent-roof churches and erected sober Byzantine churches.

The architecture of Nikon’s Cathedral of the Holy Apostles in the Kremlin reminds one of the Dormition Cathedral, minus the onion domes.

Nikon’s reforms split the Russian church. The established Orthodox Church would never regain its former prominence in Russian life. With Peter the Great’s accession to the throne and his abolition of the patriarchate, the church would become a mere department of the state.

The Old Believers, who protested the reform of the “true” faith, took their practices to the far north and scorned the established church as a tool of the devil.

When Peter the Great took the government to St. Petersburg – his “Window to the West” – Moscow lost her court. Russia’s emperors continued to stage their coronations in the Cathedral of the Dormition and the city’s shrines remained objects of pilgrimage. But Moscow was no longer the political center of the Russian empire.

When Napoleon invaded Russia in 1812, his Grand Army drove to Moscow – if St. Petersburg was Russia’s head, Moscow was her heart and soul. After his troops ransacked the ancient churches and left the city in flames, Russia’s government invested millions of rubles to restore and rebuild the beloved city. Soon the Moscow that was raised on the ashes of the old would begin to surpass that lovely city on the Neva, St. Petersburg.

The Cathedral of Christ Our Savior, a monstrous church built on a bluff of the Moscow River, was erected to commemorate the defeat of Napoleon and the renewal of the Russian idea.

A tremendous edifice with no architectural integrity, it took until the early part of the present century to complete.

During the height of the persecution of the Orthodox Church in the 1930’s, Stalin ordered the monument dynamited to make way for his Palace of the Soviets. Its destruction was recorded on camera for the sake of posterity.

However Stalin’s engineers could not properly secure the foundation for his pompous palace. Instead the dictator settled for the world’s largest heated outdoor swimming pool.

A positive aspect of the present resurgence of Russian nationalism is the zeal to restore Moscow’s spiritual treasures.

Throughout Moscow, as in all of Russia, churches that were transformed into granaries or vodka factories have been returned to the church. The Moscow patriarchate, overwhelmed by the number of churches returned and its resources spent, has asked the West for help.

Meanwhile near the Rossiya, the world’s largest and ugliest hotel, built on the foundations of a 16th-century monastery, restorers lovingly renovate the 17th-century Cathedral of Our Lady of the Sign. A sign of hope for the future of the Russian church.

Michael La Civita is the editor of Catholic Near East.

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