By Martine Self
February 8, 2006
What can you say about a cathedral that took 40 years to build, was demolished on the whim of one man, who then planned to replace it by building the tallest building in the world, but instead it became the world’s largest open air swimming pool and then was rebuilt almost exactly as it first was built in the space of five years? In most other countries, the tale would defy belief, but in Russia, somehow it’s easier to understand.
Some see its story as an allegorical tale mirroring the Birth, crucifixion and resurrection of Christ as well as the torment, endurance and rebirth of the Russian state itself.
The departure of Napoleon’s invading forces and the fortitude and sacrifice of the Russian people inspired the then Tsar, Alexander I to sign a manifesto on Christmas Day, 1812, proclaiming the building of an enormous cathedral to celebrate Russia’s liberation.
Many years passed before his good intentions were realized. Work first began in 1817 at Sparrow Hills, but was abandoned in favour of its present site, next to the Moscow River on a piece of land paradoxically known as ‘Devil’s Hill’. The beautiful Alekseevsky Convent which already stood on the site, was demolished by order of the tsar and relocated, but not before the Abbess apparently cursed the ground and foretold that no building built there would stand for any lengthy period of time.
Building began in 1839 and lasted for more than 40 years, being finally consecrated on 26 May 1883, on the day that Tsar Alexander III was crowned. Designed by architect Konstantin Ton in ‘Russo-Byzantine’ style, the building aroused controversy.
By 1924, after seven years in power, the Bolsheviks came up with the grandiose plan of demolishing the vast temple, and replacing it with a ‘super building’ to be known as the ‘Palace of the Soviet’s’ reaching over 415 metres in height. This was to include a 100 metre tall statue of Lenin and was meant to demonstrate to the proletariat and to the rest of the world, the might of the Soviet people. By destroying the largest and most visible symbol of Russian Orthodoxy, Stalin was striking at the heart of the Orthodox Church.
Another seven years passed before the third of three explosions destroyed the massive structure, eerily true to the abbess’s prophesy. By 1939, work started on the foundations, but World War II soon halted construction when metal structures were removed from the building to create ‘hedgehog’ tank traps that protected Moscow suburbs from invasion by Hitler.
Despite continued work on the design after the war, building of the palace never resumed, with just a muddy crater marking the project’s site. After Stalin’s death, little mention was made of it.
Since then, rumours have abounded that subsidence and proximity to the river prevented any further construction of the Palace, while other rumours affirm that the Soviet state ran out of money after the war.
Nevertheless, the flooded foundations were turned into the world’s largest heated outdoor swimming pool in 1958 – 60. It was kept heated at a warm 27C even throughout the winter.
In the late 1980s, the idea of building an exact copy of the demolished cathedral began to take shape, and by 1994, the decision to do so was taken by the Russian Orthodox Church. It became Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov’s flagship project to coincide with Moscow’s 850th anniversary in 1997 and the regeneration of Moscow. The splendid monument to the Russian Orthodox Church’s triumph over tyranny was built in five years and finally consecrated in August 2000.
Breathtaking in its enormity – it is the largest Orthodox church in the world – it now lies adorning the Moscow River’s bank, just down the road from the Kremlin, enhancing a fairytale skyline which is even more splendid at night.
A museum dedicated to the church’s history in the building’s basement demonstrates the rise and fall and rise again of one of Christendom’s most magnificent temples. Tours to all parts of the cathedral, including a visit to the base of the dome section, which offers a splendid view of Moscow, are available in English at the church and from tourist agencies in Moscow.