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The Reconstruction of the Cathedral of Christ the Savior

Zoe Knox

Moscow’s immense Cathedral of Christ the Savior is visible testimony to the Orthodox Church’s position at the forefront of national spiritual and political life. Tsar Aleksandr I decreed that a cathedral be built to commemorate the Russian forces’ victory over Napoleon’s invaders in 1812. The cathedral, which was finally consecrated in 1883, was destroyed just 48 years later at Stalin’s command. Plans for a Palace of Soviets, a museum and monument to Soviet might, were abandoned after steel from the cathedral’s scaffolding went toward the war effort and the site was found to be too marshy to support the construction. The remnants of the foundation became part of an open-air swimming pool, which opened in 1960 and closed in 1993.1 In 1994, as part of a project to restore buildings in Moscow’s center, Mayor Iurii Luzhkov announced that the cathedral would be rebuilt. Many Russians felt this space could reinvigorate the nation’s cultural and spiritual identity. The cathedral, consecrated in September 1997, is one of the most prominent features in the cityscape. It is laden with national symbolism, alluding to Russia’s imperial strength, Orthodoxy’s post-Soviet revival, the nation’s new epoch, and Moscow’s place in the country’s spiritual life. It also demonstrates the favor accorded to the Moscow Patriarchate by the various political actors involved in its reconstruction.

Luzhkov’s Cathedral

The state’s involvement in the project has been highly controversial, particularly Luzhkov’s role. Moscow’s mayor has enjoyed consistent popularity during his terms in office, despite allegations of questionable business practices and links to organized crime.2 He is a powerful political figure, renowned for his ambition and his ability to complete huge projects. According to Donald N. Jensen, an expert on the politics of Russian business, “The mayor has a reputation of getting things done – even to the smallest detail – never mind exactly how.”3 The cathedral is Luzhkov’s most conspicuous enterprise yet. It was perceived so much to be his pet project that it has been derisively referred to in a wordplay on the diminutive of Luzhkov as the “Cathedral of Luzhok the Savior.”4 The project secured him favor with Patriarch Aleksii II and with many (though by no means all) of the capital’s, if not the country’s, Orthodox believers. At the official opening in October 2000, Luzhkov stated that the cathedral “will help to regenerate Orthodoxy and spirituality in Russia.”5 Of greater personal significance to Luzhkov, perhaps, was the fact that the cathedral demonstrated Luzhkov’s own potency in the capital.

The Cost

The cost of the reconstruction remains controversial: the total is estimated to be between US $250 million and US $500 million. Critics of the project argued that this money was sorely needed elsewhere, such as in schools and hospitals, and not only in the capital, but throughout the entire country. Alfred Kokh, vice-chairman of the State Property Committee, asked, “How can you explain the fact that our so-called civilized country has a capital that spends more on building one church than on schools and hospitals?”6 Because much of the money came from the federal budget, the cost of the project fueled resentment of Moscow by those outside the relatively affluent Moscow region. Also, it was argued that if the money had been set aside for the reconstruction of historical monuments, it could have been used to restore hundreds, possibly thousands, of decaying Orthodox churches that are needed by parishioners across the country Fund Raising: By All Means

The source of funding is a further point of contention. While official Moscow Patriarchate sources claimed that 25 million citizens made donations toward the reconstruction, this cannot have amounted to a significant percentage of its cost.7 A large amount of money came from the federal budget. Some of it was derived from Luzhkov’s business connections. Jensen alleged that Luzhkov solicited contributions by granting favors to companies, including the state arms dealer, and by awarding businesses tax exemptions for donations. He noted that on the very same day that Stolichny Bank donated gold for the cupola, it was awarded the rights to manage the Patriarchate’s bank accounts.8 And, as a further incentive, donors had their names engraved on memorial plaques in the cathedral.

Other financial scandals include the US $11.8 million the government granted to the Moscow Patriarchate to buy a collection of icons for the cathedral. This contribution was kept secret until it aroused the interest of a Duma deputy, who demanded that the Patriarchate make public how this money was spent, and of Moscow News, which investigated how the Patriarchate spent taxpayers’ money.9 The scandal pointed to the Patriarchate’s lack of accountability, the clandestine nature of government contributions, and the lack of oversight over how public money was spent. In the cultural sphere, debate centered on the reconstruction’s artistic merit (or demerit).10

The Cathedral’s Multiple Meanings

The cathedral’s reconstruction had great significance for both the Moscow Patriarchate and then-President Boris Yeltsin’s administration. In official rhetoric, the cathedral symbolized the resurgence of Orthodoxy, the strength of the Church, and Russia’s anticipated moral and spiritual recovery. The Cathedral of Christ the Savior was regarded as cementing the presence of Russian Orthodoxy in the capital’s spiritual and cultural life. The conspicuousness of the reconstruction is a powerful symbol of the Church’s post-Soviet political presence and of politicians’ support for the Patriarchate.11 The speed of the reconstruction and its completion in time for Moscow’s 850th anniversary, despite its cost and considerable opposition, was a testimony to Luzhkov’s efficacy and power. It has endeared him and other politicians involved (particularly Yeltsin) to the Patriarchate. It was thus to the benefit of all figures concerned. But Leslie L. McGann has argued that Patriarch Aleksii, Mayor Luzhkov, and President Yeltsin “tarnished the spiritual symbol they had set out to create, erecting instead a symbol of Orthodoxy’s value, and Aleksii’s prowess, in the political sphere.”12 The reconstruction was recognition of the centrality of  Orthodoxy for Russia and for Russians, and the acknowledgement of this by the political actors involved. The various controversies associated with the project threatened to overshadow the importance of the cathedral to Russia’s cultural and religious recovery in the first post-Soviet decade. 

Notes:

1 See Andrew Gentes, “The Life, Death, and Resurrection of the Cathedral of Christ the Savior, Moscow,” History Workshop Journal No. 46 (1998), 63-95, for an historical overview of the cathedral and the cathedral site.

2 Mikhail Gorshkov, “42 protsenta oproshennykh zhitelei Rossii sami gotovy lech’ na rel’sy,” Nezavisimaia gazeta, 18 July 1998, 8.

3 Donald N. Jensen, “The Boss: How Yuri Luzhkov Runs Moscow,” Demokratizatsiya 8 (No. 1, 2000), Expanded Academic ASAP.

4 Mikhail Ivanov, “Faithful Reproduction,” Russian Life 43 (No. 4, 2000), 28.

5 Quoted in Elena Tsivileva, “Vosstanovlenie sviatyni zaversheno,” Nezavisimaia gazeta, 6 October 2000, 2.

6 Quoted in Kristia Frilend, “Khram-Spasitelia stanovitsia simvolom rossiiskogo kapitalizma,” Finansovye izvestiia, 29 August 1995, 8.

7 Mikhail Ivanov, “1931: Razed and 2000: Raised,” Russian Life 43 (No. 4, 2000), 18.

8 Jensen, “The Boss,” 101.

9 Tatyana Andriasova, “Chernomyrdin’s Gift,” Moscow News, 3-9 September 1998, 4.

10 See Dmitrii Shimanskii, “Agressiia surrogata,” Nezavisimaia gazeta, 31 December 1994, 13; Yelena Lebedeva, “Largest Construction Site of the Post-Soviet Era,” Moscow News, 1-7 August 1996, 15; and Ivanov, “Faithful Reproduction,” 23-26.

11 For further discussion of these points, see Dmitri Sidorov, “National Monumentalization and the Politics of Scale: The Resurrection of the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow,” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 90 (No. 3, 2000), 548-72.

12 Leslie L. McGann, “The Russian Orthodox Church Under Patriarch Aleksii II and the Russian State: An Unholy Alliance?,” Demokratizatsiya 7 (No. 1, 1999), 20 Edited excerpt published with permission from Zoe Knox, Russian Society and the Orthodox Church; Religion in Russia after Communism (London, New York: RoutledgeCurzon, 2005). Published with permission of RoutledgeCurzon.

Zoe Knox is Lecturer in Russian and Eastern European History in the School of Historical Studies, University of Leicester, United Kingdom