Christ the Savior Cathedral

 

The enormous gleaming golden dome and gigantic structure of the newly built Cathedral of Christ the Savior is visible from all over central Moscow and is the largest church in Russia. The original Cathedral was built by the architect Konstantin Ton between 1839 and 1881 to commemorate Russia's victory over the French in the Napoleonic Wars. The church was later demolished in 1933 on Stalin's orders, but was built anew in the 1990s.

The Cathedral of Christ the Savior was originally commissioned by Emperor Alexander I in an Imperial decree on Christmas day 1812. In celebration of Russia's dubious victory against Napoleon and having driven the French leader and his 600,000 troops from Russian soil, the Emperor thanked God and the Russian people for the triumph and ordained the construction of a memorial temple to Christ the Savior.

The original site chosen for the cathedral was in fact the Sparrow Hills, where the impressive Moscow State University now stands today, but for various reasons construction on the site was never begun and the idea was neglected for some 20 years.

After Alexander I's death in 1825, his younger brother, Nicholas, ascended the Russian throne. Remembering Alexander's wish, Nicholas I instructed that architectural designs should once again be submitted for the building of the memorial temple. From the multitude of submitted designs, one by a member of the Imperial Academy of Fine Arts, the architect Konstantin Ton, received Imperial approval on April 10 1832.

 

Nicholas chose the new site of the cathedral himself - a slightly raised area on the left bank of the Moscow River, near the Kremlin and home to the medieval Alekseevsky Convent. The convent was relocated to the village of Krasnoye, near Sokolniki, and construction began on the cathedral site in 1839. Ton's original neo-Russian design mirrored the traditional plan of a Russian Orthodox Church but on an unprecedented scale, causing much controversy over its proportions and aesthetic qualities. Despite considerable debate about its design, the church was finally completed some 40 years later in 1881 and lavishly decorated, although none of its original decor survived the Bolshevik assault of the 1930s.

The church was demolished in 1933 in order to free the land for the construction of a House of Soviets - a massive skyscraper intended to house various government authorities and promote the Soviet regime. The building was to be topped with a 100-meter-tall aluminum statue of the Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin. However, due to numerous technical difficulties the building was never actually constructed and the site was instead devoted to the creation of an outdoor swimming pool, which occupied the area till the early 90s, when government officials began to seriously consider a project to rebuild the church as it had been in Ton's day.

The recreation of the Church of Christ the Savior was considered a symbol of Russia's spiritual revival after the long years of atheistic Communist rule. In the early 1990s a public fund was set up to raise money for the costly project. The reconstruction raised considerable patriotic feeling amongst many Russians, although some Muscovites opposed the project on aesthetic grounds, claiming that the hastily built replica of the original church lacked elegance and balanced proportions. Many also saw the massive construction project as an entirely ego-motivated attempt by Moscow Major Yuri Luzhkov to leave his mark on the city, as many powerful rulers had done before him.

Clad in marble and granite, with huge bronze doors covered in relief depictions of the saints, the cathedral is an awesome statement of the re-found power and prestige of the Orthodox Church and one of Moscow's most impressive ecclesiastical buildings.