Is Moscow Cathedral An Elephant or Savior?

By William Brumfield

THE CATHEDRAL of Christ the Savior has once more become a dominant, active presence in Moscow, as is evident not only from its enormous physical shape, but also from the media attention given to the celebration of Orthodox Christmas. Indeed, this massive structure has been the object of debate and controversy since its inception at the beginning of this decade.

On the one hand, the church hierarchy, most notably in the person of Patriarch Alexy II, has defended the rebuilding of Christ the Savior as an act of atonement, a sign of the regeneration of the Russian Orthodox Church and as a celebration of the coming 2,000th anniversary of the birth of Christ.

On the other hand, critics have pointed to the enormous cost of the project, money that might have been better spent on parish work or on historical religious monuments in great need of restoration. Further criticisms have included charges that the project is too closely connected with the political ambitions of the mayor of Moscow, Yury Luzhkov.

As one familiar with the work of preservationists in Moscow, I can sympathize with their dismay over the lack of funding for many cultural needs and activities, including the restoration of architectural monuments. This lack is particularly galling when one considers the enormous sums spent on the new cathedral. Indeed, one preservation expert has calculated that the total amount allotted in the Russian federal budget for all restoration of historic architecture throughout Russia in 1995 amounted to the cost of three days work at the cathedral. And in 1996, the allotment was even less.

In practical terms, Orthodox parishes in Moscow that are beginning to reclaim historic church buildings after decades of neglect and vandalism must undertake repairs in a piecemeal fashion and with very limited support from either the state or the church itself.

I have seen many such examples, but one of the most distressing is the late 18th-century Church of the Ascension on Gorokhovoye Field (in the Bauman area of northwest Moscow), an excellent work of neoclassical church design by the great Moscow architect Matvei Kazakov. Has the construction of the Cathedral of Christ the Savior condemned such churches, and other historical structures, to a dangerous state of under-funded disrepair? Many preservationists would so argue.

However, this argument is not without problems of its own. It should be obvious to any observer that rebuilding the cathedral was not intended as an exercise in historic restoration. And those individuals and companies whose contributions paid for the project are not dedicated preservationists. Rather, one must assume that they donated to the project precisely because of its unprecedented size and its importance in the new order of things.

Indeed, the cathedral took shape because Patriarch Alexy and the Russian Orthodox hierarchy were convinced of the need for a large structure that would serve as a center for the propagation of the faith. The patriarch has said that the cathedral is an appropriate offering to celebrate the second millennial anniversary of the birth of Christ, but behind that statement is the assumption that the outreach and mission of the church in the next millennium will require a "national" cathedral equipped with modern technology to broadcast the message of faith in an age of mass media. Therefore, the design of the building - and particularly its interior- has contemporary features that make it very different from its predecessor on this site. If the purpose of the project is directed toward the future, why not build a completely modern structure on a new site?

It is here that the symbolic role of history enters. As documented in Yevgenia Kirichenko's book on the cathedral, the original structure was built in the 19th century as a national shrine commemorating Russian sacrifice in the war against Napoleon. The razing of the church by the Stalin regime in 1931 occurred ostensibly to clear the ground for a gargantuan Palace of the Soviets, but the destruction also served as an act of psychological terror, symbolizing the ruthless suppression of religion. The rebuilding of the church is just as clearly intended as a triumphant resurrection over the forces that destroyed it. By virtue of its site and dimensions, the cathedral expresses that triumph in a way that no other building could.

Critics have objected to this megalomania, which they link to the spirit of the displaced Soviet era. Some have questioned the sincerity of the repentance that the project is supposed to represent, when it seems so closely allied to the political and financial interests of the church, the city and the state.

Furthermore, there are troublesome technical issues linked to the speed with which the structure is being built. Yet, when all of the criticisms are taken into account, the fact remains that the cathedral not only fulfills a major - and logical - priority of the patriarchate, but it also occupies the site of a shrine that had achieved a dominant presence in central Moscow during the 19th century.

One hopes that the rebuilt Cathedral of Christ the Savior will prove adequate to the many demands that will surely be placed upon it. And now, the Russian Orthodox Church and civil society must turn with renewed vigor to the restoration of neglected landmark churches from Moscow's distant past.

William Brumfield, professor of Russian at Tulane University in New Orleans, is the author and photographer of several books on Russian architecture.