Some Respect for the 'Savior'

It having just been Russian Christmas, my thoughts are on the building of the Cathedral of Christ the Savior, and on what an extraordinary project it is. In the past I've suggested that the West ought to have financed it, as a symbolic gesture to the Russian people. And in my bleakest moments since then, I've thought the fact that the Russians were doing it themselves was another example of a persistent local gigantomania -- putting money into huge projects when hungry mouths might be fed. I've even considered, given the prevailing state of morality, that it just had to be a massive boondoggle, or at the least a shining monument to Mayor Luzhkov's uncanny ability to win political kudos for himself out of other people's donations.

Lately, though, I've been reading Ryszard Kapuscinski's account of the cathedral and its fate in his book "Imperium." And what an astonishing story it is! The building was first pledged by Alexander I, in gratitude for the salvation of the country in 1812 from Napoleon's armies. But the idea languished, and it wasn't taken up in earnest until 1830 by Alexander's brother, Nicholas I. Nicholas accepted a design from the architect Konstantin Ton; and six years afterwards chose for it a site near the Kremlin. A committee for its construction was set up, and work began.

The building went on uninterrupted for the next 45 years! Tsars, wars and conquests, epidemics and famines came and went. But nothing could interrupt the flow of money and labor that went into this extraordinary undertaking. As it rose up from the ground, Russia -- the world -- looked on with astonishment and amazement. It was the most monumental new building of its kind anywhere on earth.

It was finally consecrated (in the presence of Tsar Alexander III) on May 26th, 1883. By that time, finished, it was 30 stories high. Its walls -- built out of 40 million bricks -- were 10-feet thick and were covered, inside and outside with slabs of Finnish granite and Altaic and Podolia marble. On the outside, four belfries, hung with 14 bells each, surrounded a gigantic, cross-topped cupola covered with sheets of bronze weighing 176 tons. Inside, twelve bronze gates with a combined weight of another 140 tons led to the interior of the cathedral.

There was room inside the cathedral for 10,000 worshippers, their candles melding with the light from 3,000 candle-holders -- and reflecting from the half-ton of gold used in the giant iconostasis. The lower portions of the walls surrounding the congregation were covered with 177 marble plaques recording the dates and places of the battles of Russian armies: commanders and regiments, dead and wounded, and number of decorations awarded. And above the plaques, soaring upward into the cupola were endless frescoes -- of saints and scenes from the life of Christ and the apostles -- by the famous painters: Bruni and Viereschagin, Kramskoi and Surikov, Siedov and Litovchenko.

It was a wholly Russian St. Peter's or Notre Dame, and it lasted just 48 years. On July 18, 1931, a news item quietly appeared in Pravda saying that the authorities had decided to build a Palace of the Soviets in Moscow. The announcement gave the address where it was to be built, which would have meant nothing to people outside Moscow, but meant everything to its citizens. The cathedral was clearly going to be destroyed.

It look just 4 1/2 months for it to be looted and gutted and then, on Dec. 5, exploded. Kapuscinski says that you'd have thought Stalin would have had other things on his mind: He was, after all, in the process of killing 10 million people in Ukraine by starvation, and expanding his network of labor camps to accommodate the victims of future purges. But no. For he decided to raise on it a new kind of temple to communism that would also be a smack in the eye for the United States. It would be six times more massive than the Empire State Building, topped with a statue of Lenin three times higher than the Statue of Liberty. The God to be worshipped in and through the new building was, of course, Stalin himself.

The Palace of Soviets was never built. the ground was treacherous and waterlogged; Stalin had opposition, then a war, to deal with; there was a curse on the site. Under Khrushchev a heated swimming pool was built there. And it's on the site of the swimming pool that the cathedral has been raised once more. I'm glad, in the end, that it's been rebuilt by Russians and not by the West. Boondoggle, gigantomania or not, at least Russia now seems to believe that the paradise it offers is otherwordly -- and no longer available, through destruction and murder, on earth. Happy Christmas!