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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Moscow We Missed by 70 Years

A welcome newcomer to the capital's flooded photo-book market, "The Sacred Places of Ancient Moscow" evokes a city that we have never known, but that is still somehow familiar. This is not a coffee-table album: It is a slim, low-key book with more than 150 sepia photographs alive with the bittersweet magic of Russia's tragic, beautiful past. An evening with this book is guaranteed to make you forget the dirt, crime and cold of modern Moscow and will remind you of the wonder you felt the first time you walked through the Kremlin gates. Even the poor quality paper and the ridiculously low price (4,325 rubles, at the beginning of March) seem intended to bring back the past.


The book, published in 1993, sets the context for the photographs with a brief introduction in Russian. Once called "golden-headed" because of its glittering cupolas, Moscow was the city of "40 forties" of churches (that's 1,600). In the late 1920s and early 1930s, the new Communist government began a massive anti-religious campaign, and crosses and church bells fell from belfries while frenzied workers cheered.


During World War II, many of the remaining bell towers were destroyed to prevent them from being used as landmarks by German pilots. As a result, many of the Moscow churches that still stand are actually incomplete. After the war, the communists, headed by city party boss Nikita Khrushchev, again began their destructive work. After all, as Khrushchev reasoned, "in 20 years we'll have communism and, as Lenin said, in communism there is no place for religion."


However, all this is a story that cannot be properly told in words, and the editors of "The Sacred Places of Ancient Moscow" have wisely allowed the photographs to speak for themselves. Covering five centuries of Russian architecture, these silent pictures speak volumes about the complex creativity of the Russian soul.


The album includes churches that were destroyed and of ones that have survived. Each picture is accompanied by captions in Russian and in broken English that pinpoint the location of the churches and give a brief history of the site. Unfortunately, the Russian captions provide considerably more information than the English ones, and the often laughable quality of the English detracts somewhat from the mood of reverence.


The pictures are arranged in chapters, each presenting a different area of the city. As a result, this handy volume will make an excellent companion on strolls as the weather improves. You will notice missing architectural details from familiar churches as well as be able to imagine how your neighborhood looked before that ugly gastronom was built.


As you stand in front of the Moskva swimming pool near metro Kropotkinskaya, you can look at the picture of the Cathedral of Christ the Savior that stood on the site until 1932. The marble from this cathedral was dragged across the street to decorate the vestibule of the new metro station, whose columns and graceful curves ironically echo the classical Church of the Descent of the Holy Spirit that previously stood on that site.


Although Communist ideologies asserted that the churches were razed to clear the way for a new society, many of the sites remain vacant lots, mute testaments to an era as marked by destruction as by construction. Other holy sites now host such prosaic structures as telephone exchanges or cinemas.


The Church of St. Sergius of Radonezh on Krapivensky Lane has been converted into the First Moscow Skate Factory where skis and skates are produced. One of the most beautiful of the lost churches, the Church of the Beheading of John the Baptist, was razed to make room for the KGB building on Lubyanka Square. The pictures also prove that our modern impression of the Russian church as a quaint little structure is partly a product of Soviet methods: Many of the destroyed churches were particularly tall, impressive structures, of which very few examples survive.


Of particular interest are the old churches and monasteries that formerly crowded the Kremlin grounds. Several lovely small churches once stood at the feet of the great cathedrals of Cathedral Square. The Cathedral of the Transfiguration, the most ancient church in Moscow, was begun in 1272 and stood in the courtyard of the Bolshoi Kremlin Palace. Several remarkable churches and monasteries once decorated the place where a garden now grows behind the statue of Lenin. In short, each picture tells a unique story and all the stories, taken together, form the history of Moscow.


This volume will certainly disappear quickly at this price. Don't despair, however. It will reappear in the summer at Izmailovo for substantially more. Buy it. It will make your stay in Moscow considerably more interesting and meaningful and will tuck conveniently into your carry-on luggage when you go back home. In the years to come, your memories of Moscow will become more and more like these nostalgic photos.





"The Sacred Places of Ancient Moscow" ("Svyatyni Drevnei Moskvy") is available at most bookstores in the city for around 5,000 rubles. It can also be bought from street vendors for around 9,000.